After drones became the American weapon of choice in Pakistan sometime toward the end of the 2000s, a number of US counterinsurgency experts expressed their discomfort with the killer robots in various military-related forums. For these writers, the non-human nature of drones, their blunt force and their distance from the enemy were something of an affront to counterinsurgency dictums about “hearts and minds” and “calibrated force.” The military characterizes counterinsurgency as a series of battlefield tactics (clear, hold, build) and developmental activities intended to persuade or coerce enemy civilians into supporting the counterinsurgent force. By contrast, counterterrorist tactics aim to decapitate guerrilla organizations by violent (or “kinetic”) measures that take no account of civilians unless they are in the line of fire — and sometimes not even then. While counterinsurgents are ascendant in the Army and Marine Corps, counterterrorism has usually been housed at either the Central Intelligence Agency or the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

Thus, in mid-2011, speculation swirled around the nomination of Gen. David Petraeus to head the CIA. Would the general, the author of the “surge” in Iraq and the convener of the counterinsurgents and Harvard human rights scholars who drafted the Army and Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency Field Manual, support the Agency’s cooperation with JSOC to use drones for surveillance and assassination? Any doubts about Petraeus’ commitment were put to rest during his tenure as head of the CIA, when the number of drone strikes — particularly in Yemen — ticked noticeably upward. The counterinsurgent general slipped comfortably into his counterterrorism role. But in his backing of drones Petraeus remains in a minority among prominent counterinsurgents.

Styles of Asymmetric Warfare

The January 2012 US Defense Strategic Guidance marked a shift in Pentagon priorities from counterinsurgency to counterterrorism, sounding the death knell of the era of “large-scale, prolonged stability operations” and announcing ever broader “distribution” of US “global counter terrorism efforts” to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” irregular enemies. Drones are to be a primary instrument. The policy shift proclaimed in the document, however, had happened already, as can be seen in the Pentagon budget for unmanned aerial vehicles that are capable of assassinating targets by air-to-surface missile: from $489.4 million for 24 Reaper drones in 2010 to $1.26 billion for 43 Reapers in 2012. [1] (Budget constraints mean that the Reaper order for 2013 has been drastically reduced. That said, projections are that worldwide spending on drones — of which the US will spend the lion’s share — will double over the next ten years, to $11.4 billion annually.) [2]

Interestingly, in the Obama administration, the major supporters for the increased use of drones in assassination — besides the CIA and JSOC, who keep a lower profile — are government lawyers or experts in international law, some of whom are better known for having criticized war on terror detention policies or the Bush administration’s violations of international legal commitments. These figures have insisted on the justness and legality of drones. In a speech to the American Society of International Law on March 25, 2010, Harold Koh, legal adviser to the State Department, argued that “a state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force. Our procedures and practices for identifying lawful targets are extremely robust, and advanced technologies have helped to make our targeting even more precise.” In a more casuistic register, Koh cited drone use — as opposed to boots on the ground — as justification for the Obama administration’s circumvention of the 1973 War Powers Resolution when it decided to join other NATO powers in deposing Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Koh, John Brennan (Obama’s counterterrorism adviser) and Attorney General Eric Holder have all maintained that “military necessity,” as well as “precision,” count in favor of drones, while Leon Panetta, as head of the CIA, argued in 2009 that the drones’ targeting mechanism prevents “collateral damage,” making them the “only game in town.”

In a similar vein, Anne Marie Slaughter, former State Department policy planning director and a committed liberal interventionist, has claimed that “a world in which, in the end, you can target individuals rather than having to invade countries is probably better.” She added that “careful rules and institutions” would safeguard the drones’ legality and efficacy, even humaneness. [3] Gabriella Blum, a Harvard law professor and former legal adviser to the Israeli military, has similarly averred that “for actors committed to humanitarian ideals, the coupling of remoteness and precision [that drones represent] allows for the possibility of striking only those most ‘deserving’ players — political leaders, military commanders and the like.” [4] Even Human Rights Watch has meekly asked the administration to “transfer CIA drone strikes to the military,” ignoring the fact that the Pentagon’s JSOC operates largely with impunity and without oversight — just like the Agency. Human Rights Watch does not comment on the institutionalization of extrajudicial executions by the Obama administration.

The Counterinsurgents and the Drones

Rather surprisingly, the best-known counterinsurgency experts in the US have been much more qualified in their support of drones, and much more skeptical of their legality and effectiveness. Some of the milder counterinsurgent criticisms concern the possibility of drone technology diffusion, undesirable to the military for obvious reasons. John Nagl, a retired Army officer who penned the counterinsurgency catechism Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife (2005), was quoted as saying that while the US now has “a monopoly, or effective monopoly, on armed drones,” the “technology will spread, and it will be used against us in years to come.” [5] In his Senate confirmation hearing as CIA director, Petraeus invoked another argument against assassination of enemies: Capture and detention is more useful because “you can indeed interrogate them, develop knowledge about them, the organizations they’re part of, build, if you will, the link diagrams, occupational charts, [and] understand the hierarchy.” Petraeus has qualified this opinion, however, by emphasizing that “kinetic activity is an option, whether with drones or another kinetic element.” [6]

Perhaps the most clearly articulated opposition to the drone program (particularly in Pakistan) has come from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), home to several counterinsurgency gurus. In a 2009 report on US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Andrew Exum (who runs the counterinsurgency blog Abu Muqawama), Nathaniel Fick (former Marine officer and CNAS director) and David Kilcullen (perhaps the weightiest theoretician of counterinsurgency, an Australian officer and adviser to Petraeus), wrote:

What matters even more than the real numbers of militants and civilians killed is the perception of these operations among the people of [northwestern Pakistan], as well as among the middle classes of Pakistan’s other provinces…. The United States should instead focus on isolating extremists from the communities in which they live. Drone strikes accomplish the opposite, alienating the population from their own government and from the coalition, while playing to the propaganda of the terrorists who manipulate them. [7]

In a speech at the 2010 Marine Corps Association Foundation dinner, Kilcullen further delineated his problem with drones:

At times, we have tended to send the drones in where we’re not willing to go or where we lack the ability to control what happens on the ground. One of the things about counterinsurgency is whoever controls the ground controls the spin…. If you hold the area after a firefight, you control the narrative that comes out and you control what the Afghan population hears about it. If you’re not there afterwards, it doesn’t matter what you think. Whoever controls the environment controls what people believe. It is a big propaganda vulnerability to be in that environment using drones.

This wholly instrumental view of drones is in keeping with the calculations of military planning. Only occasionally and briefly do the counterinsurgents nod at broader problems: that drone assassinations represent the “unchecked power” of the president (Jason Fritz at the influential Ink Spots blog) [8] or that the killings occur without sufficient “transparency and oversight” (Exum). [9] The counterinsurgents almost never mention the hundreds of civilians killed during drone operations or comment on the “signature strikes” that target whomever fits a “terrorist” profile viewed through the lenses of electronic intelligence-gathering equipment. They do not seem to mind, in other words, that “three guys doing jumping jacks” as if they were in a training camp or “men loading a truck with fertilizer” could be considered suspicious and targeted for assassination. They said little when Pentagon officials admitted that they “can target suspects…whose names they do not know.” [10]

Imperial Overreach

The counterinsurgents’ aversion to drones is explained primarily by their intellectual, emotional and financial investment in counterinsurgency doctrine and practice. Some counterinsurgents are also vocal about adherence to the Geneva Conventions. But a significant reason for counterinsurgent resistance to drone assassinations is also inter-agency and inter-service rivalries. Assassination drones are primarily operated by the CIA in Pakistan, by both the CIA and JSOC in Yemen and Afghanistan, and by JSOC in Somalia, Libya and the Philippines. The regular military resents JSOC’s “alarming ambitions” and cachet with Congress. [11] And the military is always wary of the CIA, even as the Agency’s relationship with JSOC becomes symbiotic.

That said, the counterinsurgents who are reluctant to embrace the drone technology have much in common with its advocates, for instance in their lack of reckoning with the civilians who die in drone strikes. The supporters discuss these victims only by effacing them, as when they speak ad nauseam about the drones’ “precision.” For the counterinsurgents, on the other hand, what matters is the “narrative” that observers near and far can construct about the deaths, not the civilians themselves — who are so much collateral damage.

Where the military has seen a need for both counterinsurgency tactics and counterterror drones, as in Afghanistan, it has used both in parallel. It is worth noting that Petraeus, during his command in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011, quadrupled airstrikes (by both manned and unmanned planes) in which many civilians died in ostensible targeted killing operations. [12] These were the same civilians whose “hearts and minds” the simultaneous counterinsurgency missions were supposed to win.

Another revealing parallel between the counterinsurgents and the drone advocates is the ease with which they both speak the language of “protection.” The counterinsurgents use the term “protection” to refer to field tactics that “persuade” enemy civilians to come to the aid of the counterinsurgent force. These measures include resettlement or enclosure of civilian populations within fences and walls; provision of roads and other dual-use infrastructure; and extraction of intelligence through bribery or intimidation. Essentially punitive methods of social engineering in service of military ends are portrayed as benign “protective” activities. In the pro-drone discourse, however, the population to be protected is at home. Every speech in which a government lawyer has defended the drones has included a bromide about “protecting American lives.” This invocation of “protection” to excuse violence that is often indiscriminate says much about asymmetric warfare as conducted by the US and other powerful nations. These states pull a veil of liberality and consideration, of civility and safety, over the machinery of death wielded against an enemy that cannot possibly match them in lethality.

Ultimately, although the counterinsurgents accuse the drone advocates of substituting tactics for strategy (using military means to achieve policy ends, by Basil Liddell-Hart’s famous definition), they themselves can be accused of much the same thing. After all, in the mid-2000s the counterinsurgents advertised their ideas as achieving the salvation of US prestige in Iraq when the US could no longer claim mastery of the country. It was a technical solution for the fundamental political problem of an unjust and deadly invasion and occupation. Then, faced with intransigence in Iraq, along with restive Americans who had been promised an easy victory and now stared at the prospect of “another Vietnam,” the counterinsurgents opted for a quick fix. They resorted to local alliances made through bribery or intimidation with former enemies, a doubling of detentions of “suspicious” men, and the use of walls, door-to-door searches, checkpoints and other familiar tactics of pacification — or “protection” — long enough for US forces to be able to leave, and leave behind the problems its war had created or exacerbated for the regime it had also left behind. For many, counterinsurgency became the warm reassurance of faces saved and consciences assuaged, another addition to the portfolio of answers offered when imperial projects go awry.

In the same way, drones have come to replace real thought about the places where the US wants to project force, but is unwilling or unable to pay the inevitable price. With the drones, at least, the US does not claim to be “protecting” foreign civilians. The drones are seductive precisely because they convince people at home that what the US does overseas is not something they should worry about, because there are no American “boots on the ground.” The drones are the cheap and cheerful way to wage war, seemingly without consequence, at least in the domestic political arena. Their efficaciousness in killing bad guys leaves little room for questioning what the benighted history of US interference in Pakistan or Yemen may be. In masking such troubling questions, the drones, like counterinsurgency methods before them, are the technical — and technological — solution par excellence for the political problem of imperial overreach.


[1] As recorded at the Barr Group Aerospace consulting firm’s AeroWeb:
[2] United Press International, April 12, 2012.
[3] See the transcript of the 2012 Center for a New American Security conference:
[4] Gabriella Blum, “Invisible Threats” (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution, 2012), p. 11.
[5] Reuters, July 15, 2011.
[6] Quoted in Spencer Ackerman, “Will Petraeus Rein In the Drone War?” Wired, June 23, 2011, accessible at:
[7] Andrew Exum, Nathaniel Fick, Ahmed Humayun and David Kilcullen, Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, June 2009), pp. 19-20.
[8] Fritz’s post is online at:
[9] Exum’s post is online at:
[10] Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 29, 2012.
[11] See Andrew Exum, “Reining In SOCOM’s Alarming Ambitions,” World Politics Review, June 6, 2012.
[12] Ackerman, “Will Petraeus.”

How to cite this article:

Laleh Khalili "Fighting Over Drones," Middle East Report 264 (Fall 2012).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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