Signature Strikes by Drones Are Counterproductive

Drone strikes have inspired no shortage of controversy. U.S. government officials point to thousands of dead (alleged) militants. They claim the program has degraded the ability of terror groups to launch attacks against the homeland. But the Pakistani public detests the program, calling it a violation of their sovereignty and holding the U.S. responsible for hundreds of civilians deaths.

All of this misses the point. In war, the enemy gets a vote. Drones may have killed thousands of militants. But if they inspire a million recruits, it’s an irresponsible policy. Similarly, if strikes exacerbate the economic or social conditions driving people to sign up, it’s a counter-productive, self-defeating strategy.

Unfortunately, we don’t know if drone strikes are driving young men to sign up with insurgent groups. But we can determine whether the program is damaging overall conditions in the Tribal Areas. My research finds that the program has generally been effective. Strikes against insurgent leaders greatly improve social stability, and people in the Tribal Areas are willing to sustain some civilian casualties to see it through. But the U.S. policy of “signature strikes” – treating all men of a certain age as eligible targets – is only making things worse.

First, the facts. The CIA drone program is operating in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a small part of northwest Pakistan where the government holds little control. Ethnically similar to neighboring Afghanistan, the residents follow their own social rules and administrative laws different from the rest of the country. This combination of location and self-rule has made it a tempting safe haven for groups like the Haqqani network and Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan.

Gathering Threats

The U.S. initiated the program in 2004 as a low cost way (at least in American lives) to monitor and prevent terrorist activity from escalating abroad. But the program is widely reviled. A Pew survey found that 68 percent of Pakistanis disapproved of the program, while only three percent approved. Even Malala Yousafzai, the young woman who survived a Taliban assassination attempt and received the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, told the Obamas that “drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people.” In particular, international human rights groups have questioned the use of “signature strikes.” Rather than targeting specific individuals, authorization for a strike is given if the operators can identify a gathering of teenaged to middle-aged men, traveling in convoys or carrying weapons.

But parts of the Pakistani government appear to support the program. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani reportedly stated, “I dont care if they do it as long as they get the right people. Well protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”

Moreover, FATA residents might be among the supporters. The Economist reported a 2009 poll which “found 52 percent of [FATA] respondents believed drone strikes were accurate and 60 percent said they weakened militant groups.” Local residents claimed that “Drone attacks are killing the militants who are killing innocent people.”

Similarly, C. Christine Fair argues that “FATA residents are strong proponents of the drones. They report that the drones are so precise that the local non-militants do not fear them when they hear the drones above as they are confident that they will hit their target.” The operations require and have received broad local support, such that “when children hear the buzz of the drones, they go to their roofs to watch the spectacle of precision rather than cowering in fear of random ‘death from above.’”

The program obviously incites controversy and conflicting claims. But getting clear data and a clear answer to important strategic questions is difficult for three reasons. First, despite being widely known, the program is classified, so the U.S. doesn’t comment on them and doesn’t issue after-action reports. Second, FATA is an active conflict zone, with restricted access to reporters and researchers. Third, Pakistani insurgent groups largely control the area and have an interest in framing strikes to their advantage. This makes public opinion unreliable and possibly biased.

Whether the program is misidentifying individuals or the militants are closely tied to the local population, killing these individuals destabilizes the region.

Rather than look at people’s opinions, I examine their behavior. I assume that emigration from the Tribal Areas means that the social and economic fabric there is deteriorating, leading to greater support for terrorist groups. People generally want to stay in areas with better job and/or quality of life prospects. I look at two different measures to capture this: overseas employment migration and internal displacement.

I use statistical analysis to determine the relationship between the number of civilian, militant, and militant leader deaths, on the one hand, and external migration, on the other hand. Figure 1 plots the estimated effect and 95 percent confidence intervals. Points and lines above the red, dashed zero-line suggest a positive and significant effect: more deaths means more migration. Those below the line suggest the opposite: more deaths reduce migration.


For each militant the U.S. kills, 47 people leave FATA. If my assumption is correct, then the “signature strike” policy crafted under Bush and continued under Obama is counter-productive. Whether the program is misidentifying individuals or the militants are closely tied to the local population, killing these individuals destabilizes the region. U.S. military officials and elected leadership should stop touting the thousands of militants the program has killed, as they are inadvertently highlighting their contribution to FATA’s social and economic degradation.

Killing a militant leader acts as an enormous brake on outward migration. Over 1,100 people stay in FATA for each leader killed. Although groups like Amnesty International have condemned these strikesas a violation of international and human rights law, they do seem effective in achieving America’s long-term goals in degrading militant activity and buttressing local stability.

Coupled with this, for each civilian the U.S. kills, almost 98 people decide to stay. FATA residents seem willing to accept some casualties for the wider benefits the drone program provides. Fair makes this same point, that the militant groups are imposing alien and strict rules on local residents, undermining their traditional self-governance. So long as the strikes disrupt the militant’s control, FATA locals appear to accept that some of their neighbors might die. That said, both the U.S. Army War College and the Pakistan Defense Ministry put civilian casualties at around 3-4 percent, strikingly low for an operation of this scope.

These results hold even after controlling for a host of factors that might spur migration, including unemployment levels and economic growth. In addition, I use a “matching” process to better account for the fact that FATA is unlike most other parts of Pakistan. Perhaps its ethnic and cultural uniqueness is what causes these effects? But when comparing FATA to its nearest neighboring districts, the effects actually get slightly stronger. If anything, FATA’s uniqueness is masking the strikes’ effects.

However, the results for internal displacement paint a slightly different picture. As seen in Figure 2, killing militants and civilians reduces displacement. For each militant killed, approximately eight people stay in FATA. Similarly, each civilian death results in 16 people staying. However, killing leaders does not have a reliable impact on internal displacement, which is a positive thing for the CIA drone program. Operators can reliably target and eliminate militant leaders, reducing foreign migration to keep talented individuals in the region, while avoiding consistent effects on internal displacement.


A Mixed Bag

In total, the CIA drone program in Pakistan can be an effective component of a broader strategy to destroy militant groups in FATA. Leadership attacks are particularly valuable, stemming the flow of migrants and significantly stabilizing the region. Local residents also appear willing to absorb some civilian casualties to obtain the wider benefits the program creates.

The U.S. policy of “signature” strikes shows different results. Although the policy does slightly reduce internal displacement, it spurs foreign migration. Military officials have often lauded drones for their ability to loiter over areas, gaining better intelligence and understanding of a target’s patterns of behavior. Signature strikes blunt this critical capability. In short, it is a counter-productive policy.

[Photo source: Flickr Commons]


1 comment

  1. Foirx 13 February, 2016 at 18:54 Reply

    It might surprise peploe, but having been a soldier in my former life, their are laws that govern armed conflict, which surprisingly are known as the laws of armed conflict. The US being the “demon” it is, subscribes to these laws, not that you’ll see it in print very much. The days of randomly killing anyone you like in warfare died out about the same time as red coats forming squares became a “modern” military tactic. Randomly dropping bombs or shooting anyone you like is unlawful and there are US soldiers in jail for it today, and probably soldiers from other militaries too. Each of these “assassinations” is a military target attempting to be struck with as precise an effect as is possible with a missile launched from 25,000 feet up and sometimes as far as 8 kilometres away. That precision is surprisingly accurate, but mistakes are always made, because human beings are involved in the process. From a moral point of view (and the effect on the person targetted) there is no difference between a soldier with a rifle shooting an enemy or a Predator UAV firing a Hellfire missile and killing him.It might also surprise some peploe to know, that a pilot at a control station has to press the trigger for a Predator to launch a Hellfire missile, just as a soldier has to decide to pull the trigger to shoot an enemy soldier Which is why I object to the use of drones. The word drone implies that these are “mindless”. The machine is, but the pilot flying them isn’t. He just isn’t on-board, but he’s every but as much in control of the aircraft as if he were .VN:F [1.9.22_1171](from 0 votes)

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