Droning on …

Being older than my mid-20s I can remember when drones – the popular term for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – were considered somewhat controversial. Since, let’s face it, using little planes without pilots to watch the world and kill people is a bit edgy.

However, since Barack Obama became president US use of killer drones has expanded enormously in prosecution of what used to be called the Global War on Terror (GWOT: which is now very Old Think and perhaps needs to be replaced by a nifty symbol – where’s Prince when you need him?). I won’t delve into partisan politics here except to note that

Meet “The Hand of Allah” … because “Death from Above” sounds so 1967.

the left would be beside itself if any GOP president, especially George W. Bush, had standing Tuesday “kill” meetings where the West Wing Kool Kids congregate to decide who’s getting vaporized this week. I’m never gonna join the ACLU and I customarily err on the side of killing terrorists, and the whole thing creeps me out.

None can deny that UAVs are a valuable weapon in the GWOT/whatever, and in places like Waziristan and the back-of-beyond of Yemen they are probably the only real option we have. And – let me say it – blowing away enemies of mankind like Al-Qa’ida fighters is a good and necessary thing.

Certainly the bad guys get the message. They are terrified of drones – so much so that the meme has reached comedy films about the mujahidin (yes, there are such things) – which they call the “Hand of Allah.” Because, let’s face it, it’s way creepy and upsetting when, all of a sudden, for no reason – because you can’t see or hear that Raptor way up there – the fifty-foot radius around you explodes in a wall of flame interspersed with metal shards. That kind of thing can ruin your whole day.

The bad news is that UAVs kill civilians. No matter how hard we try – and we surely do – to avoid what we nicely term “collateral damage” it cannot be avoided. Our intelligence, impressive as it is, will never be good enough to rule out the deaths of people, kids even, who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And locals understandably feel differently about their own dead kin than we do. Debating whether this is worth the political cost is something America has largely punted on over the past decade, as drone kills have become an utterly routine thing. Certainly the current administration has accepted the costs of the drone campaign without real reservation and without any public debate.

But is it, well, moral? The New York Times in a new piece says it is, so I suppose that is the current bien-pensant position. The article is actually worth a read and points out, in an important-if-true moment, that even drone skeptics concede:

 a notable drop in the civilian proportion of drone casualties, to 16 percent of those killed in 2011 from 28 percent in 2008. This year, by the bureau’s count, just three of the 152 people killed in drone strikes through July 7 .

NYT goes further down the road of drones-are-now-officially-cool by citing Bradley Jay Strawser, a junior professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, a sister institution to my own, who asserts that using UAVs to blow people up is a-ok with the statement, “using them to go after terrorists not only was ethically permissible but also might be ethically obligatory, because of their advantages in identifying targets and striking with precision.”

Really, Brad? This seems to me the sort of thing you need to have a Ph.D. to believe. I don’t doubt for a second that using Predators and Raptors against mujahidin is ethically ok, generally speaking. I’m questioning whether, strategically speaking, it’s worth the political cost. In real-people speak: Is it smart?

Analysts of our drone war in Pakistan say that the “collateral damage” (AKA “we killed the wrong people” ) rate ranges between four and 20 percent. Which seems low, especially when compared to the recent Israeli operations against HAMAS, using more traditional methods of delivering high explosives, which 41 percent of the time killed innocents. Furthermore, the Pakistani military took out non-combatants a whopping 46 percent of the time in its operations against domestic terrorists.

So drones are totally awesome and even nice by comparison, right?

In a very bean-counting way, they are. But the cool, numbers-based analytic approach beloved by many academics and defense wonks leaves out two critical facts which are well understood by people on the receiving end of the “Hand of Allah.”

First, our enemies view drones as sneaky, nasty, and deeply unmanly. We may laugh at this, but it is true. Blowing up people from 10,000 feet, remotely (in every sense) is viewed by Pashtuns and many others as simply creepy and girly. Especially when they blow up kids – your kids. Drones inspire a special kind of rage in much of the world.

Second, when the Pakistanis kill their own people it inspires a lot less Pashtun rage than when we – yes, we interlopers, foreigners, and infidels – do it. Outsiders doing the killing always goes down worse, even when we’re frankly soft-touch compared to the bumbling and sometimes brutal local government. This is universal.

The drone campaign is clearly going to continue as long as Obama is president, and perhaps well beyond. We’re going to keep using them to kill bad guys. But it’s time to have a public debate about using UAVs as the default weapon of choice in counterterrorism. Particularly before other countries, including some we don’t like and they don’t like us either, have their own impressive UAV capabilities.


8 comments on “Droning on …”
  1. Well said. The two points you made that really resonate with me are 1) the data behind the proportions are so fuzzy that claiming increases/decreases is just plain silly (can you imagine trying to defend statistical significance? And the qualitative alternative is expert assertion – no thank you!) 2) the effect on local opinion may catastrophic – aren’t we (or shouldn’t we be) allies in Pakistan’s COIN? Forget accidental guerillas – these would seem intentional by this point.

    Keep it up!

  2. Tom Nichols says:

    John – I think you might be missing the point of the ethical “obligation,” which is the Just War requirement to observe proportionality, especially if to do so is at no risk to your own forces. Take a starker example: the Russians deal with Chechen snipers by leveling the building the snipers are in. If a drone would be more precise, then in classical Just War thinking, you are positively obligated to use the drone. At least that’s what I think the NPS guy is saying.

    I have no problem with drones, unless they’re being used to attack targets one would not ordinarily attack anyway. If you observe the Judeo-Christian precepts of Just War, then all life is sacred, and the only thing that makes one weapon superior over another is the degree to which it can discriminate between combatants and non-combatants, and whether it inflicts undue damage and human suffering. (One word: napalm.) Maybe I’m just being clearer than the NPS guy, or maybe, like Justice Roberts, I just re-wrote the statute more clearly than the original sponsors 🙂

  3. 20committee says:

    Tom: I think you’re just being a lot clearer than the NPS guy. No quibbles with the use of drones, per se, nor do I contest the ethical-legal position many have staked out. But our debate usually focuses on *our* ethics and laws, and far too little on the key question of – is this strategically and politically wise? More often than not, the answer seems to be ‘no’ and the American echo-chamber easily misses how much foreigners hate our UAVs. I don’t see how our who-hates-us numbers in our “ally” Pakistan could go much lower than they are at present, and drone use is by far the biggest irritant with the Pakistani population.

  4. Reginald De Chantillon says:

    Lethal strikes conducted by intelligence services by definition should be secret lethal strikes. How publicizing CIA-DOD Lethal strikes serves the intelligence interests of the US is obvious–It doesnt. It also doesn’t make sense to call Pakistan an ally, recognize by international law that it has control over the North-West frontier, then say we must use drones to wipe out Talis in North-west frontier because we can’t use grand troops on a sovereign nation, even if it has no control over the Northwest Frontier and is a supposed ally, but justify it because it must be done “secretly” so as not to upset the masses, on the basis of old “Hot Pursuit” Laws of Nation, whilst declaiming the old Laws of Nation, for the new Global Order…phewwww….that was corkscrew of a statement. Yep, which is why we are really Screwed!

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