No End in Sight: The U.S. Drone Campaign as a Perpetual Stop-Gap

The U.S. drone campaign is pushing back against the fighters of today while likely inspiring those of tomorrow.

By Ben Farley
December 12, 2011

With the imminent drawdown of United States forces in Iraq and the looming drawdown in Afghanistan, some are beginning to ask about the endgame of U.S. reliance on drone strikes throughout the world. But the question itself misunderstands the role drones play and obscures the simple answer: there is no endgame.

Since the first use of a drone outside of an active battle space in Yemen in 2002, the drone campaign has expanded in frequency and geography. In Pakistan, for instance, there were only nine drone strikes between 2004 and 2007—an average of three per year. But, by 2010, drone strikes in Pakistan averaged more than two each week. In addition, armed drones operated by the CIA are believed to have carried out strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and again in Yemen.

It is a campaign described by Spencer Ackerman and others as the “Shadow Wars.” The drones elicit relatively little news coverage and their strikes are supposedly covert. Of course, for those on the ground, the drone campaign is anything but covert. The Predator and Reaper drones lurk above their targets for hours emitting a constant buzzing, alerting the populace below to their presence, and inspiring a pervasive sense of dread. Those people—the targets as well as the terrified innocents—know or at least believe the United States is responsible for the drones and the death that accompanies them. And even though he has not discarded the veil of secrecy around the drone campaign, President Barack Obama has thinned it by crediting U.S. intelligence agencies with responsibility for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki earlier this year.

The reach and precision of the drones, their ability to remain positioned above potential targets for hours on end, and most importantly their ability to keep U.S. personnel safe, out of their targets’ sights in all but the rarest of circumstances—these are the advantages the drone campaign offers U.S. policymakers. It has been effective at retarding the capacity of various non-state actors to plan, train, and conduct operations, particularly in Pakistan and other places where the United States is unable to rely on local partners or unwilling to place human assets.

What the campaign does not do, however, is address the circumstances that have caused the United States to rely on drones in the first place. Drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia do not mitigate the inequities that give rise to the armed non-state actors that target the United States, nor do they redress the social and economic problems that lead young men to join them. They do not improve the governance or the legitimacy of the domestic government. They do not stabilize the state nor do they extend its writ into the ungoverned spaces that give non-state groups safe haven. They do not even cause those who join such groups to quit them—although fighters have changed their behavior as a result of the presence of drones over Pakistan, sleeping outside and under trees, according to at least one report. In fact, the campaign is probably counterproductive in at least some of these respects.

Populations subject to drone strikes live in constant fear, aware of the drones’ presence through their buzzing, fueling anti-American sentiment. This sentiment is exacerbated by collateral damage—irrespective of claims that there has been no drone-related collateral damage in the last year—inspiring the family members, neighbors, or in some cases clansmen of those killed to take up arms against the United States or its proxies. As should be clear from counterinsurgency doctrine (and U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan) at this point, a fearful, angry populace is more likely to take up arms against the entities responsible for inspiring that fear. Indeed, recognition of this principle drove NATO to adopt much more restrained rules of engagement. Thus, drone strikes may be contributing to U.S. insecurity in the long-term, even as they retard the capacity of armed non-state actors to conduct operations in the near-term.

And that is all the drone campaign alone can ever accomplish—a constant pushing back against the fighters who exist today while likely inspiring those of tomorrow. Without addressing the underlying forces driving U.S. insecurity, including state collapse, the drone campaign is at best a stop-gap with no end in sight.

Photo courtesy of james_gordon_los_angeles via Flickr.

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