Strike Out

David Rohde says the Pakistani military finds drone strikes effective. But research suggests they increase terrorist activity in the short run.


David Rohde (“The Obama Doctrine,” March/April 2012) contends that the Barack Obama administration’s targeted killings of al Qaeda and Taliban militants through drone strikes is backfiring because it turns Pakistani public opinion against the United States and causes potential diplomatic difficulties. Nevertheless, Rohde concedes that the Pakistani military finds U.S. drone strikes strategically useful.

Our research suggests that in terms of affecting Taliban- and al Qaeda-initiated terrorism within Afghanistan and Pakistan, drone strikes at best have no effect and at worst increase terrorist activities in the short run. Using data from January 2007 to September 2011, we find that terrorist attacks by al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan are essentially unaffected by drone strikes. On the other hand, we find that in the weeks following a drone strike, terrorist attacks by the Taliban and al Qaeda increase in Pakistan. This effect is even stronger when we look separately at drone strikes that were successful in killing their targets.

Although drone strikes may serve a variety of strategic purposes, our research indicates that they are not successful at reducing al Qaeda and Taliban terrorism within Afghanistan and likely increase terrorism within Pakistan in the short term. If a more secure Pakistan is one of the Obama administration’s strategic goals, it would appear that drone strikes are, indeed, backfiring.

Professor of Economics
City University of New York Graduate Center
New York, N.Y. 

Senior Research Associate
Institute for the Study of Labor
Bonn, Germany

David Rohde replies:

I thank Zahra Siddique and David Jaeger for their letter and research. Their study is a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate regarding the impact of drone strikes. In my article, I cite U.S. officials who contend that Pakistani military officials privately say CIA drone strikes help combat militancy. I argue that the key to eradicating militancy is having Pakistani ground forces move into the tribal areas.

In multiple stories over the past several years, I have said drone strikes create a stalemate in which militants are unable to increase their attacks, but drone attacks fail to fully eradicate militant groups. Siddique and Jaeger’s research appears to back up that conclusion.

<p> Allison Good is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy. </p>