Drones series, Part II: Daring to use drones. Why targeted killings are a necessary component in modern counter-insurgency campaigns

By David C. Hofmann:


Fuelled by the global ‘war on terror’ that emerged in the aftermath of the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, Western democracies have been steadily increasing their use of drone strikes to kill key operational and ideological members within insurgent groups in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The state-sanctioned and strategic targeted killing of terrorists/insurgents is a controversial topic, and raises numerous moral and legal issues.[i] However, the realities of war are changing. For the most part, traditional battlefields have been replaced by insurgent campaigns conducted by hardened Islamist groups like the Taliban and al-Shabaab. In order to adapt to the realities and characteristics of this genre of conflict, drone strikes have become a crucial component within larger counter-insurgency strategies, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.

Why Drone Strikes are Necessary

Despite valid concerns over the ethics and legality of drone strikes, targeted killings remain one of the best coercive options currently available to combat well-entrenched insurgent movements in lawless areas. The inability and/or unwillingness of local government forces to combat or apprehend insurgent operatives necessitates outside intervention in order to ensure continued international and local security. Counter-insurgency options, however, are limited within this particular context. Traditional military assaults on guerilla fighters who have superior knowledge of the landscape are tactically unsound, as seen in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan. Non-coercive methods are also limited (but not impossible) due to the ideological, apocalyptic and fanatical nature of most Islamist insurgent groups. The human and material costs of a ‘boots on the ground’ intervention are often prohibitive, and alternatives such as scorched earth tactics are wildly disproportionate and unethical.[ii] Furthermore, many insurgent groups enjoy broad public support. Traditional military invasion provides ample time for important operatives to go ‘underground’ and avoid apprehension. As a result of these and other factors, drone strikes emerge as one of the more practical and tactically sound options within theatres of war such as certain portions of the Pashtun region of Pakistan, the regions of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, and other similar locales.

The ability to strike at key players within insurgent groups without the mobilization of large-scale ground forces also has significant domestic and international political ramifications. The evidence suggests that drone strikes are popular with domestic audiences, who want and often demand a proportionate retributive response to terrorism without the need for mass deployment of troops.[iii] Within the international context, the legacy of the post-9/11 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan have created an environment wherein large scale Western military efforts can be perceived as an illegitimate invasion, an attempt at colonization, or as an economic exploitation of the invaded country (e.g., ‘blood for oil’). The use of targeted killing strikes a balance between these two pressing political concerns by assuaging domestic audiences’ desire for retribution while simultaneously allaying some, but not all, concerns of Western imperialism by avoiding a long term ‘boots on the ground’ conflict.

Why Drone Strikes are Effective

Drone strikes have also proven to be effective at hampering insurgent groups and in hastening the end of their larger campaigns. Recent empirical evidence suggests that when used as a part of larger counter-insurgency strategy, targeted killing decreases operational capabilities, decreases professionalism, and increases the likelihood of organizational death.[iv] The prevailing argument is that repeated strikes against operational and ideologically important members of insurgent groups erodes long-term capabilities to plan and execute attacks by denying them the specialized skillsets of trainers, bomb makers, and ideologues. Furthermore, the use of drone strikes can lead to a deterrent effect by increasing the physical and social costs associated with engaging in armed conflict.[v] Lastly, efforts expended to remain ‘underground’ out of a fear of being targeted by drones diverts energies that would normally go towards the planning and execution of terrorist attacks.

The Future of Targeted Killing and Drone Strikes

As long as belligerents remain entrenched in locales that inhibit practical non-coercive or legal approaches to counter-insurgency, the best option is the proportional and strategic removal of operatives via drone strikes. However, the practice of targeted killing remains generally misunderstood by the public. If targeted killing is to stay as a cornerstone piece in Western counter-insurgency campaigns, efforts must be made by practising governments to address some of the moral and legal concerns surrounding the tactic. This will require the adoption of policies that add elements of transparency, legal review and comprehensive guidelines that determine when, where and how targeted killing can and should occur.[vi] To do otherwise risks sinking to the level of indiscriminate violence practised by many insurgent and terrorist groups.



David is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo, Canada, as well as Editor in Chief of the ‘Canadian Graduate Journal of Sociology and Criminology’ (http://cgjsc.ca). His research focuses on the social dynamics of charismatic authority in terrorist groups, and how relationships between leaders and followers affect the formation, operation, and eventual demise of terrorist organizations. He can be reached at dhofmann@uwaterloo.ca


[i] For a summary of both sides of the debate on drone strikes and targeted killing, see: Daniel Byman, ‘Why Drones Work’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 92 (July/August 2013), pp. 32-43; Audrey Kurth Cronin, ‘Why Drones Fail’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 92 (July/August 2013), pp. 44-54. For a discussion of the moral and ethical debate on targeted killing, see: Steven R. David, ‘Israel’s Policy of Targeted Killing’, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol.17, (2003), pp. 111-126; Alan Dershowitz, ‘Targeted Killing Vindicated’, Huffington Post, 2 May 2011, onine at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-dershowitz/targeted-killing-vindicat_b_856538.html; David Kretzmer, ‘Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists: Extra-judicial Executions or Legitimate Means of Defence?’, European Journal of International Law, Vol. 16, (2005), pp. 171-212; Yael Stein, ‘By any Name Illegal and Immoral’, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 14 (2003), pp. 127-137.
[ii] Byman, ‘Why Drones Work’; David, ‘Fatal Choices’, p. 19.
[iii] Byman, ‘Do Targeted Killings Work?’, p. 102; David, ‘Fatal Choices’, pp. 7-8.
[iv] See: Patrick B. Johnston, ‘Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns’, International Security, Vol. 36 (Spring 2012), pp. 62-68; Bryan C. Price, ‘Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism’, International Security, Vol.36 (Spring 2012), pp. 37-42; Alex S. Wilner, ‘Targeted Killings in Afghanistan: Measuring Coercion and Deterrence in Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol.33 (2010), pp. 316-323.
[v] David, ‘Fatal Choices’, 6-7; Wilner, ‘Targeted Killings in Afghanistan’, pp. 314-316.
[vi] Daniel Byman, ‘Do Targeted Killings Work?’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85 (March – April, 2006), pp. 110-111; Byman, ‘Why Drones Work’; David, ‘Fatal Choices’, pp. 21-22.

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