Seeking Virtue in Drones

The spike in drone reporting shifted again this past week but in a different direction with two articles noting the relatively low numbers of civilian casualties from drones.  First, Peter Bergen’s opinion piece “Civilian casualties plummet from drone strikes” provides a flurry of figures from the New America Foundation to support the argument that U.S. drone targeting has dramatically improved.  Bergen notes:

“According to the data generated by averaging the high and low casualty estimates of militant and civilian deaths published in a wide range of those outlets, the estimated civilian death rate in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan has declined dramatically since 2008, when it was at its peak of almost 50%.  Today, for the first time, the estimated civilian death rate is at or close to zero.”

he continues…

“Over the life of the drone program in Pakistan, which began with a relatively small number of strikes between 2004 and 2007, the estimated civilian death rate is 16%”

To many, a civilian casualty rate of 16% may seem high, but that is where the New York Times picks up the debate just a couple of days later with their story, “The Moral Case for Drones.”  Bradley Strawser, a former Air Force officer studying the issue at Naval Post Graduate School, concludes that:

“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.  “all the evidence we have so far suggests that drones do better at both identifying the terrorist and avoiding collateral damage than anything else we have.”

The article does a good job comparing research and arrives at a similar conclusion that I’ve argued at different times with regards to drones – drones are the least bad option.

“But one rough comparison has found that even if the highest estimates of collateral deaths are accurate, the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare. But even the high-end count of 20 percent was considerably lower than the rate in other settings, he found. When the Pakistani Army went after militants in the tribal area on the ground, civilians were 46 percent of those killed. In Israel’s targeted killings of militants from Hamas and other groups, using a range of weapons from bombs to missile strikes, the collateral death rate was 41 percent, according to an Israeli human rights group.  In conventional military conflicts over the last two decades, he found that estimates of civilian deaths ranged from about 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths.”

Some have commented to me in person that my stance on drones is ignorant of the civilian death toll.  However, my argument has always been focused on relative rather than absolute terms. Guided by the assumption that some action against AQ terrorists hiding in remote safe havens must occur, I’m under the belief that:

Large scale military intervention (i.e. regime change), broad-based counterinsurgency, backing of the Yemeni military, arming of militias – all of these counterterrorism options are far more likely to produce civilian casualties.

I particularly like drones over other military options for two other reasons not addressed or lightly covered in these articles.

  1. Effort to protect civilian lives -  Ambassador Henry Crumpton notes in the New York Times article how far we’ve come in protecting civilians in our targeting processes.  We’ve gone from fire-bombing Dresden to Presidential-level involvement in the engagement of singular targets.  While I’m not certain the current targeting system is the best or perfect option (see p. 10 here), I do like the effort being taken to protect innocent lives – an unprecedented level of effort in world history.
  2. Responsibility – I also like drones because it demonstrates responsibility for U.S. actions.  In the past, the U.S. and many other nations have chosen to fight proxy battles via proxy forces engaging far off enemies holed up in remote safe havens.  In doing so, the U.S. must back a wild card force relinquishing control of conflict to an unknown or distant ally with unclear or sometimes dubious intentions.  Having abdicated control, the U.S. cannot influence the conduct of the conflict resulting in atrocities and reprisals undermining our nation’s values creating calls of hypocrisy where we would ideally like to inspire hope.  Drones are never a singularly pursued CT option. But at least in choosing their application, we take responsibility for our actions.

However, here’s something I’m worried about with Yemen.  After having watched the PBS documentary on “Drones in Yemen”, I have heard in interviews from field reporting and have seen in articles that nearly all explosions in Yemen are attributed to drones.  I would assume that many Yemeni military airstrikes are perceived on the ground as U.S. drone strikes.  This perception gap undermines U.S. efforts and points to the need for a complementary information campaign with any drone effort.

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