Unmanned drones: the future of war?

 In Afghanistan, Pakistan

Flickr photo via JimNtexas.

As the (far too narrow) debate rages about whether to use “counterinsurgency” or “counterterrorism” in Afghanistan, enthusiasm has grown in some factions for the use of unmanned Predator drones to take out terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The most prominent proponent of the strategy is Vice President Joe Biden, who proposes a scaled-down approach in the region focused on Al Qaeda, using fewer troops and going after terrorists with drones. While I agree with Biden that McChrystal’s strategy (with its accompanying troop increase) is misguided, it appears that he and others have been seduced by a seemingly ideal approach that carries dangerous consequences.

It’s easy on the surface to see why the use of drones would be appealing. US personnel are not put in harm’s way (though author Peter Singer reports that drone pilots suffer PTSD at the same or higher rates than soldiers in the field); in fact they spend the day piloting unmanned drones at what amounts to a video game joystick, and can sit down to dinner with their families that same night. But Jane Mayer raises important questions about the short- and long-term implications of the strategy in an article for The New Yorker (subscription required).

Mayer notes that President Obama has approved as many C.I.A. airstrikes in 9 ½ months as President Bush did in his last three years in office, averaging about one bombing per week. The target list is also expanding, with the U.S. taking cues from the Pakistani government on some targets, as well as adding Afghan drug lords to a program presumed to target Al Qaeda leaders who pose a direct threat to the United States. She points out the surprising lack of public scrutiny given the secrecy of the CIA program:


It’s easy to understand the appeal of a “push-button” approach to fighting Al Qaeda, but the embrace of the Predator program has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radically new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force. And, because of the C.I.A. program’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war. Should something go wrong in the C.I.A.’s program—last month, the Air Force lost control of a drone and had to shoot it down over Afghanistan—it’s unclear what the consequences would be.


I have written before about the problems, from both a moral and security perspective, of killing innocent civilians in the course of these drone attacks and air strikes in Afghanistan. While there is a great amount of secrecy around the C.I.A. program (as opposed to drone strikes by the military), estimates say those attacks have killed between 326 and 538 people, many of them believed to be innocent bystanders. In addition to the resentment and instability created by killing innocent civilians, killing terrorist leaders can also undermine the U.S.’s approach to fighting terrorism. Many experts, including Daniel Byman of Georgetown University, believe that it is “almost always better to arrest terrorists than to kill them.”


“You get intelligence then. Dead men tell no tales.” The C.I.A.’s killing of Saad bin Laden, Osama’s son, provides a case in point. By the time that Saad bin Laden had reached Pakistan’s tribal areas, late last year, there was little chance that any law-enforcement authority could capture him alive. But, according to Hillary Mann Leverett, an adviser to the National Security Council between 2001 and 2003, the Bush administration would have had several opportunities to interrogate Saad bin Laden earlier, if it had been willing to make a deal with Iran, where, according to U.S. intelligence, he lived occasionally after September 11th. “The Iranians offered to work out an international framework for transferring terrorist suspects, but the Bush Administration refused,” she said. In December, 2008, Saad bin Laden left Iran for Pakistan; within months, according to NPR, a Predator missile had ended his life. “We absolutely did not get the most we could,” Leverett said. “Saad bin Laden would have been very, very valuable in terms of what he knew. He probably would have been a gold mine.”


In addition to the real concerns about the efficacy of this strategy, Mayer raises important philosophical and moral questions about what the drones could mean for the future of war.  Those of us who organize to oppose war know how difficult it can be to rally opposition when a small portion of the population is bearing the most tangible burden. What does it mean for America’s willingness to support misguided military operations if their sons, daughters, friends and neighbors are not facing injury or death? Mary Dudziak, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law notes, “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on …endless war.” Drones widen an already gaping chasm between Americans and the realities of war:


Peter Singer, the author of “Wired for War,” a recent book about the robotics revolution in modern combat, argues that the drone technology is worryingly “seductive,” because it creates the perception that war can be “costless.” Cut off from the realities of the bombings in Pakistan, Americans have been insulated from the human toll, as well as from the political and the moral consequences. Nearly all the victims have remained faceless, and the damage caused by the bombings has remained unseen.


Michael Walzer, author of “Just and Unjust Wars,” laments the lack of accountability for the C.I.A. program:


“Under what code does the C.I.A. operate?” he asks. “I don’t know. The military operates under a legal code, and it has judicial mechanisms.” He said of the C.I.A.’s drone program, “There should be a limited, finite group of people who are targets, and that list should be publicly defensible and available. Instead, it’s not being publicly defended. People are being killed, and we generally require some public justification when we go about killing people.”


Mayer notes in the article the stark contrast between the outrage about Dick Cheney’s proposed targeted assassination program and the near silence on the drones. Former C.I.A. general counsel Jeffrey Smith says the drone attacks “suggest that it’s acceptable behavior to assassinate people…Assassination as a norm of international conduct exposes American leaders and Americans overseas.”

So why hasn’t there been more scrutiny of the drone program? In a recent interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air”, Mayer said:


You know, right now, I think Congress is really infatuated with this technology. And you can see why, I mean it is a marvel. But the place where people are asking questions are in the human rights community, the international lawyers, the U.N.,. There are a number of sort of political philosophers asking questions, such as, you know, if there’s no – if we can’t feel the impact of the people that we’re killing and we can’t see them, and none of our own people at risk, does this somehow make it easier to just be in a perpetual state of war because there’s no seeming cost to us? These are the kinds of questions that people are asking.


It is up to us to bring these concerns directly to the people who have oversight over these programs. In her interview, Mayer discusses development of 2 ½ inch “Nano-drones.” She states, “my sense is that this kind of technology, there’s going to be no turning back. We are really going to a whole new phase of warfare here.” Now is the time to have a real debate about the future of war and hold our leaders accountable.





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