Friday, March 1, 2013

The Drone Wars

The insane and dishonest ravings of FOX news not withstanding, President Obama has been a huge disappointment to many on the American Left. (Others of us have by and large been thrilled with his leadership.) His signature health-care reforms did not create a single-payer system. His handling of a structurally corrupt financial sector has been positively deferential. But nothing has enraged the far Left in the way that the President's expansion of the drone war has.


This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons

To a certain extent, criticism of the use of drones is proxy criticism of "The War on Terror". A frequent argument of those opposing the War on Terror is that "terror is a tactic", and that one cannot wage a war against a tactic. And in fact, "terror" IS a tactic.

Terrorism is the intentional use of violence against non-combatants for political purpose.

Some drone strikes are requested by the governments of Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. Most however, are initiated by American intelligence. The purpose of the unfortunately named "War on Terror", and of the American initiated drone strikes that are a critical part of that war, is not to end "terrorism". The purpose is to prevent terrorist attacks within the United States from being carried out by a specific group of people, described in Fawaz Gerges' masterpiece Journey of the Jihadist. Our target is not every single Muslim fundamentalist. It is not every single terrorist, or every Muslim terrorist. Rather, the targets of the drone strikes are a specific ideological sub-group of jihadists who are ideologically committed to striking "the far enemy", by which they mean the United States.





These people, of whom Al Qaeda is the best known example, believe that their goal of creating an Islamic state, governed on the basis of their peculiar interpretation of the Koran, can never take place while the United States opposes that goal.

They hold the United States responsible for the secular governments in the Arab world, and for the western culture they believe is corrupting muslim societies. They believe that only by directly punishing the United States can they discourage American intervention against them in their struggle to realize their political goals. In the words of Ayman al-Zawahiri:

"The struggle for the establishment of the Islamic State cannot be launched as a regional struggle... we must prepare ourselves for a battle that includes the apostate domestic enemy, and the Jewish-crusader external enemy"


Ayman al-Zawahiri

These groups have demonstrated the capacity and the willingness to kill American non-combatants within the United States. The purpose of the drone strikes is to degrade that capacity and discourage that willingness. This is a much more limited and achievable goal than many drone critics are willing to acknowledge. But there are other objections to the program.

If (as we should) we ignore the unhinged assertions of the 9/11 Truthers who insist the entire War on Terror is based on  a hoax that involved the US government deliberately killing thousands of its own citizens, objections to the use of drones fall into three basic categories: 1) the way in which we use drones is a violation of international law 2) the way in which we use drones is immoral 3) the use of drone strikes is ineffective

Each of these three types of objections: legality, morality and efficacy have several variations, and deserve careful examination.


Journalist and drone critic Jeremy Scahill. This is a thoughtful, talented and patriotic journalist, despite being wrong on this issue.

Are the strikes legal?

The argument that the drone strikes are illegal has several bases. The first of these is that they constitute extra-judicial killings by the United States. Various reputable legal scholars and human rights experts are cited as evidence of this assertion. But an equal number of legal experts insist that the drone strikes are authorized by previous case law and congressional statute. In the absence of a specific legal finding that the strikes are illegal, drone critics are simply expressing an opinion. It is not an established matter of law that the strikes are illegal, Glenn Greenwald's insistence notwithstanding.

A second aspect of the illegality claim involves the "double-tap" tactic of launching a second strike at people involved in rescuing victims of an initial strike. but even critics of the tactic concede,

"A positively identified combatant who provides medical aid to someone amid fighting does not automatically lose his status as a combatant, and may still be legally killed."


There are two key points here that critics of the Drones typically ignore. 1) Combat medics must be clearly identified by insignia, and 2) a person with an AK-47 strapped to their back is a combatant.


Hypocritical self-promoter and outrage merchant Glenn Greenwald. This darling of the far Left supported the Iraq War, and has been trying to re-establish his progressive credentials since.

Finally, critics of the drones claim that the civilian casualties inflicted by drones are a violation of the laws of war. But in fact, the laws of war permit operations which may injure and kill civilians, if such collateral damage is proportional to the military effect of the attack. I will also note that it is a violation of the laws of war to use the presence of civilians to hinder military operations (Article 28). Finally, the actual number of civilian casualties resulting from the strikes is in dispute.

The upper range of civilian casualty estimates comes from The Bureau for Investigative Journalism.  It has published the work of some flakey people. It's methodology is described here

More credible numbers come from the New America Foundation, whose methodology is here. I urge those who insist that large numbers of civilians are being killed in drone attacks to compare the two methodologies for analytical rigor. BIJ, for example, explicitly employs as one source attorneys involved in lawsuits against the United States. NAF by contrast, makes extensive use of the category "unknown" in labeling a casualty as militant or civilian. NAF requires at least two independent sources before they will make that determination.

I should note here that NAF's numbers have been heavily critiqued by the Human Rights Clinic of Columbia Law School. For reasons that completely escape me, this report assumes that any casualty identified by name is "strongly identified as a civilian". I am not a lawyer, nor am I a military analyst. But the rationale for this classification eludes me. The report also relies heavily on BIJ's on site investigations in Waziristan. I am perhaps being unfair when I suggest that going to the site of a drone strike and asking the inhabitants, "Hey! Any terrorists around here?" is a methodology of dubious utility.


Image from Department of Defense. If it disappears, blame the sequester.


Unaddressed in this post is the more limited question of whether drone strikes targeting US citizens are legal. For the sake of completeness, I link the legal rational justifying such strikes here, and the ACLU's response here. As with the question of the general legality of the drone strikes, critics have vastly overstated the objective certainty of their interpretation of the law. 


Are the drone strikes moral?

This is a much trickier question. The morality of any particular act is a subjective judgement made by the viewer. If one accepts (as I do) that the strikes meet the legal test of proportionality, then the morality of the strikes hinges on the morality of killing the intended target of the strike.

One argument against the morality of the strikes is that "we're just as bad as the terrorists". This can be dismissed as facile. The terrorists are intentionally targeting non-combatants. We are accidentally hitting non-combatants while striking legitimate military targets who are hiding among non-combatants. The terrorists who supplied Faisal Shazad with money and training also shot a 14 year old girl in the head for advocating women's education. One can argue that the drone strikes are immoral. But one cannot credibly argue that they are as immoral as the actions of those we seek to kill.


Image of Malala Yousefzai from ABC news

Another is that even if the strikes are proportional, it's immoral to kill civilians. It is absolutely the case that civilian casualties are a foreseeable consequence of the drone strikes. But it is equally the case that civilian casualties, like atrocities, and displacement, and utter, wretched misery are the foreseeable and inevitable consequence of ANY military conflict. A drone strike will kill fewer non-combatants than an air strike. It will kill far fewer non-combatants than an artillery barrage, and exponentially fewer than a pitched battle in an unevacuated area. If civilian casualties mean that drones are immoral, then armed conflict is immoral, and drone opponents need to make their case by identifying themselves as pacifists, rather than simply as drone opponents.

Drone opponents frequently express moral repugnance at the US tactic of striking militant funeralsRevulsion at funeral strikes seems illogical to me. The decision to kill another human being, or group of them is a horrible, bestial, dehumanizing thing. Where one does it is irrelevant, in my view.

In any case, there is a logic to the practice. The death of a prominent jihadist will draw other jihadists seeking to pay their respect to a fallen comrade. They're easy to spot; they're at the head of the procession in the SUVs, surrounded by armed men. I will also note that all of the funeral strikes I have found accounts of are against Pashtun targets. Women do not participate in Pashtun funeral processions, as a matter of custom. This reduces the likelihood of collateral damage, and is perhaps an attempt to address that concern.

Are drone strikes effective?

There are two key arguments used to assert that the drone strikes are ineffective. The first of these is that the United States is simply not killing very many jihadis. I saw this argument made most vehemently by an organization called Global Research, in a post where they asserted that the ratio of civilians to militants killed by drone strikes was 36 to 1. That post now appears to have been scrubbed from their site, which is interesting considering the other dreck they apparently believe. Among the items still up on the site are articles detailing US government attempts to control the weather, 9/11 Truther claims, and assertions that Syria's Bashir al Assad is a victim of Western imperialism who enjoys the support of his people.




I would normally dismiss this particular organization with with a single sentence, or ignore it completely. But somehow that 36 to 1 figure made it into the Twittersphere, and was uncritically accepted by a number of smart progressives that I deeply respect. The debate on the desirability of drone strikes is not improved by the participation of looney conspiracy theorists or devotees of Lyndon LaRouche.

It is a matter of indisputable fact that the top leadership of al Qaeda has been decimated. Top leaders of a number of Taliban factions have been killed as well; we know this because the jihadis themselves acknowledge it in posts on their websites.

Of considerably more concern is the charge that the drone strikes actually strengthen the militants, by causing resentment among the civilian population and serving as a recruitment incentive. A particularly compelling proponent of this view is The Nation's Jeremy Scahill. Drone attacks are cited as a motive for two unsuccessful attacks on US soil by Stanford Law School's International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution study, Living Under Drones (p.136)

What this criticism fails to take into account is the purpose of the strikes; Scahill and others subscribe to the fallacy that this is a war on "terror", or "terrorists". As I stated at the beginning of this post, the purpose of the drone strikes is to disrupt and discourage the proponents of a particular ideological branch within militant Islam. 




A small group of intellectuals within the Islamist movement have concluded that their goals necessitate terrorist attacks within the borders of the United States. They are attempting to plan those attacks. They are attempting to gather financing and material for those attacks and they are attempting to train individuals for those attacks. The presence of drones, the unpredictable nature of the strikes and the lack of effective defenses against drones have made these activities nearly impossible

There is absolutely no question that the drone strikes breed hostility and hatred towards the United States. Some of the people who resent us will no doubt wish to extract some form of revenge against us, although the overwhelming number of them probably simply wish the attacks would stop. But these "new militants" are foot soldiers. They are tribesman who probably don't speak English, lack the resources to strike back and the ability to operate within american borders. Making enemies of these people is regrettable, but infinitely less dangerous than allowing educated, elite members of terrorist organizations to plan their next attack in security.

I believe that drones have become a symbol of the War on Terror. In the minds of many progressives, to approve of the use of drones is to approve of the worst aspects of Bush Administration's execution of the War on Terror, including the use of torture and the unrelated invasion of Iraq. While discussing these issues, I am constantly surprised when people assume that because I don't regard drones as illegal under international law, I must necessarily have supported the invasion of Iraq.

Such views lack nuance. The question of the legality of drone strikes or the efficacy of their use is unrelated to water boarding, or warrantless wire-tapping, or the no-fly list. The conflation of drones with these other issues has led to a kind of intellectual dogmatism more common in political conservatives than progressives. It is simply not the case that drone strikes are self-evidently and objectively illegal. The view that their use is immoral is a subjective view, frequently based in mistaken views regarding the number of civilian casualties they cause. And concerns about their effectiveness are simply concerns, not established and indisputable facts supported by evidence.