Do attacks by armed drones do more harm than good?
That’s the question posed in Room for Debate (Sept. 25, 2012), a regular column in The New York Times. “A new study,”Debate writes, “found that because of the many unintended civilian casualties, U.S. drone attacks against terrorist targets in Pakistan have been an effective recruiting tool for extremists, but have not been effective in killing terrorist leaders.”
The report’s executive summary makes four key points and adds a recommendation.
“First, while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.
“Second, US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.
“Third, publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best.
“Fourth, current US targeted killings and drone strike practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents.
“In light of these concerns, this report recommends that the US conduct a fundamental re-evaluation of current targeted killing practices, taking into account all available evidence, the concerns of various stakeholders, and the short and long-term costs and benefits.”
In commenting, Avery Plaw, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, citing the study, writes, “These are all valid points, and I respect that reasonable people could be convinced by either set. My own reasoning turns on four arguments.
“First, states have a primary responsibility for the protection of their own citizens. If drone strikes are the best way to remove an all-too-real threat to American lives, then that is an especially weighty consideration.
“Second, I doubt that ending drone strikes would substantially reduce anti-Americanism in the Islamic world or put a dent in radical recruitment.
“Third, the U.S can do a lot to moderate some harms caused by its use of drones. By being clearer about what it’s doing and offering detailed legal justification, the U.S. could mitigate damage to international law and the threat of uncontrolled proliferation.
“Finally, there is evidence that drone strikes are less harmful to civilians than other means of reaching Al Qaeda and affiliates in remote, lawless regions (for example, large-scale military operations). And that is what is required of states in armed conflict, legally and ethically: where civilian casualties cannot be avoided, they must be minimized.”
However, British journalist James Jeffrey, who served with the British army for nine years, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo writes from a more personal perspective. “On a computer screen in the unit’s headquarters I watched a building explode and heard it on the radio that enemy fire had ceased. Shortly after, we were notified a tractor and car had arrived at a nearby patrol base’s entrance, loaded with body parts of seven Afghans killed by the strike. Six were children who had been in a neighboring building. The forward air controller had said the targeted building contained no civilians. I spent the rest of the day compiling a report about the incident — writing amid a mental fog of shock, nausea and disgust at what I was part of. …
“America needs to readdress its approach to national security. Innocent people are dying as a result of a self-interested point of view that’s simply not working, undermining the very thing it’s trying to achieve. Each al Qaeda leader taken out will be replaced, but you can’t replace the loss of sympathetic public opinion or reputation, which in turn spurs on those who would harm America, enabling them to recruit and sustain themselves.”
C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies, writes, “It is impossible to say whether drone warfare has done more harm than good in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where I have the greatest familiarity and where most drone strikes have apparently occurred.
“The Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan’s intelligence agency and military have revealed little about actual targets and outcomes, so we cannot assess whether the people they were trying to kill were ‘drone worthy.’
“Most journalism relies on dubious Pakistani reports that exaggerate innocent civilian casualties and discount terrorist fatalities. There are few efforts to independently verify ‘first-hand accounts,’ which are always assumed to be true.
“In the tribal areas of Pakistan, drones are less dangerous than ground operations.
“Finally, no forensic experts have been employed to verify claims about injuries to discern if they comport with ballistics and weapon effects associated with drone-delivered munitions. Given that trauma, injury and death can be attributed to terrorist attacks and Pakistani conventional military operations, this form of verification is critical.
“But we can conclude for several reasons that drones are the best alternative, once the United States (with the collusion of Pakistan agencies in many cases) decides that a person is to be killed.
“The tribal areas are governed by the colonial-era Frontier Crimes Regulation rather than Pakistan’s constitution. Because of this, there are no police forces in the area, but rather militias, paramilitary and military forces. Americans could not therefore detain suspects without ground operations.
“Alternatives are more deadly and devastating: Pakistani military operations, which are not precise and have displaced up to 4 million people, devastate infrastructure and displace whole communities.
“And while Pakistan helps the United States in some operations it undermines the United States in others. For this reason, the United States cannot simply outsource such an assignment to Pakistan because there have been too many cases where the Pakistanis have alerted the targets in advance.
“Drones may not be desirable but they are the best option at least in the tribal areas.”
Next: my ethical assessment.