In Defense of Drones
This post was originally published at Aslan Media.
Hardly a week goes by without some mention in the media of a US drone strike targeting and/or killing al-Qaeda militants. Most recently, the AFP reported that 10 suspected al-Qaeda militants were killed in several drone strikes in al-Qaeda strongholds in southern Yemen.* Among those targeted was al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s (AQAP) deputy leader, Saeed al-Shihri, who managed to escape. Others haven’t been so fortunate. Abu Hafs al-Shahri, al-Qaeda Central’s chief of operations in Pakistan, was killed in a drone strike on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and al-Qaeda Central was dealt another serious blow the month before with the death of Atiya Abd al-Rahman, al-Qaeda Central’s number two, who was also killed by a drone.
The Washington Post reports that the US is expanding its drone presence by building
a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen.
It’s important to ask whether or not our reliance on drones in carrying out global counterterrorism operations is good policy. My colleague, Michael Canfield, has rightly noted that drones aren’t immune from incurring civilian casualties. Setting aside the moral implications of killing (albeit unintentionally) an innocent person, the US does itself no favors among civilians in countries like Pakistan, where it faces an uphill battle against immense anti-American sentiment, when it botches drone attacks. For the US government, at least ostensibly, civilian deaths caused by drones are a nonissue. This is because the Obama administration and the CIA contend that there have been no civilian deaths for at least a year. From a New York Times article in August,
President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, clearly referring to the classified drone program, said in June that for almost a year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” Other officials say that extraordinary claim still holds: since May 2010, CIA officers believe, the drones have killed more than 600 militants — including at least 20 in a strike reported Wednesday — and not a single noncombatant.
But, as the New York Times reports, this assertion is not undisputed. An ongoing research project by the New America Foundation, entitled “The Year of the Drone,” records several instances where it’s likely that non-combatants were killed by drone strikes. In one incident in March, it’s not clear, according to the researchers, whether the 45 people killed by a drone were local elders discussing a land dispute or militants planning attacks in Afghanistan.
What is clear, though, is that even if civilian deaths aren’t nonexistent, as the US claims, drone attacks have become a lot more accurate, and civilian deaths likely account for a meager percentage of deaths by drone. According to a Foreign Affairs article by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann,
During the first two years of the Obama administration, around 85 percent of those reported killed by drone strikes were militants; under the Bush administration, it was closer to 60 percent.
The reasons for this increase in accuracy, they continue,
is likely the result of better coordination between Pakistani and U.S. intelligence agencies, the smaller missiles now fired by the drones, and the drones’ increasing ability to linger many hours over a target, which better allows their U.S. pilots to distinguish militants from civilians.
Not only have drone strikes become more accurate, they’ve also become more effective. The senior leadership of al-Qaeda Central, based in the FATA region of Pakistan, has been decimated as President Obama has accelerated the drone program. Again, Bergen and Tiedemann:
In just two years, the Obama administration authorized nearly four times as many drone strikes as did the Bush administration throughout its entire time in office — or an average of one strike every four days, compared with one every 40 days under Bush.
Now Defense Secretary Leon Panetta avers that we are “within reach” of “strategically defeating” al-Qaeda Central, and the White House counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, maintains that al-Qaeda Central is “on the ropes.” David Petraeus, in his new role as Director of the CIA says that while al-Qaeda Central is weakened, AQAP has picked up the slack: ”AQAP has emerged as the most dangerous regional node in the global jihad.” It’s no coincidence that the US is ratcheting up its drone presence in Yemen, much as it has done in Pakistan.
While it’s true that civilian casualties must be included in any analysis of the US drone program, it’s important to note, as mentioned above, that civilian deaths are likely a small proportion of the deaths caused by drone strikes. Moreover, while the US undoubtedly seeks to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible — as it should — civilian deaths are probably inevitable. This is an unfortunate fact of armed conflict, and our current war against al-Qaeda is no exception. As technology develops and corresponding improvements in accuracy result, civilian deaths may be even more infrequent than they are currently. But due to human fallibility combined with the fog of war and any other number of sufficient conditions, civilian casualties will always occur. Regrettably, this is the bitter pill we have to swallow if we are to continue fighting al-Qaeda and its allies.
*When I wrote this piece last week, the attack in southern Yemen was indeed the most recent drone strike targeting AQ militants. But, as the first sentence suggests, “hardly a week goes by” without such an attack, and US drones are reported to have killed three suspected militants yesterday.