The Truth About Obama's Drone Campaign: It's About Attrition, Not Decapitation

This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided muni
This undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-9 Reaper, armed with GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided munitions and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, piloted by Col. Lex Turner during a combat mission over southern Afghanistan. U.S. and Pakistani officials say Pakistan's intelligence chief will head to Washington late this month to resume counterterrorism talks suspended over a deadly border incident last year that killed two dozen Pakistani troops. (AP Photo/Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt, US Air Force)

A key question facing President Obama as he begins his second term is whether to continue the U.S. drone campaign against Islamic militants. Since 2004 the United States has launched more than 400 covert drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Almost 90 percent of these strikes have occurred under President Obama. According to data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Obama has signed off on roughly 350 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, killing between 2,600 and 3,400 people.

Drone strikes are usually billed as targeted killings, aimed at leaders or other important figures in terrorist organizations. The drone campaign is thus a "decapitation" strategy, a term used by political scientists to describe air campaigns intended to kill national leaders in wartime. The idea is that by cutting off the head of the snake, the body (the armed forces) will be unable to coordinate, and the state's military effort will collapse. Applied to terrorist organizations, decapitation targets top leaders in the hope that killing them will cause the group to disintegrate.

In the context of interstate war, decapitation has been remarkably unsuccessful, but in the fight against terrorists, the effectiveness of decapitation is hotly debated. Pessimists argue that terrorist organizations, especially groups that are older, larger or religiously motivated, are resilient to decapitation, whereas optimists find that decapitation speeds the demise of terrorist groups. Proponents argue that drones in particular should be an effective weapon of decapitation, because drones can linger for extended periods of time, watching and waiting for their prey to emerge, and then use precision-guided munitions to eliminate the target while minimizing collateral damage to bystanders. Indeed, drone strikes have killed high-ranking al Qaeda officials, most recently Abdel Rehman al-Hussainan, the organization's number-two man, who died in an attack in North Waziristan in December.

However, an examination of the data on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan raises questions about whether the United States is actually waging a decapitation campaign. According to data collected by the New America Foundation, of the total number of people killed by drone strikes there (between 1,900 and 3,200), less than 3 percent of them (51) were "militant leaders." Furthermore, only 30 of these leaders were members of al Qaeda.

The truth is that the drone campaign is not a decapitation or targeted killing campaign; it is an attrition campaign. Attrition strategies are not aimed at leaders but simply try to kill as many enemy foot soldiers as possible. In Vietnam, for example, Gen. William Westmoreland hoped to reach the "crossover point" at which U.S. forces would kill Viet Cong faster than they could be replaced, forcing North Vietnamese leaders to end their effort to conquer South Vietnam. Of course, despite killing hundreds of thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers, U.S. forces never reached the crossover point, partly because U.S. leaders greatly underestimated Hanoi's resolve, but also because U.S. tactics, which killed large numbers of South Vietnamese civilians, aided the North's cause.

The drone campaign in Pakistan is similarly an attrition strategy aimed ostensibly at members of al Qaeda. Although U.S. drones occasionally eliminate terrorist commanders, the bulk of those killed are rank-and-file militants or civilians. The goal, in other words, appears to simply be to kill as many militants as possible. As the head of the CIA's counterterrorism center put it in March 2011, directly echoing Westmoreland's crossover point rhetoric, "We are killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them now." The extensive use of "signature strikes," where the threshold for being targeted is merely involvement in suspicious activity rather than individual identity, underscores the point that this is not a decapitation strategy.

Unfortunately, an attrition approach is unlikely to yield the desired results. First, the United States is aiming at the wrong target. Increasingly, drone strikes in Pakistan do not target al Qaeda members. According to Peter Bergen and Megan Braun at NAF, "under Bush, al Qaeda members accounted for 25% of all drone targets compared to 40% for Taliban targets. Under Obama, only 8% of targets were al Qaeda compared to just over 50% for Taliban targets." Al Qaeda and the Taliban overlap in Pakistan but do not share the same objectives. The goal of the Pakistani Taliban is, first and foremost, to take over Pakistan and establish a state governed by Islamic law. Fighting the United States comes in at a distant second, which raises questions about a strategy that predominantly targets this group.

Second, killing civilians can inadvertently aid the terrorist cause. Somewhere between 10 percent and 26 percent of all drone deaths in Pakistan are noncombatants. In historical terms these figures are relatively low for air campaigns, but every civilian death has the potential to generate terrorist recruits. In Yemen, for example, a soldier left his unit after a U.S. drone strike killed his nephew, telling a reporter, "I would fight even the devil to exact revenge for my nephew."

Third, rather than collapsing, the adversary is adapting. Recent reports indicate that al Qaeda has formed a punishment brigade known as the Khorasan that executes collaborators who provide intelligence for drone strikes, terrifying locals into keeping their mouths shut.

Fourth, drone strikes have inflamed Pakistani public opinion toward the United States. Some 74 percent of Pakistanis now view the United States as an "enemy," compared with 60 percent in 2008, before the increase in drone strikes. The Pakistani population almost universally loathes the drone campaign, expanding the pool of potential militant sympathizers or recruits.

Drone strikes are mostly killing low-level Pakistani militants, not al Qaeda leaders. This strategy is unlikely to cause the collapse of al Qaeda or even the Pakistani Taliban and may have counterproductive effects. Even if drones targeted leaders exclusively, it is unclear whether this strategy would destroy these groups. A new term may therefore require new thinking on drones.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the George Washington University that closely examines the most pressing challenges facing President Obama in his second term. To read the companion article by HuffPost's David Wood, click here. To read the companion blog post by Sarah Holewinski of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, click here. To read all the other posts in the series, click here.