On drones and their ability to defeat al Qaeda

The accelerating use of drones in Yemen, as well as the recent resumption of airstrikes in Pakistan, has highlighted the US’ increasing reliance on the unmanned vehicles to target enemies such as al Qaeda in a “covert” program. The new focus on drones raises a number of important issues, not least of which is the soundness of basing a military strategy on something that is merely a tactic.

Yesterday I touched on the issue of the drone program and its ability to defeat the terrorist organization, in a New York Times article on the death of Abu Yahya al Libi. The NYT article excerpt below succinctly captures my thoughts on this subject, and bears repeating:

Some independent experts, however, were more cautious. “Killing the top leadership harms Al Qaeda, but it won’t defeat them,” said Bill Roggio of the Web site Long War Journal, which tracks drone strikes in the tribal belt, among other topics. “There are people who will step up to fill the void. Al Qaeda has a far deeper bench than the administration gives it credit for.”

Mr. Roggio said that while drone strikes offered an attractive short-term tactic against Qaeda militants, they did not present a complete strategy. “Until we tackle Al Qaeda’s ideology, state support and ability to exploit ungoverned space in countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, you’re not going to defeat the organization,” he said.

Nine years into the drone program, it is now clear that while drones are useful in keeping al Qaeda and its affiliates off-balance, the assassination of operatives by unmanned aircraft has not led to the demise of the organization or its virulent ideology. During both the Bush and Obama administrations, US officials have been quick to declare al Qaeda defeated or “on the ropes” after killing off top leaders, only to learn later that the terror group has refused to die.

Instead of being defeated, al Qaeda has metastasized beyond the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, and has cropped up in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa (including in Mali), and even in the Egyptian Sinai. Other close allies, such as the Al Nusrah front in Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, threaten to join the global jihad. Al Qaeda and affiliated Islamist terror groups operate not only in remote, lawless regions, but also in populated areas. A positive result of the so-called “Arab Spring” is far from assured. What happens if al Qaeda cells become established in Cairo or Tripoli? Does the US intend to drone its way out of this problem by conducting strikes in major Arab cities?

And relying solely on the drone program as a strategy to defeat al Qaeda is troublesome in other ways. A supposedly covert operation is anything but, and the US government has done a poor job of justifying why this program is necessary to keep the US from getting attacked again. This evasion has led to public relations problems both domestically and internationally.

Instead of carefully explaining the need for the program, Obama administration officials leak information about the program to select officials in an effort to project toughness against al Qaeda. This is why articles such as “The Kill List” emerge, which may play well to the majority of Americans who want a president to be tough on al Qaeda, but which create a public relations nightmare internationally as the US government is perceived as directing an assassination program from the White House with little regard for international law.

The US is also widely viewed in the Muslim world as running roughshod over the sovereignty of Pakistan and Yemen by conducting these strikes. This perception is particularly problematic in Pakistan, as the government has quietly approved the strikes and yet publicly denounces the US for conducting them. This apparently duplicitous behavior feeds into al Qaeda’s narrative, and provides a recruiting boost to the terror group.

For more on the drawbacks to the way in which the US government has handled the drone program, see Droning On to watch an interview on CSPAN from last month.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Jahangir says:

    The critique is apt, but begs the question. If we are “at war” or defending the state against a diffuse terrorist threat, can we realistically expect to change their ideology through some other means, any more than they could expect to change our core values? Perhaps in these circumstances, tactical wins that destabilize the enemy are sufficient, at the price we can sustain indefinitely.
    At some point in time, one hopes, Pakstan will have a government with the courage and strategic vision to incorporate FATA into the mother country. Right now, it is a lawless land of tribals that even the British learned to leave alone. This is Pakistan’s challenge. It is not ours to solve.
    I think the Obama / Bush strategy is probably the best we can achieve for now. Let’s stop the silly talk about “winning” and focus on tactical goals until the environment changes.

  • mrmouth says:

    It’s this kind of thinking that drives me crazy.
    In Iraq heavy kinetic operations eventually whittled down the leadership of both the Sunni and Shia insurgencies to the point they became shells of what they once were. Yeah, they will replace the leadership. But eventually you get to a point where you are promoting very green people who simply have no connections on the order of these guys who had been around for a decade or more in leadership roles.
    AQ attacks are successful because of coordination and secrecy. They are born out of connections, relationships and trust. We know from their own words that they no longer feel they have that capability, and that the precision UAV campaign has been a significant reason for that – on multiple levels.
    And this is really is the only option to reach out and touch the largely untouchable, in Pakistan.
    There are a lot of intelligent and experienced people who are working the border, and they just might have a better handle on things than some would think.

  • Will Fenwick says:

    Wherever there are poor uneducated Sunni Muslims in areas where the authorities govern weakly the Salafists turn up and try to take over. The best way to defeat Al-qaeda and the other Salafists is to identify these areas, strengthen their governments and educate their people. While using drones for targeted assassinations works well for destroying leadership, it has no real effect in areas like southern Yemen where there are thousands of salafist foot soldiers willing to take and hold territory. The only way to defeat such entrenched forces is to do so conventionally with proxies (like the yemeni army/cia militias) and if no proxies are available or affective to do so with American troops

  • Bill Roggio says:

    mrmouth, we were engaged, on the ground in Iraq, to do the bulk of the heavy kinetic ops. I have seen some of it first hand while embedded there from 2005-2008. Additionally, we left behind Iraqi security forces committed to sustaining the fight against AQ. Pakistan is not Iraq; if it were, my level of concern would be minimal.
    Ask the Israelis about trying to defeat Hamas or Hezbollah via an air campaign. Hamas now runs Gaza, and Hezbollah Lebanon.
    The drone strikes in Pakistan are not “heavy kinetic operations” and al Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. have a vast pool to recruit from. Al Qaeda has been filling leadership positions from the plethora of Pakistani jihadist groups. Do you plan on striking Muridke in Lahore, or the vast number of madrassas nationwide? Drone strikes in Pakistan’s major cities? Do we hit the Quetta Shura in Quetta? What about Pakistan’s state support for the various terrorist groups that feed al Qaeda? Do you realize that the drone strikes are just limited to North and South Waziristan, while Pakistan’s jihadist problem is systemic?
    We have been told for years that we can’t kill our way to victory. But now, we can, because we have drones? I happen to believe you can kill your way to victory, but it all depends on how much killing you are willing to do. The reality is the US – under both Bush and Obama – has not willing to do it.
    The drone strikes just aren’t enough. I agree, the kills do set the group’s leadership cadre back. But it won’t deal AQ a death blow. Not at this rate, and not with the terrorist infrastructure that exists in Pakistan. And I’m not even discussing what happens when the US leaves Afghanistan.
    The drones hit AQ at the very tip of the spear; we’re leaving the shaft virtually untouched. The ideology remains unchallenged. State sponsors still support terrorists. And safe havens still exist (even in Afghanistan, where ISAF has almost 100,000 troops of their own).

  • Bill Roggio says:

    mrmouth, one additional thing: I do support the use of the drones to target AQ leaders and operatives, and members of allied groups. It is necessary and effective.
    As a good friend of mine in the business says to me all the time, the drone are efficient in hurting AQ, but not sufficient to defeat AQ.
    They should be one of many tools in the toolbox. Right now, the US is substituting a tactic for a strategy.

  • Birbal Dhar says:

    I tell you the drones have done wonders for India. First drones have made islamic terrorists created by Pakistan’s ISI to go and attack Pakistani police and army. This has forced millions of Pakistani Rupees diverted from supporting terrorists against India to trying to beef up security against islamic terrorists in the whole of Pakistan. Terrorist attacks from Pakistani sponsored groups have reduced so drastically, that even tourism has increased so much in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, which previously was so unsafe for tourists. Plus American pressure on Pakistan has forced the ISI, who effectively run the country, to avoid supporting large terrorist attacks like the one in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008. So in other words, please America continue with the drones attacks.

  • Rod says:

    Great Article! I believe if we could achieve the ground level goals Will Fenwick refers to “strengthen governments and educate people” combined with winning the ideological and propaganda fight we could finally begin to win over the Muslim world. More American troops in combat (outside of Special Ops) is not the answer, especially in Yemen or Pakistan. Weaken the leadership with precision strikes and take away their base of support by winning over people. This will cost billions but doesn’t the US already give that to the Pakistanis and other dubious allies.

  • donowen says:

    Droning is indeed a tactic as is “terror” activities themselves. We (the west) have been engaged with militant Islam of one form or another since their first invasion of France in 732. Nation building combined with waging war has not proven successful.
    Nation building after complete collapse of the enemy and occupation has proven successful in most cases (Germany, Japan maybe Iraq). In any case we have as usual gotten off point by attempting to help local folk- very nice and Chistain- but as many of us first hand saw it Vietnam- if we don’t plan on staying forever- it doesn’t work. We leave they return.
    Bush and Obama refused or now refuses to accept the mind set “Militant Islam” as an evangelical tool will never be defeated. However, maintaining troops in the field as active fighting forces is a very practical matter requiring significant funds. We are at a point where a declaration of war on miitant Islam organizations and thier financiers is achievable. This requires oil independence- significant increases in domistic oil and coal uses- not something this President will ever do. All out war on the financiers in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan etc as well as major attacks in the territories will result in short term or perhaps long term disruption of middle eastern oil. A congressional declaration of war should be strong enough to convince the Islamic world its time they clean this up. Only if Iran, Pakistan and Saudia Arabia leaders realize their way of life will change if these organizations attacking western targets or at least talking about attacking are not eliminated. When the Militant Islamic funding sources realize this is truly never ending, they will be touched and our pursuit is not border limited- their participation will end. The Taliban will unfortunately take over Afganistan when we leave- but if we’ve bloodied them enough as in Vietnam, removed all financial sources-they will leave us and others alone- our main objective.

  • jahangir says:

    It is unrealistic to think that we can ‘kill our way to victory.’ No one is willing to commit the resources needed to even attempt it. The military budget is about to shrink in January once sequestration cuts in. This is in part a result of our failure to yet pay for the past wars. Regardless of who wins the next election, no US president will obtain a mandate to up the war ante enough to “win” in the normal sense of the word. With 100k soldiers in Afghanistan now, we are in a kind of stasis.
    How should we define “winning?” At some point in time, the jihadist mindset will cease to attract young men to war and death.

  • Matt says:

    I don’t understand why we can’t use manned airpower to do the job better. Are we still trying to tippy toe around with the Pakistanis at this late stage? Panetta recently said this drone war is about OUR soveriegnty. Well why does our soveriegnty not come first when we look at what tools we need to do the job? For me a drone strike is an admission that we refuse to commit fully to the mission. Sometimes I am sure they would be the best tool but you certainly can’t convince me that another tool wouldn’t be more useful at some other time. I mean drones don’t even have a gun. How could they possibly be more capable of destroying things than a AH-64 or A-10? Why can’t we launch a Linebacker type operation and saturate both Waziristans at the same time? Could you imagine how long it would take to shoot up just one division of foot soldiers with Predators? They would have to sit in perfect formation for the duration. But one B-52 could do the job inside of 2 mins.
    I view UAVs as just another piece of a totally failed strategy of appeasing Pakistan. Give them money, speak softly, don’t make them mad….and for what??? Where are the results???

  • m3fd2002 says:

    I concur with Mr. Fenwick with respect to strategy. One thing that’s disturbing is that the current Administration is spiking the ball over small tactical wins, when there letting the whole Middle East implode without any apparent intervention (I’m hoping there’s a significant covert effort here). America gained a lot of respect with the Arab street with Bushs’ willingness to used America’s hyper-power and incur significant casualties in order to achieve a clear goal. Egypt has a direct impact on America’s strategic interests. It looks like to me we have made the same mistake of abandoning a strong ally in Mubarak, just like we did with the Shah of Iran. The people who fill the power vacuum will take power peacefully, but will hold onto it using brutal force.

  • Paul D says:

    The ideology is from the salafis and the funding is from Saudi.Pakistan and Egypt both have this jihadi/salafi culture imported from Saudi.
    Saudi is Mordor.

  • mike merlo says:

    well put Bill

  • Charles says:

    I don’t understand why we can’t use manned airpower to do the job better. Are we still trying to tippy toe around with the Pakistanis at this late stage?


    For example the way whales dolphins swordfish and other fish work is to blow bubbles, make loud clicks and swim around shoals of bait fish. that tightens them into bait balls.

    then dolphins swordfish sharks attack from below and birds attack from above.

    whales just eat whole baitballs in a gulp.

    so why not use the predator similarly to herd AQ into big bait balls and then take them out with a big daisy cutter or some other big weapon–or some combination of smaller weapons.

    There was an opportunity for this about a month ago when a 500-1000 AQ besieged some local shiek in the Waziristans.

  • infotechment says:


  • gerald says:

    Drone attacks will be nothing more than a stop gap. But at the moment it is the only game in town. Until there is a change in the hearts of the Islamic Faithful toward the “Infidel” this war will go on. Fancy alliances won’t contain it. Cutting off its finance will only slow it down. As long as there are young men willing to die to slay their enemies, the Mullahs will keep the Jihad going.

  • Ryan Crierie says:

    Personally, I believe we are currently in a holding action in regards to the Long War.
    Our current drone/SOF campaign worldwide is disrupting jihadist networks, preventing them from having the peace and security they need to plan complex multipronged attacks like the 9/11 attacks.
    The big problem is we can’t keep up this tactic of aerial bombardment forever — eventually a black swan event will happen, resulting in the drone program being curtailed.
    But for now, it’s buying us time to deal with the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about — Political Islam.
    During the Cold War, we were able to effectively fight the Soviet Union by challenging the legimitacy of Communism and promoting democracy and capitalism as alternatives to Soviet Communism.
    How do we do that with Political Islam in such a way we don’t come off as raving loons domestically, and as Crusader-Zionists internationally?

  • Villiger says:

    “How should we define “winning?” At some point in time, the jihadist mindset will cease to attract young men to war and death.”
    What conditions are required for the jihadist mindset to cease to attract young men to war and death?
    Since the ideologies of JIHAD and SHARIA are enshrined in the Islamic scriptures don’t they provide legitimacy to the terrorists agenda? This massive clash of cultures between Islam and the rest of the world, ie modern culture (be it of the East or the West) is the root of the War. As Bill says “The ideology remains unchallenged.”
    How can we pull this problem from its roots? That is the only question. The rest are details.
    God didn’t create Islam. A bunch of medieval tribal politicians did. (He also didn’t create Judaism, Christianity, or any number Eastern religions, all created and organized by men.) Although, I don’t see the essence of today’s War as being a War between religions, I do see the rigidity of the original Islam clashing hard against contemporary cultures around the globe, and within itself.
    In that context, the US needs to be decisive in its relationship with Paqsitan. If that desperate country, including and especially, its sicko Army are unwilling to emphatically, clearly and consistently follow a modern path, the answer is simple: NOT ONE MORE DOLLAR.
    No matter how painful it is on both sides.

  • Neo says:

    I agree that the drone strategy is a stop gap measure, especially in Pakistan. Along with its current role in Yemen, I increasingly expect drone warfare to serve a traditional air support role.
    With an election coming up and a fragile world economy, this administration is going to avoid stirring up further trouble. Don’t expect any more drama with Pakistan with any expanded operations. Two things to watch are how well the Afghan security forces set up, and whether the Taliban can sustain its former strength.
    At the beginning of the next presidential term there will be a policy review. I don’t think we will get much additional insight into things until then. A crucial question will be how the security situation holds up through and after the next round of U.S. troop withdrawals.

  • Solomon2 says:

    “The US is also widely viewed in the Muslim world as running roughshod over the sovereignty of Pakistan and Yemen by conducting these strikes.”
    Under post-9/11 UN Security Council Resolution 1373 (Chapter VII) nations have the binding sovereign obligation to root out terrorists, terror networks, etc. from their territories. No action => no sovereign claims when others take action against them instead.
    It is interesting to note the contrasting approaches of Pakistan and Yemen to the drone and (in Yemen’s case) bomb strikes: Pakistan condemns them as a violation of its sovereignty whereas Yemen claims that all such attacks are by its own forces, not foreigners.

  • Dave Jones says:

    On a comparative point of the radical Islamists deep bench of potential recruits in Pakistan:
    USA population: approx 313 million people
    Russian population: approx 140 million people
    Pakistan population: approx 181 million people (2015 predicted to be 185 million)
    That’s alot of poor uneducated people ready to pick up an AK47 on the Afgan Coalitions doorstep…

  • Jahangir says:

    Villiger, cutting off aid to Pakistan may ‘feel good’ and may be inevitable in US politics. But Pakistan will go on as before, and the FATA problem will not be changed. At least by sending some funds there, there is yet a chance to do something useful. Meanwhile, more of these funds are being used in civil educational activities, along the lines that other commentators recommend. Keeping this low key is probably important for now, but may help to counteract at least some of the Jihadi initiatives.
    Second, by no means are all Pakistanis supporters of the Jihad program. There will be opportunities for modernists to gain support, if the US acts carefully.
    Third, commenters need to distinguish between South Asia and Middle East. We are addressing very different cultures and different political dynamics. Understanding this is very important.
    Fourth, the Israel/Jew scapegoat will always be a last resort for Jihadists. Perception is reality among the Muslim people, who are as prone to conspiracy theories as are people in the West. It is not political Islam that is the enemy – the roots of distrust and misunderstanding need to be figured out and addressed (notice how many of them are still left over 100 years after British colonial policies failed to solve these issues).
    Ultimately the fruits of modern civilization will be passed more and more to the people of Islamic countries, and this will cause the roots of Jihad to wither and die of their own.

  • sundoesntrise says:

    I admire your optimism, but the Arab spring has empowered Islamists everywhere in the Middle East. And you may say “political Islam is not the enemy”, but now, violent Islamists can hide behind the “legitimate” cover of a political activist party while they continue to use their armed wings to carry out bombings and mutilations as the please – like they have been doing for the past 10 and a half years, and before that, for thousands of years in the past.
    Now that there is, unfortunately, more naive people in the West, who openly say Islamism is a good thing, violent Islamists will now have more of an opportunity to oppress their own people as well as minorities – and because of the trendies living in the West who now think Islamism is cool, there will be less and less opportunities for the West to do anything about it.

  • Ascribing strategic advantage to drones exaggerates their effectiveness and obscures needed changes in the way the United States approaches contemporary security challenges. //tinyurl.com/6vp2zws

    As the linked chart (//tinyurl.com/88srtqg) indicates, the enemy’s use of IEDs and suicide attacks (against the U.S. and allies) in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater have wreaked far more damage in terms of fatalities than U.S. drone strikes — 8,030 vs. 2,031 even without suicide attack data for 2010 and 2011.

    While relying on body counts as a metric was discredited during the Vietnam War, the contrast underscores the impact of the chosen tactic. U.S. drone strikes have indeed increased in use over the years and high-ranking terrorist leaders have been eliminated, but their use has lagged far behind the enemy’s use of suicide attacks, which the enemy employed earlier, more lethally, and, in strategic terms, to greater effect.

    Drones maybe attractive as low cost alternatives to pricey procurement programs and satisfy a recurrent search for technological silver bullets to security challenges, but it cannot compensate for what Michael Scheuer has ironically noted is Al Qaeda’s “[most] reliable ally — Washington’s interventionist foreign policy.” Because with intervention comes costs and IEDs and suicide attacks will remain key components of enemy cost-imposition strategies

    American enthusiasm for drone technologies is a defective defense and potentially malignant. Drone technologies will have a place in American military capabilities, but as an integrated component, not the tip of its spear. //tinyurl.com/6vp2zws



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