‘Drone strikes remarkably ineffective in countering terrorism’

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani Ocotber 8, 2014. (Reuters/Umit Bektas)
The US drone campaign against ISIS has been a failure. It created an illusion that Americans can engage in countering terrorism without a big loss of life, but only boots on the ground can make it a success, says Max Abrahms of Northeastern University.

RT:The US led coalition has carried out numerous strikes on Islamic State positions, but the terror group seems to remain defiant. Does this indicate that Western nations are fighting the organization the wrong way?

Max Abrahms: Yes, I agree with that. Since 2008 the cornerstone of US counter terrorism has been a drone campaign. It is easy to understand why the country might be tempted to use a drone campaign. The basic idea is that we can weaken a militant group by taking out the leadership with this drone technology. But in practice drone strikes have been remarkably ineffective at basically doing what they are supposed to.

There are all sorts of research on the strategic effect of drones. People have looked at it whether using drones, expedite the demise of militant groups, whether it reduces their ability to generate violence, whether the attacks become more infrequent. In general I’m not persuaded by the research suggesting that drones are an effective strategy- they’ve been a failure certainly with Islamic State, but also with al Qaeda, Taliban, al-Shabaab, AQAP [al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]. Yet, we stick to this strategy. I think one of the reasons why we do is because it creates the illusion that Americans can engage in counter terrorism without a big loss of life…When we use drones there maybe collateral damage but at least there aren’t boots on the ground - I think that is what the Obama administration is counting on. In reality for counter insurgency, or counter terrorism to be successful you need boots on the ground.

READ MORE: Carter: ‘Too early to say’ US is winning against ISIS as Iraqis liberate Tikrit

In some cases it can be helpful to have drones, but always you need boots on the ground. That is one of the reasons why our counter insurgency campaign in Iraq is going much better than it is in Syria… In Iraq, yes, we were using some airpower, but were also be very reliant on Shia militia on the ground there who were absolutely indispensable to retaking Tikrit.

In the US many Americans have contempt and fear for the Shia militia because some of them have ties with Iran. But in reality we should be grateful to the Shia militia - they don’t always act in accordance with US preferences but the Tikrit operation simply would not have gone as well without their critical support. By contrast, in Syria we’re relying on our drones, airpower, but we don’t really have boots on the ground with the exception of in Kobani. And when we use airpower with boots on the ground and the Kurds helped us out in that one city we were also successful…

RT:The coalition's actions against the Islamic State were not agreed on with the Syrian government, so the fight against the terrorists is not coordinated. Why has it not been coordinated?

MA: As far back as August of last year I wrote an op-ed in The New York times advocating for the Assad regime to work with Washington because we have a mutual enemy in Islamic State. If there were that kind of collaboration, the US would’ve been very helpful with airpower and the Assad regime we would have benefited from their boots on the ground, from their army. Together we would have been much more successful at combating IS.

Residents wait to receive humanitarian aid at the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in Damascus March 11, 2015. (Reuters)

But there was this notion in the US that the Assad regime “had blood on his hands,” that it wasn’t a democratic country, and he was reportedly guilty of all sorts of abuses against the civilian population. Thus, for moral reasons rather than strategic reasons the Obama administration said that not only can we not work with the Assad regime but the Assad regime has to go. Increasingly it is becoming obvious that the Assad regime is not going to disappear any time soon. So Washington is relaxing its language with respect to whether we could ever coexist with Assad. Although still actual military cooperation between the Assad regime and the US is pretty much non-existent. That contrast very starkly with US relations with Shia militia on the ground in Iraq. The latest assaults on Tikrit in order to win back that city from IS was very much a joint operation between the Iranians, the Shia, Iraq, the military in Baghdad coupled with the US airstrikes. It is very interesting that Washington is so opposed to working with the Assad regime but seems much less hesitant with respect to working with the Iranians (Shias) which are a close ally of Assad in Iraq.

RT:Islamic State is advancing in Syria's Yarmouk region and has taken most of one of the refugee camps with civilians being forced to flee. Will the impact on civilians make the coalition review the way it tries to fight Islamic State?

MA: Right now the Assad regime is providing some relief to the Yarmouk refugee camp. That could win over allies in the Muslim world because, let’s face it- not just in a Muslim world but in the international community people have very conflictive views about the Assad regime. Now the IS and al-Nusra have invaded this Palestinian refugee camp and harmed civilians, etc. - that makes the Assad regime look comparatively better. I think that it’s a strong PR move by the Assad regime to try to lend some relief to these refuges. One of the very interesting things about what happened on Wednesday when IS went into Yarmouk camp - is that they went in the camp with the assistance of al-Nusra, the Al- Qaeda affiliate there. Increasingly they are working together.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.