Columns » Jonathan Weiler

Drone warfare: politically expedient and disturbingly inaccurate

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With almost no public debate, in the past decade the United States has increased dramatically the use of a significant new weapon in its military and counterterrorism efforts: unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones. Drones have become such a major part of American counterterrorism efforts that current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has described them as "the only game in town."

While many drone operations involve surveillance and reconnaissance, the most controversial aspect of the new drone warfare is its deployment in deadly strikes. Roughly 50 such attacks occurred during George W. Bush's eight years in office. By contrast, in the three-plus years since the start of the Obama presidency, there have been close to 300, and those strikes have killed as many as 3,000 people.

There is much about drone warfare that appeals especially to the political class. It's relatively cheap in comparison with conventional military methods. Drones enable America to deliver deadly force without fear of American casualties. Additionally, as the military affairs correspondent Michael Hastings has written, they allow "politicians to wage war while claiming we're not at war," for instance, in Pakistan, our putative ally. And the administration credits drones with having played a significant role in the decimation of Al Qaeda's senior leadership.

Yet remote-control warfare has also raised a host of disturbing questions. For starters, independent groups have estimated that the drones have killed several hundred civilians. Further, the drone program is being carried out in utmost secrecy. The ACLU, among other groups, has repeatedly asked the administration to explain the legal criteria by which it identifies targets for drone-based assassination. The Obama administration refuses to do this. The administration also refuses even to confirm or deny the existence of records related to civilian casualties.

As is true of so many aspects of our counterterrorism efforts, formerly known as the Global War on Terror, this denial is Kafkaesque. John Brennan, Obama's chief of counterterrorism, insisted in 2011 that in the previous year drones hadn't caused "a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop." In other words, Obama's White House won't acknowledge that there is any data about drone-related civilian casualties, but insists that there have been no drone-related civilian casualties.

Some drone operations home in on "high-value" targets marked for assassination. But other remote-control attacks, so-called "signature strikes," target groups of alleged militants whose "patterns of life" are deemed typical of the behavior of Al Qaeda operatives or other terrorists. The CIA, which is responsible for drone strikes outside of combat zones, like Pakistan, has been carrying out such signature strikes with increasing frequency. As critics have pointed out, it is essentially making decisions about life and death, in countries with which we are not at war, on a series of probabilistic hunchwes.

And Brennan's insistence notwithstanding, whether it's the Pentagon directing targeted assassinations in war zones or the CIA calling in signature strikes elsewhere, we're often guessing wrong. According to Hastings, the military affairs correspondent, in 2010 the U.S. Air Force tracked a senior Taliban leader in Afghanistan for months before launching a deadly drone attack. It turns out, however, that the military had been tracking the wrong man. Instead of killing a Taliban official, the drone strike murdered Zabet Amanullah, a well-known human rights activist in Afghanistan who was considered supportive of the U.S.-backed regime in that country. A year earlier, a drone strike did kill a leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Beitullah Mehsud. But that successful hit came after four previous failed attempts to hit Mehsud. And in those four previous attacks, dozens of civilians were apparently killed, according to numerous independent reports.

Among the most disturbing reports about American drone operations has come from a British organization, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). According to BIJ, dozens of civilians in Pakistan have been killed when they have gone to help rescue victims of drone strikes or attended funerals of victims of such attacks. BIJ's report indicates at least 15 credible reports of rescuers or funerals being deliberately targeted between 2009 and 2011. Mehsud was killed while attending the funeral of a Taliban commander who had recently been killed in a drone strike. The funeral, the CIA determined, was a ripe opportunity for a signature strike, since a lot of Taliban would be there. Among the more than 80 people killed in that attack, there were apparently several children among the 30 or so civilian deaths.

Those secondary strikes make it especially difficult for independent groups like BIJ to verify civilian casualties. This fact results in a likely undercounting of the total number of civilian deaths. The follow-up attacks, which the U.S. government has, of course, harshly condemned as among the most loathsome tactics when used by terrorists, also appear to be spurring particularly powerful antipathy toward the U.S. in Pakistan.

Pakistan's government has condemned the drone strikes on numerous occasions, most notably last November, when a U.S. attack accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border and prompted Pakistan's government to shut off NATO supply lines into Afghanistan. More recently, the Pakistani parliament approved new conditions for re-opening those supply lines. Among the demands was that America stop launching deadly drone strikes inside the country. Two weeks after parliament approved those conditions, the United States launched another deadly attack. There are many concerns about American defiance on this issue, including the possibility that it will undermine the credibility of Pakistan's government, and allow more extremist Islamist political forces to take power.

Considering these political factors and the apparent human costs of drone warfare more broadly, Rosa Brooks, a former administration official and national security expert, has argued that we've failed to ask basic questions about the program, including: "Are we creating more terrorists than we're killing? Are we fostering militarism and extremism in the very places we're trying to attack it?"

In so many realms of America's counter-terrorism efforts since 9/11, our government has answered such questions by saying, in effect, "Trust us." Candidate Obama vehemently and repeatedly condemned the shadowy and legally dubious means the Bush administration was using in its Global War on Terror and attacked the "trust us" mindset underpinning those policies. President Obama has, however, adopted precisely that mindset.

As has been true for the accelerating erosion of civil liberties in this country more broadly, many Americans will shrug their shoulders about drone strikes, unable to muster the outrage even to condemn those attacks that have resulted in the deaths of children and other noncombatants. "Those people" live in distant lands, dress and sound very differently than do we and, by choice or not, live among militants who hate America. But liberals in particular ought to rue the day that they so readily accepted the consolidation in our government's hands of so much unaccountable power over life and death, to be deployed with ever less scrutiny and oversight by whoever happens to take the reins of our national security state.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Put down the remote control."

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