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The Downsides of Drones

Yesterday, I noted that one of the downsides of the Obama administration’s heavy reliance on drone strikes is that it eliminates the option of capturing and interrogating terrorist suspects. Admittedly, that may not be possible in many instances anyway, but the intelligence payoff from interrogation (and also seizure of documents) is much higher than from simple elimination.

Today, the Wall Street Journal notes another potential downside: the possibility of getting played by an allied intelligence service. In this case, the Journal writes, the U.S. government now suspects that the Joint Special Operations Command was being set up by the president of Yemen to eliminate one of his rivals in 2010 when a U.S. missile killed six people, including the deputy governor of one of the country’s provinces. This kind of mishap is a distinct danger when U.S. agencies use lethal force in countries where our intelligence-gathering capacity (especially in terms of human intelligence) is distinctly limited. This sort of thing was all too common in the early days in Afghanistan and Iraq, both places where U.S. troops were inadvertently drawn into local political rivalries.

The answer is to establish deeper ties and deeper understanding. but that takes time and energy. Sometimes drone strikes can be a convenient short-cut for that kind of intensive effort. On the other hand, if done right, and if used as the culmination of an intensive intelligence-generating process rather than a substitute for it, drone strikes can be a highly effective tool in the war against terrorist groups. They should certainly not be discontinued and not even reduced in number, but their downsides should be kept firmly in mind.