In defense of drone strikes

I know what you’re thinking, but relax, I’m not a sociopath. I hate civilian deaths, and I hate collateral damage. I am against the US sticking its nose where it doesn’t belong (like the 2003 invasion of Iraq), and I hate senseless wars. I am on the left side of the political spectrum, and I think our defense budget is bloated well beyond reason. But on the topic of drone strikes many treat it as if it where so simple and talk as though Obama possessed no traits of basic human psychology and instead was a blood-thirsty sociopathic “war criminal” who would personally strangle people of the Middle-East for the fun of it if given the chance. He’s not; he is a former university professor, and he did not cease being human when he took the oath of office.

Let’s be real, most US leaders didn’t check their humanity and basic human psychology at the door. Even Trump probably thinks he is basically a good person, and he did what he believed was best for the country. Perhaps even if presidents who order drone strikes have bad reasoning for drone strikes, they have a reason. When trying to grapple with how to feel about drone strikes the first question that occurs to me is, “what is the other option?” Turns out, presidents may often have a not-bad reason for drone strikes.

Here is left-leaning Brookings:

The drones have done their job remarkably well: by killing key leaders and denying terrorists sanctuaries in Pakistan, Yemen, and, to a lesser degree, Somalia, drones have devastated al Qaeda and associated anti-American militant groups. And they have done so at little financial cost, at no risk to U.S. forces, and with fewer civilian casualties than many alternative methods would have caused.

[As of 2013] U.S. drones have killed an estimated 3,300 al Qaeda, Taliban, and other jihadist operatives in Pakistan and Yemen. That number includes over 50 senior leaders of al Qaeda and the Taliban—top figures who are not easily replaced… And drones also hurt terrorist organizations when they eliminate operatives who are lower down on the food chain but who boast special skills: passport forgers, bomb makers, recruiters, and fundraisers. Drones have also undercut terrorists’ ability to communicate and to train new recruits. In order to avoid attracting drones, al Qaeda and Taliban operatives try to avoid using electronic devices or gathering in large numbers… Drones have turned al Qaeda’s command and training structures into a liability, forcing the group to choose between having no leaders and risking dead leaders.

Critics of drone strikes often fail to take into account the fact that the alternatives are either too risky or unrealistic. To be sure, in an ideal world, militants would be captured alive, allowing authorities to question them and search their compounds for useful information… But in war zones or unstable countries, such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, arresting militants is highly dangerous and, even if successful, often inefficient… If the United States regularly sent in special operations forces to hunt down terrorists there, sympathetic officials could easily tip off the jihadists, likely leading to firefights, U.S. casualties, and possibly the deaths of the suspects and innocent civilians…

[and while] a drone strike may violate the local state’s sovereignty, it does so to a lesser degree than would putting U.S. boots on the ground or conducting a large-scale air campaign.

I came up with three basic options: 1.) drone strike, 2.) send in the troops (and/or manned bombers), and 3.) leave terrorists alone, let their numbers grow, watch terrorism increase, and watch the same civilians who attack drone strikes argue about which political party didn’t do enough to stop terrorist attacks. A president has to take one of the three options, and every option is going to spark a public backlash at the time and in hindsight because the people are emotional and ignorant and they think magically perfect decisions exist, thus leading to beliefs that presidents are just non-human sociopaths who actively and knowingly choose against the perfect decision for one that will kill people.

Expanding on option three, “leave them alone.” That was only considering terrorist attacks by Islamists on American soil. Of course weakening Al Queda, the group responsible for 9/11, will make another 9/11 less likely. But what about the non-extremist Muslims in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq? ISIS killed more fellow Muslims than anything else, so there is no doubt that America’s routing of ISIS in Iraq and Syria drastically reduced that reign of terror. Indeed, as reported by the Daily Beast:

It describes to us the gruesome circumstances in which ISIS has killed fellow Muslims. We are talking beheadings, killing of women for objecting to ISIS’ policies, and executing Sunni Muslim clerics for refusing to swear allegiance to ISIS… [The UN found that] ISIS had “carried out attacks deliberately and systematically targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, with the intention of killing and wounding civilians.” The UN concluded that in the first eight months of 2014, at least 9,347 civilians had been killed and at least 17,386 wounded. While all these deaths are not attributable to ISIS alone, ISIS is identified as the primary actor.

The civilians in Iraq killed by US drones between 2009 and 2015 were in the low hundreds.

In Pakistan drone strikes have seriously reduced terror attacks on local tribe leaders in both lethality and in frequency (Johnston & Sarbahi, 2016). If US drones kill net fewer local civilians than the terrorists there by a decent margin, I think it’s safe to say drones would not only be in the best interest of the US, but in the best interest of the local populace as well. Whether that net benefit is the case in every region the US is involved in at any given time can be debated, but that it has in fact been the case in many situations such as ISIS-occupied Iraq and Syria is not debatable.

A potential fourth option is diplomacy, but ISIS, Al Queda, and most other such hostile groups haven’t shown themselves very amenable to diplomacy. Moreover, former president Obama was often criticized for being overly diplomatic and giving too much in negotiations. If that were true, why would he choose droning over diplomacy if diplomacy was a feasible option? It would be nice if we had a time-machine so we could uninvade Iraq as a fifth option, but I don’t see that happening.

Again, a president could be wrong or mistaken, a president could be less concerned about the potential for civilian casualties than they should, but no president that we’ve had is literally the same as a Nazi executioner in Dachau. No president that we’ve had is more willing to kill civilians than ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

But what are the numbers? What is the killed civilian to militant ratio of those killed? New America Foundation determined that of the 3,095 (high estimate) killed by drones strikes ordered by Obama in Pakistan, 162 were civilians, or 5.2%. Libya; 252 to 16, or 6% civilians. Bush’s Pakistan numbers were 25% civilian deaths in Pakistan.

That is just one source though, let’s see the numbers from someone else. Long War Journal estimates that from Jan. 2009 to Dec. 2015, 207 civilians were killed out of the 2,581 deaths from drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. A civilian death percentage of 8%.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a group highly critical of drone strikes, puts the complete civilian death from drone strikes tally at the time of writing this article at 13%, or 2,200 of 16,901 killed in any country since 2004.

Any civilian death is bad and should be mourned, but these numbers show high levels of accuracy and minimization of collateral damage. Compare that to conventional warfare:

Before the emergence of drones and other precise weapons, war was far more dangerous for ordinary people. In World War II, an estimated 40 to 67 percent of the dead were civilians. In Korea, the estimate was 70 percent. In Vietnam, it was about one civilian for every two enemy combatants. In the Persian Gulf War, it may have been no better. In Kosovo, it seems to have been worse. In Afghanistan, civilian deaths have been estimated at 60 to 150 percent of Taliban deaths. In Iraq, civilians account for more than 80 percent of the casualties.

William Saletan in Slate

And since diplomacy inevitably often will fail, there will always be civilian deaths; ours or theirs. We try vigorously to minimize civilian deaths while terrorists specifically target civilians. If we put more boots on the ground there would be a backlash from that policy, and it is unlikely that policy would lead to any fewer innocent lives lost. In fact, at least as many of foreign civilians would likely die, and in addition we’d have our soldiers dying and not returning to their families on top of those foreign civilian deaths.

Perhaps there is a more efficient or better way drone strikes can be carried out, but that isn’t what critics are arguing for. Critics want the magical solution of a complete cessation of drone strikes in addition to the magical disappearance of the problem drones were sent to solve in the first place.

Sure, drone strikes may radicalize some individuals, which is something we should try very hard to avoid. But we have to ask the question, “do we radicalize more people than the amount of terrorists we kill?” The answer is probably not, and thus we end up with a net benefit. In fact, drone strikes are only a sliver of what Pakistanis and Yemenis are worried about. Again from Brookings:

“For most Pakistanis and Yemenis, the most important problems they struggle with are corruption, weak representative institutions, and poor economic growth; the drone program is only a small part of their overall anger, most of which is directed toward their own governments.”

In any case, citing “drone strikes” as something wrong with Obama isn’t a good citation. Drone strikes might be able to be done better or with somewhat fewer unintended casualties, but I don’t see how they can or should be done away with altogether until the problem of terrorism and extremism ceases. Obama likely saved lives by focusing on drones rather than sending in more soldiers or just letting terrorists flourish without fear.

At the very least Obama had a (tardily adopted) policy that US intelligence officials publish the numbers on civilian deaths from drone strikes. The Trump administration, in following with its general reversal of everything Obama did by virtue of it being something Obama did, revoked this policy, citing it as “superfluous.”


Why Drones Work: The Case for Washington’s Weapon of Choice

Johnston, P. B., & Sarbahi, A. K. (2016). The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan. International Studies Quarterly, 60(2), 203–219.

Categories Drone StrikesTags , ,

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