Personalizing Counterinsurgency: Assessing the Effectiveness of Drone Strikes on the Counterinsurgency in Pakistan

Woodrow Wilson School Task Force – WWS 402d: Countering Islamic Extremism in Pakistan


This paper studies the perceived legitimacy of drone strikes in Pakistan, in an effort to gauge their effectiveness on the counterinsurgency effort in the region. By looking at issues with legality, strategy, transparency, and perception, this paper argues that drone strikes threaten the long term success of the counterinsurgency. Shrouded in secrecy, they increase anti American resentment and portray a colonialist impression of American efforts in the region. This takes away from modern counterinsurgency’s main focus of supporting the local population and establishing sustainable governance structures to oppose further insurgency. Doubts about the legality and accuracy of drone attacks add to the growing dissent from respectable intellectuals, who attack the hypocritical stance that the US takes on extrajudicial killings. This paper concludes that the drone campaign must be accompanied with a sustained information campaign, and efforts to build civilian capacity in Pakistan in order for the counterinsurgency to achieve any sort of sustainable success.

Briefing Memo

The Obama administration has ramped up the drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Between 2009 and 2012, over 200 strikes killed more than 2500 people. The identity of the victims, as well as the legality of the program are hotly contested topics in academia and political debate. Predator drones provide an almost ‘seductive’ way to wage the War on Terror in Pakistan: it involves no troops on the ground, and so the program seems to represent lower human, capital and political costs for the US. But a critical look at the legal, strategic as well as broader philosophical questions being raised about the drone program sheds light on how the program’s reputation affects its pervasiveness and success in countering insurgent extremism emanating from Western Pakistan.

For the purposes of this analysis, counterinsurgency is conceptualized as presented by Gen. David Petraeus and his former Senior Counterinsurgency advisor David Kilcullen. Through their arguments, counterinsurgency is understood to be a civil-military campaign that focuses on supporting and protecting the local populace. It accompanies a military struggle against insurgent groups with a unifying counterinsurgent narrative that focuses to take control away from insurgents and return it to a legitimate government.

But for any such operation to be successful, the counterinsurgency itself must be perceived as legitimate. Unless the counterinsurgency is seen by the host country to have some moral imperative, it will have little room to gain over insurgents in renewing an established political order. The effort must be seen as legitimate by domestic actors and international partners as well to receive critical assistance when necessary.

This paper looks at various factors that affect the perceived legitimacy of the drone program. These are broadly categorized into legal issues, data issues, strategic issues, public relations issues and philosophical issues.

The drone campaign’s legality is dubious because the US is not at war with Pakistan, and there is no clear evidence to show that the ‘militants’ killed by drones are engaged in combat with the US. Neither Bush nor Obama have explicitly invoked self-defense. Arguments on legality can be made both ways, but international precedent has found targeted assassinations in Yemen and Israel to be cases of extrajudicial murder. The campaign’s legal status is made more questionable by the lack of clear knowledge of the CIAs safeguards and the fact that targeted assassinations remain outside of the CIA’s legal domain.

There is little reliable data to judge the effectiveness of drone strikes. Media access is limited, and reports from varying sources claim accuracy from 4% to 100%. Official claims have been shoddy, and data is often presented in a biased fashion. But what is clear is that drones do not always kill the people they intend to kill, and the secrecy around the program renders all victims faceless. For the highly illiterate Pakistani population, there is much leeway to swing public opinion.

The drone campaign also presents a number of strategic issues, especially when viewed as part of a larger counterinsurgency operation. The remote-control nature of drone killings threatens to ‘personalize’ the US struggle against extremism, making it just about eliminating high-value targets. As such, the drone strikes continue without any hold-and-build efforts in Pakistan. Coupled with the resentment and anti-Americanism each drone strike creates, the situation is ripe for insurgent groups to cash in on. The CIA’s historical troubles with assassination and extraordinary rendition are also increasing dependency on independent contractors, and the policy is beginning to be seen as a remnant of colonialist thinking.

As a result, legal efforts have begun against the CIA in Pakistan, causing the agency’s Station Chief in Pakistan to flee. A seemingly callous attitude to the casualties, and recent events such as the murder investigation against CIA operative Raymond Davis and the killing of 28 Pakistani soliders by NATO has created a public relations nightmare for the US. Pakistan’s rising opposition is cashing onto this quickly.

The drone campaign has seen opposition from notable thinkers such as Michael Walzer and Kilcullen himself, prompting questions about the philosophical underpinnings of the program. The lack of public discourse around the strikes is worrying to many. The US itself was opposed to similar strikes by Israel before 9/11, and this is perceived as hypocritical by many observers. Worryingly, it seems that drone strikes are also becoming a show of power, fired in revenge to attacks against US agencies. Proponents argue that Pakistan is complicit in the attacks, but there is reason to believe that relationship involves much coercion. Regardless, Pakistani wishes have been ignored when need be.

With the secrecy around the program, it becomes hard to empirically portray it’s effectiveness. A simple lens looks at it in two ways, how effective is the program at killing high-value targets? And how does this affect the larger Af-Pak counterinsurgency. It is clear from the multiple strikes it has taken to kill many militants, that drones miss their targets. The expanding definition of who passes as a legitimate target also convolutes this analysis. The first step is to acknowledge that mistakes are made. From a broader counter insurgency perspective however, despite claims that drone strikes have reduced enemy attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan continues to see both drones and terrorist attacks in their aftermath.

To conclude, this paper recommends policy changes to address three major shortcomings of the drone program: the lack of transparency, rising anti-American sentiment, and the absence of hold-and- build efforts. It is suggested that the US open up details about the target selection process and casualties form drones. This should be accompanied by an informational campaign targeted at the Pakistani population, establishing a counterinsurgent narrative, and further supplemented by efforts to build civilian capacity in Pakistan.


This paper was presented to our policy Task Force at the Woodrow Wilson School. The presentation slides are laid out below.

On the basis of this presentation I was asked to help present the work of our task force at the US State Department to Ambassador Marc Grossman, the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan & Pakistan, and Ambassador Robert Blake, United States Assisstant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs.

Complete Paper

The full document can be accessed here.