While the debate over the legality of the US drone campaign in various places around the world rages on, Scott Shane of the New York Times pointed out yesterday that drone strikes worldwide are actually on the decline. They report that the number of strikes in Pakistan, where drones are most actively used, actually peaked back in 2010. In Yemen, where drone strikes served to decapitate the leadership of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the number spiked dramatically in 2012, but has since dropped off again. Meanwhile, no strikes have been reported in Somalia for more than a year.
The cause of this decline, according to NYT sources, include the diminishing list of high-level Al Qaeda targets, which they attribute to the success of the drone program, as well as other factors like weather and diplomatic concerns. However, Shane suggests that another factor may be the growing appreciation of the costs of the program. This is certainly a concern, especially as Al Qaeda uses the strikes as a propaganda tool and, thanks to the Urdu language press, many Pakistanis report to live in fear of drones (despite never having seen one). I, myself, have long argued that the drone program is legitimate and beneficial to US interests, with the caveat that we find a way to transition to law enforcement methods within a reasonable amount of time. The only problem is figuring out how to do that in places like rural Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
Hopefully, this is a topic that President Obama may address national security speech scheduled to take place tomorrow at the National Defense University. Unfortunately, while I have a lot of faith in President Obama on many fronts, I would be surprised if he goes beyond a mere recitation of the drone strike numbers, and actually proposes a way out.
Paul W. Taylor, Senior Fellow
Center for Policy & Research