President Obama's Drone Strikes May Kill Terrorists But They Won't Defeat Al Qaeda's Ideology

It has been a busy few weeks for the United States’ drone program. After a strike hiatus from the end of March to late May, drones resumed their positions over the skies in Pakistan, targeting militants operating predominantly in North Waziristan. 

On June 4, a drone targeted and killed Al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Yahya al-Libi. Two days later, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, speaking from New Delhi, India, told reporters that the U.S. was at war in Pakistan, with drones figuring as the weapon du jour.

Meanwhile, as the Obama Administration has intensified the drone campaign in Yemen, the report in The New York Times of his “kill list” further shone the spotlight on a program that just a year ago was rarely discussed in the mainstream press and barely acknowledged by the administration itself. The allegedly top-secret program is now so open to general public scrutiny that the Pew Research Center thought it worthy of its own opinion poll.

I’ve written quite a bit about drones on PolicyMic, usually favorably. I’m not opposed to a public discussion about their usage, their benefits and decided drawbacks. But I have found in both the criticism of the drone campaign, and in my defense of it, an inherent problem with the overall debate. Ultimately, public queasiness over the tactic is masking what should be unease over the broader strategic failure.

We should be less concerned with the weapon we deploy in counterterrorism than with the reality that eleven years after 9/11, and closer to twenty since Al-Qaeda’s inception, the U.S. remains incapable of tackling Al-Qaeda’s ideology. I defend the drone campaign because it has proven to be an effective counterterrorism tactic, but it is not a long-term sound strategy.

The drone is the latest, and frankly the best, counterterrorism hardware we have employed to keep militants at bay. But the so-called “War on Terror” has never addressed what continues to draw young Muslims to an organization that is entirely anathema to Islam itself. And no, there would not be a sudden drop in Al-Qaeda affiliated membership if the U.S. quit using drones entirely.

Bill Roggio at Long War Journal, which offers the best coverage of the drone campaign than any other news site, said it best when he told The New York Times following al-Libi’s death last week that the drones offer an appealing, albeit short-term tactic in confronting Al-Qaeda militants. But he cautioned, “until we tackle Al-Qaeda’s ideology, state support and ability to exploit ungoverned space in countries like Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, you’re not going to defeat the organization.”

The “keep them looking up” approach to counterterrorism has dismantled Al-Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan, and with the death of al-Libi, severely hampered its ability to communicate with its regional affiliates. It has been a robust approach, one for which the Obama administration should be commended.

But strategically, employing drones against Al-Qaeda militants, whether it is in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia or Iraq, is like attacking a beehive, to borrow a phrase from the Brooking Institute’s Bruce Reidel. Drones are great at taking out one bee at a time, but the problem is the hive always creates more bees.

Admittedly, I, nor seemingly anyone else in the U.S.' foreign policy and national security arena, have a particularly good solution as to how to confront Al-Qaeda’s ideology. I always argue that the U.S. can never over-invest in human intelligence, but humint is a severe challenge in and of itself.

So we are left with the drone for the time being, and in terms of removing one militant at a time, they are getting the job done. But if this country thought it was ever possible to defeat Al-Qaeda entirely, it certainly won’t come via the drone, no matter how many Hellfire missiles we strap to the wings.