Center for Strategic Communication

Will McCantsThe American Security Project hosted a roundtable discussion about the strategic framework and effects of U.S. drones policy.  The discussion, moderated by ASP Fellow Joshua Foust, included three noted counterterrorism experts: Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Will McCants of CNA and Johns Hopkins’ SAIS, and Christine Fair of Georgetown University.

Audio from this event is available here

The standing room-only event provided a forum for a candid and fact-based discussion of current US drone programs and their effects in target environments.   Foust introduced the discussion as one focused on the “big picture” of drone policy that has developed over time, noting that much of the current discourse has eschewed strategic concerns in preference for tactical concerns.

The discussion highlighted the challenges in determining the effects of current US drone programs in the absence of quality empirical data as well as the need for strategic discussion.  Throughout the discussion, it was a common refrain that those who were more familiar with drones – whether through official channels or as a consequence of a first-hand experience of a strike – were generally less hostile to their presence and use.

Christine Fair spoke on the use of drones in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, where the unique environment preferences drones above other policies and tactics.  Within FATA, there are three specific groups with which the US must contend: enemies in common with Pakistan, allies of Pakistan who are enemies of the US, and militant enemies of Pakistan that are of little strategic interest to the US.  As a result, Pakistan will cooperate with the US on some targets, while undermining joint efforts on others.

In speaking on the lack of empirical data on drone strikes, Fair said that in data collection and analysis, one must remain cognizant of the question of who is the US trying to kill, the influence of “circular reportage” and “social desirability bias” on data availability and quality, and the need for confirmations of deaths through burials or proof of existence.  Ultimately, Fair noted, this data is needed to determine the efficacy of US drone programs, but it is consistently “obfuscated” on official levels in both the US and in Pakistan.

Will McCants suggested understanding the use of drones in counterterrorism requires one to consider how current US drone programs evolved.  Referring to a specific event in 2000, McCants mentioned how unarmed Predator drone conducting surveillance observed a figure suspected to be Osama bin Laden walking around a property.  The President was advised it would be six hours before a missile could be placed within strike distance.  Furthermore, it was believed children could be present in the area.  Any opportunity to conduct the strike quickly passed.

McCants marked this event as a precursor to equipping of drones with lethal force; the attacks of September 11, 2001, “changed the calculus” in defense strategy by reinforcing and accelerating efforts to this end.  Now, the US is faced with four increasingly difficult questions in evaluating the strategic use and effects of drones:Christine Fair

  • Do drone strikes drain US resources moreso than other policy options?
  • Do drone strikes reduce the threat of a large-scale attack on the homeland that would result in unbalanced policy?
  • Are drone strikes empowering terrorists in recruitment efforts?
  • Are drone strikes breeding future anti-American sentiments?

Aaron Zelin provided insight into how terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda and affiliated movements are adapting to the presence of drones and incorporating them into their logistics and propaganda.  Noting that many organizations are contextualizing drones within the larger issue of “spying,” Zelin pointed out that drone strikes are degrading the ability of these organizations to conduct training: in Pakistan, organizations are moving away from FATA toward more urban environments, and in Yemen, there is an increasing “mobile” training.

Many terrorist organizations have been “mum” on the subject of drones in their propaganda with the exception of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has exploited drone strikes extensively as a recruitment tool.  However, McCants cautioned it remains difficult to determine the extent of blowback stemming directly from lethal drone strikes.  There have been extremely few attacks known to have been plotted or executed in retaliation for strikes.  Instead, drone strikes seem to have only been a “nuisance” around which terrorist organizations are adapting while bolstering their efforts to build “counterspy networks.”

The question and answer session following the discussion touched on several concerns for the future of US drone policy, including questions about how the US’ use of drones may be influencing the drone programs of other nations, the quality of data obtained from local reports in Pakistan, and why some terrorist organizations are exploiting lethal drone strikes as a recruitment tool while others have not.

In closing, it was noted that more empirical data on the effects of drones is needed and must be at the center of any discussion about the strategic framework guiding US drone programs.  The American Security Project will continue to look at the US drone policy and its place in a larger national security context.


Audio from this event is available here.


The American Security Project has published both a paper, “The Strategic Context of Lethal Drones,” and a fact sheet, “Contextualizing the Drones Debate.”

For these pieces and more information on the American Security Project’s work on US drone policy, please click here.