Predators in the Sky

by Luke Hawbaker:

The drone flew overhead, audible to those on the ground. Below it, members of the Taliban walked outside the safe house armed with rocket-propelled grenades. Stephen Farrell, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, and his Afghan colleague, Sultan Munadi, had been kidnapped by the Taliban in the Northern Afghanistan province of Kunduz. Over four days in September 2009, the men were moved between 15 or 16 houses, constantly aware of the drone high above them. Farrell hoped, correctly as it turned out, that it was looking for him and not simply hunting his captors.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, are a critical part of the American counterterrorism arsenal. Their use to detect Farrell may not be controversial, but when used for targeted attacks against insurgents, drones highlight moral, political, and strategic concerns.

The question of efficacy is critical, and the balance of overall strategy with objective-specific tactics is difficult to achieve. “You hope that [if] you remove insurgent commander X, insurgent group Y is less lethal in province Z,” said U.S. Army Captain Eric Robinson, who served in Khost Province in southern Afghanistan from March 2008 to March 2009. “All the while,” he noted, “[you hope] the political consequences of that manner of response aren’t outweighing any benefit.” This cost-benefit calculation from a strategic standpoint is one that the both the Bush and Obama Administrations have faced when choosing whether or not to use drones.

American soldiers patrol in southern Khost province with Pakistan’s North Waziristan behind them. (Courtesy Eric Robinson)

The United States conducts drone operations under the purview of the Central Intelligence Agency. Technically the program does not exist. This lack of transparency is a chief concern of its critics, especially when assessing the casualties of drone strikes. The Long War Journal, one of the most respected compilers of drone strike data, estimates that since drone operations began in Pakistan in 2004, the United States has launched 198 drone strikes, all but ten since January 2008. Every week, the number continues to grow. The data on casualties is incredibly varied and conflicting, though the Long War Journal estimates roughly 1,500 militant leaders and operatives have been killed—along with 104 civilians—since data collection began in 2006.

The difficulty in accurately calculating the deaths caused by drone strikes is clear: All sides of the conflict have incentives to misreport and distort the numbers.

Independent verification is hampered because the strikes often target difficult to access areas. The psychological horror that drones can inflict upon civilians living in the area of strikes is also difficult to assess. In October 2010, for example, the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail reported that use of sleeping pills and antidepressants was widespread among locals in areas where drone presence was heavy.


It is in northern Pakistan’s rugged, remote, and lawless Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), legally inaccessible to American ground forces, where drones are most controversially— and, some would say, most necessarily— used. To understand why drones strike in Pakistan when the fighting ostensibly occurs in Afghanistan, one must understand how the ambiguous nature of the border area between the two countries defines the nature of this conflict.

“The only international or national organization in the world that pays attention to [the AfPak border] is NATO,” said Robinson. “Hamid Karzai, the governors I worked with in Afghanistan, they all referred to it as the Durand Line. Nobody recognizes [it]. None of the locals do. It’s a completely artificial construct.” A remnant of British colonial rule, the line draws its name from Henry Mortimer Durand, the Foreign Secretary of British India instrumental in creating the poorly demarcated and controversial border in 1893. While NATO forces mostly respect and do not cross the border, the insurgents that they fight move freely between southern Afghanistan and their safe havens in Pakistan’s FATA. “The war will continue to deteriorate,” said Robinson, “if … these assembly areas for insurgent groups are allowed to go undisturbed. [Drone strikes are] an attempt to keep all of these negative actors off balance.”

The obvious alternative would be action by the Pakistani government. Unfortunately they have little authority in FATA and complex relationships with the groups it harbors. Pakistan is a critical ally of the United States, though not always a consistent one—understandable given its own national security threats. The government has launched offensives in the area and given tacit support to U.S. drone strikes with what Stuart Gottlieb, professor of counterterrorism and area studies at Yale University, calls a “wink and a nod.” But it still distinguishes certain Taliban, including the two groups most often targeted with drones, as “good Taliban” because they do not carry out attacks aimed at the state of Pakistan.


Drones are viewed as effective weapons for disrupting the Taliban, but they do present some strategic disadvantages. The drone is “a very effective tactical military instrument and it has some good, positive strategic aspects to it, meaning it can weaken al-Qaeda or their affiliates,” said Gottlieb, “but it also has strategic costs. Internationally it’s unpopular, in the Arab and Muslim world in particular. It causes a lot of civilian casualties. It’s a useful propaganda tool for al-Qaeda.”

This question of propaganda and public sentiment is perhaps the most hotly contested point in the debate over drones’ effectiveness. Just as it is difficult to accurately determine the results of drone strikes, so too is it difficult to gauge local opinion on the subject. Polls and speculations abound: The New America Foundation recently released a comprehensive poll of FATA, which determined that 48 percent of Pakistanis in the area believe the strikes kill mostly civilians, while only 16 percent believe they accurately target militants. 33 percent believe they kill both.

Farrell originally went to the area where he was kidnapped to cover a controversial NATO bombing which may have killed many civilians. “We knew very well that if there indeed turned out to be a large number of civilians dead, it would anger many, many people in the area and would almost certainly be a recruitment tool for the Taliban,” he said. “I think exactly the same calculation would apply to a drone strike as to a bombing.” Deaths like these, aside from their capacity to fuel local anger, also reinforce the militant paradigm of the West versus the Islamic world. In his own experience, Farrell said his captors “appeared to be utterly convinced that Islam was under attack from the West.” Such facts, coupled with the perception of high civilian casualties from drone strikes, bring into question claims of strategic effectiveness for drone strikes.

Drone warfare also provides militant groups with more evidence to underpin one of their chief narratives: one of fighting as the perennial underdog. According to Farrell, his captors viewed themselves as fighting the same fight as the mujahideen before them: the Afghans versus the Western aggressors—but this time against Americans instead of Soviets. The first words Farrell heard as he was forced into a Taliban four-by-four were “Are you Russian?”

“[This] made me appreciate even more… that you were somewhat through the looking glass and in a place where logic wasn’t necessarily being applied to every conversation you were involved in,” Farrell said.

As the withdrawal date of July 2011 approaches, the future of Afghanistan remains difficult to foresee. And the debate over pullout, like the debate over the effectiveness of drone strikes, is filled with optimism and pessimism, biases and bigotries, questions of strategy and questions of tactics. How many American troops will remain in Afghanistan? How will militants be targeted in Pakistan? Where will drones be used? How these questions and others are answered in the next year will shape the future of Afghanistan for better or worse.

Americans possess superior technology and overwhelming firepower, epitomized by the ceaseless drone presence above Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet the Soviets were defeated in spite of their advantage, and the Taliban and others believe they will force America to suffer a similar fate. American strategy must be created with this reality in mind, cognizant of the battle to win “hearts and minds” and the narratives militants employ. A drone can strike with surgical accuracy, yet the target itself may house a militant’s family. Through one set of eyes such a strike may symbolize a new pinnacle of military technology, through another, the newest symbol of Western hegemony. There are no easy answers to the questions drone strikes raise. The only sure thing is their continued relevance and importance to American counterterrorism policy.

Luke Hawbaker ’13 is a History major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at