Center for Strategic Communication


Protesters outside the headquarters of General Atomics in San Diego, Calif. on May 19, 2010. Photo: Bob Davis/flickr

Cross-posted from Joshua Foust’s regular column for PBS Need to Know.

Drones are not a universal panacea to terrorism issues. But they can be effective – especially as part of a holistic campaign to undermine and displace violent extremist groups. That argument from effectiveness, however, is getting drowned out by the recent anti-drone reports and press coverage.

In the last two weeks, U.S. universities have published two reports deeply critical of the US policy to use armed drones in Pakistan. Both reports have coincided with a sharp crescendo of opposition to the drones program within the U.S., as well as a high-profile tour to Pakistan by the anti-war group Code Pink. Yet, drones remain a “least bad” option in some areas for countering terrorism – a message being lost in the uproar over their use. The U.S. government is losing the drones narrative.

“Living Under Drones,” published by Stanford University and New York University’s Schools of Law, is arguably the harshest of the two recent studies: it alleges the civilian toll from drone strikes is far higher than previously thought, and urges increased government transparency. “The Civilian Impact of Drone Strikes,” published by the Columbia Law School, takes a bit more measured approach, and suggests that the U.S. government is not attentive enough in minimizing the harm to civilians.

The Living Under Drones report has catalyzed a certain segment of the media through its rather eye-popping claims: drones, the report argues, has created a mass psychological trauma in the country. The Civilian Impact report has also raised eyebrows: the researchers identify some drones strikes that have destroyed homes, forcing the newly homeless to flee their community. They also report that insurgents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan retaliate against those they suspect of being informants. This has been amplified through media coverage into informants “sowing suspicion in these communities, pitting one neighbor against the next.”

The limited, precise terms in which some officials describe the program are drowned out by the much larger (and imprecise) claims by anti-drone activists. Thus, even when detailing legitimate critiques about the use of drones, some researchers confuse drones, insurgents, host military, and other forces as part of a single object of analysis. The lack of precision in this discussion cuts against using drones, even if it’s an unfair representation.

The challenge facing U.S. policymakers is that there are very serious downsides to using drones. Though we do not know precise numbers – no published studies have the rigor or forensic data to support anything beyond a ballpark estimate – it is clear that some non-militant civilians have been killed in drone strikes. Especially in Pakistan, constant messaging by the Pakistan government against drones has resulted in popular anger over their use… at least in part of Pakistan outside the most affected areas (outsiders cannot travel to the affected parts of the FATA, so we cannot say for certain what things are like there).

Pakistan in particular plays a vicious double game on drones. The government needs drones to counter the anti-Pakistani Taliban groups in the FATA, but it does not want to admit that it needs help from an outsider (especially America). At the same time, the Pakistani government opposes using drones to go after the Afghan Taliban, which is what the U.S. wants to do. Both sides agree on going after al Qaeda, and Islamabad almost never protests the drone strikes against al Qaeda figures.

The two sides cannot agree (yet) on how to balance going after Pakistani and Afghan Taliban militants, however. This is why senior Pakistani officials say they want more control over targeting decisions – they don’t oppose the presence or use of drones, they just want those drones to be used against their targets instead of America’s.

Regardless, the Pakistani government – through the ISI’s sophisticated media wing – engages in a relentless propaganda campaign against drones. Tensions between the two countries are higher than ever.

In this environment, the U.S. has proven unable to battle the multiple opposing narratives against drones. Though other heads of state have publicly supported U.S. drones, here officials have been pilloried for describing the weapons system in surgical terms. It seems semantic (how can a missile be surgical?), but it gets at a fundamental different in frames that officials and activists are using – and how one is dominating the other.

In terms of aerial warfare, drones are extremely precise: they will hit what they’re told to with incredible reliability, using small warheads that do surprisingly little collateral damage. Because they are so precise and so small scale in terms of damage, many moral philosophers have proclaimed them moral, limited instruments of warfare.

Limited damage is not zero damage, however. And that is where anti-drone activists jump on the surgery metaphors to point out that, no matter what alternative they’re compared to drones strikes really do have tragic human costs. But because policymakers decline to engage with those human costs, activists can successfully portray them as uncaring and disconnected from the aftermath of drone strikes.