The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017



tactic of “double-tap”—hit-

ting a target home or vehicle

with a Hellfire missile, and

then firing a second missile

into the group that came

to the aid of those who had

been wounded in the first

attack. Many times, those

who ran to help rescue

persons trapped inside col-

lapsed buildings or flaming

cars were local citizens, not


An Increasingly Counterproductive Tactic

The rationale traditionally offered for using drones is that they

eliminate the need for “boots on the ground”—whether members

of the armed forces or CIA paramilitary personnel—in dangerous

environments, thereby preventing loss of U.S. lives. U.S. officials

also claim that the intelligence UAVs gather through lengthy sur-

veillance makes their strikes more precise, reducing the number

of civilian casualties. (Left unsaid, but almost certainly another

powerful motivator, is the fact that the use of drones means that

no suspected militants would be taken alive, thus avoiding the

political and other complications of detention.)

Even if these claims are true, however, they do not address

the impact of the tactic on U.S. foreign policy. Of broadest con-

cern is the fact that drones allow presidents to punt on questions

of war and peace by choosing an option that appears to offer a

middle course, but actually has a variety of long-term conse-

quences for U.S. policy, as well as for the communities on the

receiving end.

By taking the risk of loss of U.S. personnel out of the picture,

Washington policymakers may be tempted to use force to resolve

a security dilemma rather than negotiating with the parties

involved. Moreover, by their very nature, UAVs may be more likely

to provoke retaliation against America than conventional weap-

ons systems. To many in the Middle East and South Asia, drones

represent a weakness of the U.S. government and its military, not

a strength. Shouldn’t brave warriors fight on the ground, they ask,

instead of hiding behind a faceless drone in the sky, operated by a

young person in a chair many thousands of miles away?

Since 2007, at least 150 NATO personnel have been the victims

of “insider attacks” by members of the Afghan military and

national police forces being trained by the coalition. Many of the

Afghans who commit such “green on blue” killings of American

personnel, both uniformed

and civilian, are from the

tribal regions on the border

of Afghanistan and Pakistan

where U.S. drone strikes have

focused. They take revenge

for the deaths of their fami-

lies and friends by killing

their U.S. military trainers.

Anger against drones has

surfaced in the United States

as well. On May 1, 2010,

Pakistani-American Faisal

Shahzad attempted to set off

a car bomb in Times Square. In his guilty plea, Shahzad justi-

fied targeting civilians by telling the judge, “When the drone hits

in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see

anybody. They kill women, children; they kill everybody. They’re

killing all Muslims.”

As of 2012 the U.S. Air Force was recruiting more drone pilots

than pilots for traditional aircraft—between 2012 and 2014, they

planned to add 2,500 pilots and support people to the drone

program. That is nearly twice the number of diplomats the State

Department hires in a two-year period.

Congressional and media concern over the program led to the

Obama administration’s acknowledgment of the regular Tuesday

meetings led by the president to identify targets for the assassina-

tion list. In the international media, “Terror Tuesdays” became an

expression of U.S. foreign policy.

Not Too Late

To many around the world, U.S. foreign policy has been

dominated for the past 16 years by military actions in the Middle

East and South Asia, and large land and sea military exercises in

Northeast Asia. On the world stage, American efforts in the areas

of economics, trade, cultural issues and human rights appear to

have taken a back seat to the waging of continuous wars.

Continuing the use of drone warfare to carry out assassina-

tions will only exacerbate foreign distrust of American intentions

and trustworthiness. It thereby plays into the hands of the very

opponents we are trying to defeat.

During his campaign, Donald Trump pledged he would

always put “America First,” and said he wanted to get out of the

business of regime change. It is not too late for him to keep that

promise by learning from his predecessors’ mistakes and revers-

ing the continued militarization of U.S. foreign policy.


Drones allow presidents to

punt on questions of war

and peace by choosing an

option that appears to offer

a middle course, but actually

has a variety of long-term

consequences for U.S. policy.