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July 4, 2015

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The case for drone strikes

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President Barack Obama’s second term begins amid intense criticism of the drone strikes being conducted by the United States in Pakistan. Much of this criticism is based on claims that drones are doing more harm than good.

A recent Stanford/NYU study concluded that drones cause excessive civilian casualties and frequently fail to hit leadership targets, and that the presence of drones spreads fear and anxiety among the civilian population, disrupts civilians’ daily lives, limits public gatherings and disrupts access to education. Other critics cite the Taliban’s detention and execution of suspected “spies” who assist drone targeting.

Like many such studies, the NYU/Stanford one did not attempt to interview a single member of the U.S. military. Had it done so, it might have learned that (at least in Afghanistan) there have been instances of Taliban or al-Qaida forces killing civilians and placing their bodies at the site of drone attacks to increase civilian casualty counts. Yet the study’s only attempt to gain the government’s perspective was a letter requesting a meeting with the National Security Council. Because the council did not reply within a month, the U.S. government’s perspective was excluded from the report.

The report’s discussion of civilian casualties adopts the highest estimate offered by any of the three sources that compile such information — the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. And it consistently describes civilian casualties since the beginning of the drone program rather than examining recent trends. Even the bureau estimates that only seven civilians have been killed in about 60 strikes conducted over the past 13 months. These same strikes are estimated to have killed 250 to 400 militants.

Any alternative use of force against Taliban or al-Qaida forces would be likely to cause many more civilian casualties.

The question of whether continuing the drone campaign is a good policy decision cannot be answered without carefully considering the alternatives available.

There are four obvious options for dealing with the Taliban/al-Qaida presence in the federally administered tribal areas of Pakistan.

One is to accept their presence and control of that area and cease operations against them. But this course of action wouldn’t address most of the concerns about drones.

Taliban control would be far more disruptive to the daily lives of those living in the tribal region than drones are. Public meetings, unless authorized by the Taliban, would be rare and extremely dangerous. And the detention and execution of undesirable individuals would continue, albeit under the guise of heresy rather than spying. Also, ceding the territory to Taliban control would provide the Afghan Taliban with a safe haven from which to continue its operations against American and Afghan forces across the border.

The second option would be for Pakistan’s military to assert control over the region. However, its last serious attempt to do so — the Swat Valley campaign of 2009 — resulted in the displacement of more than 1 million civilians who fled the army’s indiscriminate firepower.

Last year, mere rumors that the Pakistani military was planning a campaign in Waziristan caused thousands to flee. Pakistan lacks both the desire and the capacity to pursue another campaign to gain control of the tribal areas, and any attempt to conduct such a campaign would be a humanitarian nightmare for the civilians who live there.

The third option would be for the United States to use ground troops and special forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations in the tribal areas. Even if Pakistan were willing to publicly consent to American ground forces on its territory, an issue that it has carefully finessed in the context of drone operations, it is unlikely that this option would alleviate any of the frequently voiced concerns about the use of drones.

If operations in Afghanistan are any guide, using ground troops would result in as many or more civilian casualties than the current drone campaign and would be more deeply unpopular in Pakistan — not to mention that it would result in higher U.S. casualties. Ground operations in territory controlled by the Taliban would still rely heavily on drone surveillance, and most raids would occur at night.

Such operations in Afghanistan were so unpopular and disruptive of daily life that President Hamid Karzai insisted that continued Afghan cooperation with the United States was contingent on Afghan control over night raids.

The final option is the continued use of drones. Even according to the least favorable numbers presented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drones have effectively disrupted the leadership structure of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Pakistan by killing scores of senior leaders and operational commanders. And the drones’ presence continues to deny the Taliban a safe haven in which it can train and organize its forces for operations in Afghanistan. Most important, drones have done this while consistently improving their accuracy and reducing civilian casualties.

After examining the alternatives, it is clear that drones remain the best option available to minimize the negative effects of the conflict on civilians while continuing to disrupt the Taliban and deny it control of territory in the tribal areas.

Michael W. Lewis teaches international law and the law of war at Ohio Northern University’s College of Law. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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  1. If one makes the case for drone attacks then the same case can be made for waterboarding. For a President and Administration that was so adamantly opposed to waterboarding, and then expand drone attacks worldwide is incomprehensible. Where the President stands depends on where he sits. It's hypocritical to be against one [waterboarding] and not the other [drone attcks]. One [waterboarding] may be cruel and unusual punishment. The other [drones] allows the US government to kill, even Americans, without them receiving a trial by a jury of their peers. Which is worst?


  2. How about this option: Just get OUT of there and let those people deal with their own problems.

  3. Assassination is assassination, whether it's up close and personal (Julius Caesar - hand-carried knives), from a close range (Abraham Lincoln - small pistol from a foot or two), from quite a distance (John Kennedy - a rifle from a couple of hundred yards), or Anwar al-Awlaki (drone - possibly piloted from half a world away). Is assassination moral? That's a meaningless question - morality is not an absolute, it's defined by solely by the winners: Boothe and his Southern rebel friends certainly felt he acted morally.

    Some considerations that appear not to have been addressed by the memo's authors. 1) A variation of the Golden Rule others WILL do unto you what you do unto them. 2) You may trust THIS administration to use assassinations with care, but what about the next one? Or the third one after that? 3) WE now have a precedent. It is far easier to stretch an existing precedent than to create a new one.

    In this case, take the primary memo as described in the media. Change the definition of potential targets from "American citizens in foreign countries" to simply "American citizens".

    Everything else is ready to go: a vague definition of "imminent threat"; a requirement that the target be where capture cannot be effected without significant risk to US personnel (like a heavily defended cabin on Ruby Ridge or a compound near Waco); a requirement that the action be approved by "a high government official" (Just how high? The President? Anyone in his cabinet? FBI director? Some army general? A state governor? A police chief?); denial of ANY review of the facts or justification of the decision (not just review by some court somewhere, but by ANYBODY in the judiciary, the legislature, or elsewhere in the Administration); hide the existence of the applicable "law" and the rules for assassinations so nobody can decide if they may be doing something to set themselves up as a target. Suddenly, poof, our Fifth Amendment rights are gone.

  4. Suddenly, poof, a LOT of our Bill of Rights are gone!

    I agree in large measure with renorobert above. The only area we might have different views on is assassination itself. I don't have a real problem with it as a tool of war (i.e. the assassination of Admiral Yamamoto in WWW2.) But I do have a very real problem with the assassination of US Citizens, especially when there is no semblance of or requirement for due process.

    The concepts expressed in the memo recently brought to light are very, very disturbing. Whatever hope President Obama had for placing serious restrictions on the Second Amendment just went down the toilet.

  5. Enough with the studies already. One can cite an alleged study to back up or oppose anything and everything.

  6. Obama is an imminent threat to our way of life.