Already controversial, drone strikes have come under even more fire in recent months. In May, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder quietly admitted that such strikes have killed four Americans since 2002 — three by accident. This week, a leaked Pakistani report described startlingly high civilian casualties from these attacks; 146 of 746 people killed in strikes in the country were civilians, 94 of which were children.
In light of these reports, it's unsurprising that a July Pew Poll found that only three countries — Israel, Kenya, and the United States — support U.S. drone strikes. With the America's global public image dropping precipitously and Al-Qaeda's capabilities vastly diminished, many are asking if it's time for the U.S. to retire its drones. However, if the U.S. abandons drone strikes, it would give up its most effective (and lowest-risk) tool in the fight against terrorism.
It's not difficult to understand why drones produce such a strong and visceral reaction among foreign publics. Reports on civilian deaths are competing and generally unreliable, since the U.S. counts any military-age male killed in a drone strike as a combatant. Still, hundreds of civilians have been killed since the Obama administration launched its first strike in Yemen in 2002. So-called "signature strikes," which target groups engaged in suspicious activities rather than specific individuals, encourage claims that the U.S. launches attacks indiscriminately and with impunity. Finally, until recently, the administration has been conspicuously silent on its drone activity, inflaming the perception that such action is suspect and possibly illegal.
However, these concerns overshadow the reality that drones are extraordinarily effective. In a decade, drone strikes have killed 3,300 jihadist operatives in Pakistan and Yemen, including 50 senior Al-Qaeda and Taliban officials. These strikes have also severely limited terrorist groups' ability to contact and recruit new members, driving cells underground. What's more, drone strikes result in far less civilian casualties than the alternatives, primarily because attacks from F-16s or Tomahawk missiles have a limited ability to discriminate against non-combatants. Finally, it is important to note that many countries, despite their public protestations against drones, covertly support U.S. drone operations.
Indeed, Pakistan cooperated with drone strikes during the Bush and Obama administrations, even hosting drone facilities on its soil up until 2011. Similarly, Yemeni officials have traditionally complied with U.S. drone strikes, going so far as to occasionally tell their citizens that they were conducted by the Yemeni air force.
If one trend is clear, it is that drones strikes are going to become more prevalent around the globe. Smaller, cheaper and more mobile drone technologies — like backpack-launched drones — are desired by every country, whether or not they possess a drone fleet. As drone technology both spreads and shrinks, the U.S. should maintain its position at the front of the curve — but in conducting drone strikes, be more transparent about who it is targeting, and who it has hit.