The X-47B unmanned aircraft during sea trials aboard the USS George HW Bush in May 2013. (Department of Defense)

The Drone Disaster

American drone policy is trading short-term gain for long-term pain.

The X-47B unmanned aircraft during sea trials aboard the USS George HW Bush in May 2013. (Department of Defense)

The X-47B unmanned aircraft during sea trials aboard the USS George HW Bush in May 2013.


As the U.S. begins its exodus from Afghanistan, American security policy has been shifting more and more toward Africa. This shift is in direct correlation with the rise of organized terrorism across the northern half of the continent over the last two decades. As groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Al-Shabab and Boko Haram pose a significant threat to American security, especially to U.S. citizens abroad, the United States’ shift is understandable given the determination to prevent another 9/11 or Benghazi attack.

The new age of warfare in the 21st century has morphed into a low-risk, potentially high-reward operation that places little U.S. personnel in harm's way. Drones have reinvented the strategy with which America fights terrorism, as they often manage to successfully eliminate high profile targets with the push of a button, hundreds of miles away. Given the civilian displeasure at American casualties from both the Afghanistan and Iraqi wars, it is no wonder that America chooses to use its military technological superiority to extinguish U.S. security threats with minimal American casualties. However, this policy comes at a price.

[See a collection of political cartoons on President Obama's drone policy.]

The U.S. drone program, started under the Bush administration, has produced an estimated 2,400 casualties to date. A 2012 study by Stanford Law School and New York University's School of Law shows that approximately 2 percent of all drone strikes hit high-level targets and that the majority of casualties are civilians. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have taken this one step further by documenting their findings on specific drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. The report determined that in six air strikes in Yemen, 57 of the 82 casualties were civilians, including a pregnant mother and three children. In Pakistan, more than 30 civilians died in four similar strikes. These reports coincide with an October 2013 report issued by a U.N. human rights investigator. The simple conclusion is that drone strikes, no matter how precise they are claimed to be, can still result in significant collateral damage.

Islamic extremist groups in West Africa, North Africa, Sahel, Central Africa and the Horn of Africa have gained strong footholds, empowered by a seemingly endless supply of soldiers willing to lay down their lives. Young people flock to extremist groups and fill the ranks, lacking a better opportunity to improve their lives.

The U.S. has responded by establishing a sophisticated drone war with the objective of eliminating high-level terrorist leaders throughout Africa. It is the old adage: "Cut off the head and the body will die." This policy has led to an influx of drones, both unarmed surveillance and armed combat drones, to patrol the African skies seeking out members of terrorist cells. Recently, strikes have eliminated several high level officers in Al-Shabab in Somalia, following the September 2013 Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi. U.S. policy has implemented near daily patrols over Mali, searching for high profile members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist cells in North Africa, as well as over northeastern Nigeria in an attempt to target senior members of Boko Haram. These strikes may be effective in decimating core leadership, but they may also do more harm than good.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

It remains a challenge for many young people in these countries to procure an opportunity to empower themselves financially. Mali has a 30 percent unemployment rate, and Nigeria’s is just under 24 percent and much higher in the volatile northeast. In Somalia, many regions are still controlled by warlords, especially Al-Shabab, therefore presenting little economic opportunity.

The connection between poverty and terrorism is very real. Poverty drives many working-age adults and naive youths to seek the security of organized terror groups. Knowing an innocent civilian killed by a drone strike only fuels the fire of hatred to accompany their desperate situation. While the U.S. may think that its policy of drone strikes improves national security without the loss of lives, the reality is that these strikes in Africa and beyond are creating a generation that not only needs the protection and security offered by organized terror, but possesses a hatred of America and Americans. So while certain "high profile" targets are being eliminated, there is no shortage of willing people to step in and fill their shoes.

The simple truth is that the drone program may be a short-term success that could burgeon into a long-term disaster, with Africa and Central Asia at its heart. If the U.S. wants to stop another 9/11, the simple solution would be to reduce the number of terrorist organizations and members, and the current drone program does the opposite. Investment in economic development to provide opportunities for working adults and youths remains the most effective way to take the wind out of the sails of terror. Instead of breeding a generation of fear and hatred, the U.S. should consider an investment in gratitude and success