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Going Beyond the Strike

By Kerstin Fisk and Jennifer M. Ramos

People often assume drone strikes are effective, but there are at least two problems with this mentality. First, as engaged citizens, we should never assume anything; and second, what constitutes “effective” may be vague, or incomplete. What is often left out of these conversations is attention to the longer-term impacts on civilians, which is highly relevant to any evaluation of drone strikes.

Until recently, debates surrounding the use of armed drones have largely focused on ethics and legality — and not just in the U.S. Some argue drones are a more humane weapon of war. Others believe drones change the ethics of war. Still others deliberate over which body of law governs drones strikes. These debates ask us to reconsider the traditional definitions, limits, and guidelines of war, and examine how and to what extent they do (or do not) apply to drone strikes. Perhaps these debates, though, are skipping ahead too soon. Effectiveness should be a key starting point for a conversation on drone policy and, in particular, with regard to its impact on civilians.

To date, these measures of effectiveness are relatively limited. For instance, we have information, albeit imprecise information, about the number of high-value relative to low-value targets eliminated and the precision of the strikes (or the militant-to-civilian casualty ratio). The New America Foundation, the Long War Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism all track U.S. drone strikes and the associated number of civilians and militants killed. However, a comprehensive measure of effectiveness must go beyond these immediate, yet still important, effects.

A more complete picture of drone strikes’ effectiveness needs to include “blowback” effects on civilians. Longer-term civilian (in)security has received scant attention in evaluating drone strikes. Whereas the civilian causalities directly resulting from the strikes have been scrutinized, it is imperative that we also evaluate the more indirect effects of the strikes that can result as targeted groups react to the strikes.

What happens in the weeks and months following drone strikes is arguably just as important as what happens at the moment the strikes occur. In fact, there are several reasons to anticipate that targeted groups may shift their focus away from military (hard) targets to civilian (soft) targets in reaction to the strikes. For instance, leadership deficits may result when high-level commanders are killed, providing greater influence to lower-level members of targeted groups who are more inclined to attack civilians indiscriminately.  

While one recent study indicates that terror attacks in locations within 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) of a Pakistan drone strike significantly decrease in the week during which a strike takes place, our own work on this topic finds that the frequency of terrorist attacks on Pakistani civilians actually increases in the longer term in the one-month period following a strike. Moreover, when we expand our definition of noncombatants to include civilians and noncombatant military and police targets, we find even stronger effects: militant attacks significantly increase in the aftermath of drone strikes, and not just in those areas directly hit by drones.

Our study takes an even broader view, examining terrorist attacks that occur throughout Pakistan rather than only in areas near to where the drone strikes occur. Since these groups depend on local populations (e.g. for sanctuary and intelligence), they should be less likely to carry out attacks there in order to avoid alienating those who can afford them some operational success. If “blowback” against civilians does occur, it is more likely to spill over to, or take place in, outside locations, where the militants’ control over territory is more contested. Essentially, our findings suggest that the “blowback” effects of drone strikes may be disproportionately felt by civilians, particularly those who reside outside of North and South Waziristan, where the vast majority of strikes take place.

Clearly, more research is needed to ascertain the effectiveness of drone policy, whether in regard to drone strikes conducted by the U.S., Pakistan, or Israel. We should not assume that they are simply because we are told as such. This call for research is urgent; not only would such knowledge have the potential to save hundreds of innocent civilian lives, but it also could give leaders pause to rethink their armed drone acquisition policies — making us all better off.



Jennifer M. Ramos teaches International Relations at Loyola Marymount University, where she is an Associate Professor and Associate Chair in the Political Science department. Her research focuses on U.S. foreign policy, international security and international norms.

Kerstin Fisk is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Loyola Marymount University. Her research broadly focuses on issues of security, peace, and conflict, with emphases on foreign and defense policy and political violence.

Kerstin Fisk and Jennifer M. Ramos are co-editors of a forthcoming volume, Preventive Force: Drones, Targeted Killing, and the Transformation of Contemporary Warfare (New York University Press, 2016).

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]


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