Counter Terrorism: The Drone Strike Solution by Rohit Deshpande
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Counter Terrorism: The Drone Strike Solution by Rohit Deshpande

By Rohit Deshpande

Co-Founder, Rann Neeti, INDIA / Strategic Knowledge Partner - IndraStra Global  

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the US administration was under intense pressure to act from both domestic and international quarters. This was important as America’s perception of being invincible had been shattered and the US had to retain its position of pre-eminence in the world. To avenge the deaths of its citizens and punish those presumed to be responsible for the attacks, the US set out on a war path with Afghanistan and Iraq in the years that followed. Since then, America’s battle against global terrorism- as enshrined in the ‘Bush Doctrine’ has taken several twists and turns. A couple of thought worthy trends in America’s global battle against terror are its usage of ‘drones’ and covert JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) operations. This article will mostly focus on the former and its implications.

The usage of unmanned aerial vehicles to deliver a payload, dates back to the mid-19th century. The Austrians had devised a system which consisted of balloons with bombs and an electromagnetic mechanism to release the same for targeting the city of Venice. Under favorable wind conditions they would launch these towards Venice but it so happened that with change of wind, some of these returned back to Austria. Since then, a lot has changed and drones have become an integral part of modern military strategy. Modern drones were initially built for reconnaissance ops but now they are being armed and are increasingly being used for tactical strikes deep inside enemy territory. Their importance for recon ops can be best summarized by the following excerpt from an article in ‘Wired’ magazine- ‘In 2003, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) resorted to spending six months sneaking SEALs into Somalia by submarine to painstakingly plant disguised surveillance cameras — all to capture just a fraction of the images a drone could acquire in a single mission’.[1] Today’s drones can fly virtually undetected at heights exceeding 50,000ft for almost two continuous days, a feat that would be a herculean task for any manned fighter aircraft. High endurance & efficiency, no risk to the pilot’s life, low operational costs are some of the drone’s important selling points. Another distinct feature of drones is that they can persistently hover over potential targets for long periods of time which is instrumental in gathering intelligence. 

The ability to target suspects who are a threat to national security and operate out of foreign soil is vital to any country’s national interest. In earlier times, what would have required months of preparation and a carefully coordinated assassination operation by the country’s intelligence agencies and special-ops team can now be achieved by a simple tactical drone strike. The writer opines that Obama’s drone strike program is perhaps taking the luxury of being able to do so with minimum collateral damage, a little too far. Drones have been the Obama administration’s preferred method of targeting militants in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan as it is believed that they ‘don’t put troops in harm’s way’. 95% of targeted killings since 9/11 have been conducted by drones.[2] With over 380 strikes in Pakistan alone (2006-13), drone strikes have killed over 3200 civilians (many of who are women and children)[3]. In Yemen, the confirmed death toll is close to 500 in addition to the hundreds in Somalia. However, the US administration denies any involvement in the purported JSOC operations in in these two countries.[4]

How Drone targeting works

The CIA and the US military operate drones from a number of bases round the world. Some of these bases are known and some are not so well kept secrets as enunciated by this Washington Post report.[5] Both agencies routinely compile long lists of suspects who they consider to be threats to US national security. The recommendations from the list are sent for review and discussion to the US National Counter Terror Center and finally have to be sanctioned by the president who solicits the expertise of the White House counter terrorism expert. The internal rules that govern the various steps involved in the process of selection of targets to final execution- change constantly based on the domestic and international public mood about the strikes. At times when lack of action may be construed as a sign of weakness the ops are mostly carried out at the President’s discretion. When there is a lot of hue and cry about the loss of innocent lives and a domestic demand for congressional supervision and oversight, the process of sanctioning strikes is multi-layered.  Reportedly, the CIA director exercises authority of targeting sensitive areas in Pakistan without consulting the White House.[6]   It is also believed that the CIA’s drone strike program in Pakistan is exempt from the usual scrutiny that is carried out before strikes. Another aspect of the drone program that is worth re-considering is the ‘personality or signature strikes’ approach. A signature strike is one in which the US conducts targeting without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted. Instead, the individuals match a pre-identified ‘behavioral signature’ that the US links to militant activity or association.[7] Signature strikes have probably been responsible for the majority of the reported civilian casualties in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Several high ranking diplomats and state department officials have spoken against ‘signature strikes’ as what constitutes ‘signature terrorist behaviour’ is not certain.[8] In the past gatherings such as meetings of local village bodies, groups of men and women gathered to celebrate an occasion have been misconstrued as militant signatures in the past. The Obama administration is reluctant to open up on this issue and most requests for information regarding the same are denied invoking the ‘national security’ argument. The issue is slowly gaining traction in the public eye thanks to the efforts of several activists, journalists and Hollywood film makers.  Retired military officials in the due course of their careers have often had a change of heart and have spoken critically of these strikes and operations. This is well documented by the renowned investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill’ in his well-researched documentary - ‘Dirty Wars’.


Though drone strikes have been successful in the elimination of several high ranking leaders of militant organisations, the ratio of innocent lives lost to the number of high value targets killed is very poor. Drone strikes have resulted in the fostering of anti-American sentiment round the world. Several human rights organisations have raised serious concerns about the issue. The graphic below (Research done by Pew Global) reflects the global public opinion about Obama’s drone strike program.[9]

While the writer sincerely sympathizes with the loss of over 3000 American lives on the unfortunate morning of 9/11, usage of controversial methods which result in the loss of equally important lives elsewhere is questionable and must be thoroughly debated and investigated. The kin of the victims of these attacks are often caught between the rhetorical assurances of their governments and the American administration whom they can’t practically question or hold accountable. In these circumstances, overcome with grief and frustration they often find themselves in a ‘nothing to lose’ situation and take up arms. The others who hold themselves back from becoming militants are often just an incident away from walking down the same road. Pakistan is America’s all weather ally-- a recipient of billions of dollars of aid and sophisticated military technology but yet the two friends often don’t see eye to eye and are extremely distrustful of each other as demonstrated by the events surrounding the raid that killed Bin Laden. America continues to support and engage Pakistan despite knowing that several of the world’s most wanted militants have been bred, trained and still are holed up in Pakistan. Most of the drone strikes have been in the ‘Federally Administered Tribal Areas’ of Pakistan a region over which the government has limited control. Outwardly, the government has condemned all American drone strikes but many believe that it did so to save face and has a tacit understanding of looking the other way with the American government. With this arrangement, the US administration virtually has zero accountability which is turning out to be a curse for the tribal and civilian populace of the region. 

In the absence of well-defined, enforceable international laws and conventions on usage of drones in foreign territory, this trend is likely to grow. It is imperative that this issue be tackled in international forums at the earliest or it is likely to do more harm than good to international peace and security. The Obama government’s controversial ‘signature strike’ program probably needs to be revisited. The process of intelligence gathering and analysis predominantly involves connecting several dots and a fair bit of imagination and speculation. Drone strikes should only be used when the gathered intelligence, backed by solid evidence and sound logic. The process of approval of these strikes by the executive should have multiple layers. Though this maybe frowned upon by those on the field, it would be fair to say the current situation warrants it.