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Drone Strikes and the Law of Unintended Consequences

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  • Drone Strikes and the Law of Unintended Consequences

    If there were a way to target precise al-Qaeda leaders in otherwise inaccessible areas, it would make sense to do so. At one point we believed there was, hence the escalating number of strikes by drone aircraft on targets in northwestern Pakistan and remote parts of Afghanistan. Perhaps at some point someone should have said, “Define precise.”

    The drone strike campaign aimed at decapitating al-Qaeda and the Taliban have enjoyed some success measure solely by a count of senior leaders killed or driven to ground. It’s effect on the operational tempo or organizational vitality of al-Qaeda is harder to measure. Its collateral effects have been considerable.

    No one knows how many Pakistani and Afghan civilians have been killed by the campaign. The Long War Journal blog claims about 30 civilian deaths total. Pakistani sources say over 1,000. Most compelling for me, two of the world’s top counterinsurgency experts, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, who had a considerable hand in mapping out the strategy for Afghanistan, argue that for every genuine Taliban or al-Qaeda leader killed by drones, 30 civilians are killed. One-to-thirty — not a great ratio.

    When the numbers are this squishy, it’s hard to balance cost with benefit, but it’s really looking as if the cure is worse than the disease. In order to target leadership with precision we need good human intelligence on the ground, and that means sympathetic people. To the extent the drone strikes kill civilians, our sympathy in the strike areas erodes, degrading intelligence resources, making subsequent ...


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