Drones in Counterterrorism: The Primacy of Politics Over Technology

This essay is part of the #WarBots series, which asked a group of academics and national security professionals to provide their thoughts on the confluence of automation and unmanned technologies and their impact in the conduct of war. We hope this launches a debate that may one day shape policy.

Policymakers, analysts, and scholars have long worried that drones make counterterrorism dangerously easy. With no American lives on the line, drone-centric counterterrorism is considered unconstrained by domestic political costs. As criticism of drone use on ethical grounds has not become a major electoral issue, some analysts worry that political leaders have limited reason to be cautious when considering counterterrorism options. Even President Barack Obama –– whose Presidency was marked by a prolific use of drones for counterterrorism –– recognized drone use as “what looks like a pretty antiseptic way of disposing of [our] enemies” while also expressing concerns that, without sufficient Congressional oversight, “you [could] end up with a president who can carry on perpetual wars all over the world.”

Drone warfare critically depends on the cooperation of regional allies for sustained campaigning.

In reality, however, drones do not seem to be making war against terrorist foes as seamless as policymakers, analysts, and scholars worry –– at least for now. Current debates overemphasize the importance of drones’ military aspects –– like advanced surveillance and precision technology, and low-cost features –– of being unmanned and inexpensive –– for counterterrorism. These features are undoubtedly very powerful but on their own remain insufficient for warfare in terrorist safe havens. In such regions, drone warfare critically depends on the cooperation of regional allies for sustained campaigning. The politics of such cooperation are fairly complex, and a major constraint on how and when drones can be used.

What are the roots of the politics of drone deployments? Drones are not a complete counterterrorism solution in and of themselves. Their technological power of aerial surveillance with rapid turnaround times and precise targeting is best utilized in tandem with three other critical inputs, which must come from on the ground counterterrorism allies. First, drone deployments require a benign airspace. Where the US government wants to eliminate targets located with high certainty purely through on-the-ground human intelligence sources, these demands tend to be minimal: the airspace simply needs to be clear at that moment during which the targeting is to take place. Where the US government wants to undertake sustained overhead surveillance to identify future terrorist targets, however, the demands for clear airspace are immense. To ensure that sustained drone surveillance missions are not interdicted by hostile or unknowing air defenses, the US government is compelled to seek pacts with proximate local actors on the ground with the capability to interdict drones.

Second, drone deployments need to be combined with human and ground-based technical sources of intelligence. Drones are certainly a unique platform for generating information through aerial surveillance. But data collected from an aerial platform are inevitably limited in what they can tell us about local realities on the ground; they tend to lack context, requiring either more detailed analysis by intelligence analysts well versed in local dynamics, follow up information gathering through drones, or a triangulation with intelligence from technical sources. To establish context, then, aerial surveillance needs to be combined with ground-based human intelligence operations consisting of a sizable paraphernalia of analysts, spies, and communication operations. Setting up such an infrastructure often requires deep cooperation from the relevant regional actor. The regional ally can facilitate the US government in setting up and managing its own human collection and signal interception operations. It can also cooperate in running such intelligence operations for the US government, providing invaluable local knowledge and expertise to the human and technical intelligence collection infrastructure.

Finally, drone deployments require a clearly devised targeting protocol (i.e., a set of rules of engagement) for sustained campaigning. There are two distinct pieces of counterterrorism relevant targeting protocols. One is domestic-political and bureaucratic: The US government devises a targeting process for in-house reasons to evaluate the degree of certainty about the target on the ground and the amount of acceptable risk to nearby non-combatants. The other is regional-political:  The US government needs to ensure that any political repercussions on the local allies resulting from drone strikes remain manageable. In many political environments, drone strikes are perceived as intrusive by local political elites. Even sympathetic regional allies remain wary of the optics surrounding drones and can quickly rescind intelligence services and airspace rights if the political costs of drone warfare grow too high for their liking.

Wherever the US government wants to wage sustained campaigns with drones, it needs the buy-in of local actors but the interests of many of the actors fundamentally do not align with those of the US. This inevitably boils down to constant bargaining and deal-making with local actors.

As US counterterrorism campaigns in various regions have expanded, the importance of cooperation with local actors on the ground in enabling counterterror campaigns and the political complexity of maintaining the cooperation has become clearer. For example, in Pakistan, the US government managed a complex covert understanding with the Pakistani government to execute the campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban for many years. More recently, however, American attempts to initiate a drone-centered targeting campaign against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network seems to be struggling because of Pakistani government’s noncooperation. In Yemen, the US government enjoyed deep cooperation with the government of Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, which provided both on-the-ground logistical and intelligence support. Since the exile of Hadi’s government, the US government has struggled with the challenge of devising targeting protocols that do not further weaken the beleaguered government. Recently, the US government reached a publicly announced agreement with the Nigerian government to undertake counter-terror operations via drones from bases in Niamey and Afadez, which is also instructive on the importance of local cooperation. Even in Syria, the US government has not been able to operate unilaterally. At one stage, US forces sought cooperation with the Russians. In 2015, the US signed a pact with Russia to “regulate operations of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles in the air space over Syria.” Despite the pact, Bashar al Assad’s air force and proximate Russian military presence seem to have challenged and interrupted American air operations for counterterrorism against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates.

What these cases illustrate is that waging counterterrorism operations is not just about having the right inventory of weaponry and the latest technical tools. Neither is simply marshaling the political will of the American population sufficient for undertaking counterterrorism. Wherever the US government wants to wage sustained campaigns with drones, it needs the buy-in of local actors but the interests of many of the actors fundamentally do not align with those of the US. This inevitably boils down to constant bargaining and deal-making with local actors. Politics, thus, retains the final say on how counterterrorism campaigns unfold.

Asfandyar Mir is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Chicago and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.

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Header Image: A Reaper remotely piloted air system comes into land at Kandahar Airbase in Helmand, Afghanistan. (Fg Off Owen Cheverton/Defence Images)