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Drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan: The dynamics of violence between the U.S. and the Taliban

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Strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drone strikes,” have become a primary weapon of the United States in its fights against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in Pakistan, Afghanistan and other theaters.

From the program’s inception in 2004 through early 2013, estimates put the number of militant deaths from 350 reported drone strikes in Pakistan between 1,533 and 2,658, according to the New America Foundation’s drones database. That research project finds that the “average non-militant casualty rate over the life of the program is 18-23 percent. In 2012 it was around 10 percent, down sharply from its peak in 2006 of almost 100 percent.” In addition, some 61 drone strikes have now taken place in Yemen.

As scholars note, the U.S. program retains broad support politically and its relative ease of use — versus the deployment of ground troops into dangerous situations — may make the use of force in general more likely; a Washington Post/ABC News poll in 2012 found that 83 percent of respondents either strongly or “somewhat” approved of its use against overseas terrorist suspects. Further, a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that “56% approve of the U.S. conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; just 26% say they disapprove.”

A 2011 paper from researchers at CUNY Graduate Center and the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany, “Are Drone Strikes Effective in Afghanistan and Pakistan? On the Dynamics of Violence between the United States and the Taliban,” uses the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System (WITS) database to understand the context of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan between January 2007 and December 2010 and to determine their impact on terrorist violence.

According to the New America Foundation data on which the study is based, in 2010 there were 118 drone strikes in Pakistan, of which 14 were successful. (Success was defined as a strike in which a militant leader was killed.) By comparison, in 2009 there were 53 strikes in the country, nine of which were successful. Drone strikes are thought to affect those targeted in three ways: First, they can lead to the depletion or incapacitation of enemy ranks; second, they can deter future attacks; third, they can produce a “vengeance effect,” where targeted groups are spurred to commit further acts of violence.

The study’s findings include:

  • In general “drone strikes matter, but only for Taliban violence in Pakistan. There is little or no [statistically significant] effect of drone strikes on Taliban violence across the border in Afghanistan.”
  • The impact in Pakistan “varies from a positive vengeance effect in the first week following a drone strike to a negative deterrent/incapacitation effect in the second week following a drone strike, when we examine the incidence of terrorist attacks by the Taliban. The impact is negative in both the first and second week following a drone strike, when we examine the number of terrorist attacks by the Taliban.”
  • A terrorist attack by the Taliban in Pakistan is 8.2% more likely to occur five days after a drone strike but 8.9% less likely to occur 13 days after a drone strike.
  • A terrorist attack in Pakistan is 17.8% less likely to occur three days after a successful drone strike; and a terrorist attack in Pakistan is 13% less likely to occur 12 days after an unsuccessful drone strike.
  • “There is no large and significant impact of unsuccessful drone strikes on terrorist attacks by the Taliban in Afghanistan, but a terrorist attack in Afghanistan is 8.8% more likely five days after a successful drone strike. This indicates that vengeance effects may be particularly strong when drone strikes are able to kill militant leaders for Taliban violence in Afghanistan.”

“We find some vengeance effects of drone strikes on violence by the Haqqani faction [of the Taliban] but also deterrent/incapacitation effects of drone strikes on violence by both the Haqqani and Mehsud factions of the Taliban,” the researchers conclude. “We estimate the differential effects of successful and unsuccessful drone strikes (which kill and do not kill a militant leader) on Taliban violence in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. We find strong negative impacts of unsuccessful drone strikes on Taliban violence in Pakistan, showing the deterrent effects of drone strikes are quite strong while the incapacitation effects of drone strikes are weak or non-existent.”

A 2013 paper from Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, “Media Coverage of the Drone Program,” explores and tracks news reports on the issue and finds that critical reporting has increased in recent years.

Tags: war, security, technology, terrorism

    Writer: | Last updated: February 12, 2013

    Citation: Jaeger, David; Siddique, Zahra. "Are Drone Strikes Effective in Afghanistan and Pakistan? On the Dynamics of Violence between the United States and the Taliban," CUNY and Institute for the Study of Labor (Germany), December 2011.

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    Media analysis

    Read the issue-related Foreign Policy article titled "The Obama Doctrine."

    1. What key insights from the article and study should reporters be aware of as they examine issues related to such anti-terrorism efforts?

    Study analysis

    Read the study titled "Are Drone Strikes Effective in Afghanistan and Pakistan? On the Dynamics of Violence between the United States and the Taliban."

    1. What are the study's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?