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It’s hard to disagree with David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum on the drone issue:

Governments typically make several mistakes when attempting to separate violent extremists from populations in which they hide. First, they often overestimate the degree to which a population harboring an armed actor can influence that actor’s behavior. People don’t tolerate extremists in their midst because they like them, but rather because the extremists intimidate them. Breaking the power of extremists means removing their power to intimidate — something that strikes cannot do.

Imagine, for example, that burglars move into a neighborhood. If the police were to start blowing up people’s houses from the air, would this convince homeowners to rise up against the burglars? Wouldn’t it be more likely to turn the whole population against the police? And if their neighbors wanted to turn the burglars in, how would they do that, exactly? Yet this is the same basic logic underlying the drone war.

I don’t doubt that the use of drones has resulted in significant attrition of Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership. Moreover, it’s not quite right to say that for every “Al Qaeda #2” we kill another pops up; killing individual terrorists, especially those with significant training and experience, does reduce the effectiveness of the organizations. But it seems to me that the drone war by necessity has a steep down curve in terms of effectiveness. The first raids may be successful, but over time individual terrorists become more careful, develop alternative methods of communication, and shield themselves with ever greater numbers of civilians. As time goes by, you’re killing terrorists successively lower on the rung with progressively more limited intelligence.

Doesn’t seem like a win, especially given the irritation it produces among the Pakistani population. At an intel talk last semester at Patterson, a speaker suggested that the drone strategy had been fairly successful in culling Al Qaeda leadership. Someone from the audience asked whether drone strikes in Ireland (not to mention Boston) in the 1980s would have been an effective way of dealing with the IRA. I think it’s a hard point to argue; it’s easy for me to imagine the IRA turning each strike (and each civilian death) into a fundraising and recruitment bonanza in Ireland and the US. The situation with Al Qaeda is a bit different in that the IRA had less far reaching aims and was more popular in its target population, but nevertheless the analogy carries some weight.

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