Reforming the Drone Program

dronePrior to the September 11th attacks, unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones, had been used almost exclusively by the Central Intelligence Agency and the United States Military for surveillance purposes. However, as a result of the challenges faced in Afghanistan, drones were eventually armed with missiles in order to more meaningfully participate in armed conflicts. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the War on Terror has been the proliferation of the use of drones to launch attack from a position that does not jeopardize American lives. Since then, drones have been used to strike at targets not only in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, areas in which the United States is not actively engaged in conflict. As a result of this, as well as the numerous diplomatic problems that have presented themselves through the extensive use of drone strikes in the last decade, it is clear that their use needs to be restricted.

As drone strikes by the United States have become increasingly common, concerns for the way in which they are conducted have been raised by citizens and policy makers in America and the countries in which drone strikes occur, as well as the international community at large.

One of the principle concerns raised by opponents of drone strikes is that they are conducted in a way that violates the sovereignty of foreign nations. Strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somolia are conducted without the consent the citizens of these countries, their representatives, to the extent that they have them, or their national governments. Drone strikes, understandably, are wildly unpopular in these countries. To this end, drone strikes conducted by the United States in these countries have drawn criticism internationally. Recently, Ben Emmerson, a special rapporteur from the United Nations conducting an investigation on drone strikes has publicly stated that drone strikes conducted by the United States in Pakistani territory is a violation of Pakistani sovereignty. His full report to the United Nations on drone strikes conducted in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan is scheduled for release in October.

The methods used by the United States in selecting and eliminating targets using drones have also come into controversy. On the subject of target selection, the specific processes and methods used to approve a drone strike are only outlined in Presidential Policy Guidance, which indicates that the target must pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” While this on its face appears to significantly limit the number of potential targets, it is unclear when exactly a person meets these criteria, or who makes that determination. What is known, however, is that these decisions are made solely in the executive branch without external oversight from Congress, or the judicial branch. Consequently, it is unclear whether proper steps are being taken to ensure that drone strikes are being conducted in compliance with criteria listed above.

If, however, the terms listed above are defined similarly to the way in which they were defined in a Department of Justice white paper released earlier this year, they are defined in such a way that is so broad as to be meaningless. Per the white paper, the term “imminent” is qualified with the statement “the threat of violence against the united states does not require the United States to have clear evidence that an attack on U.S. persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”  Imminence therefore, has less to do with immediacy of plan or action on the part of members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates, but more to do with how convenient it would be for the United States to take action against those individuals.

The ways in which drone strikes are conducted have also been called into question. A number of controversial tactics, including the use of double tap strikes, have been used by the United States. A double tap strike is the practice of bombing a target multiple times within a short period of times, and is controversial in nature as the second strike often hits first responders. The tactic has been used extensively, although not with drones, by terrorist groups like Hamas.

While the United States government, to my knowledge, has not officially stated that they have used double tap strikes as a part of their drone campaign, the use of double tap strikes by the United States has recently been independently verified by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism The Bureau’s investigation of drone strikes in Pakistan revealed a number of instances of double trap strikes in the United States’ effort to kill Yahya al-Libi.

Strikes conducted in this manner create a number of problems for the United States. Not only do they constitute a threat to the moral standing of the United States and its credibility in regions in which drone strikes occur, it opens the United States up to charges of violating international law. United Nations investigators have stated on a number of occasions that drone strikes, and specifically double tap strikes could be considered to be war crimes.

The United States has similarly faced problems classifying casualties of drone strikes as combatants or noncombatants. Indeed, the Central Intelligence Agency, which currently oversees and conducts most drone strikes, has historically had a great deal of difficulty identifying casualties. CIA documents on drone strikes covering the period from September 3, 2010 to October 30 2011 reveal that approximately a quarter of those killed by drones in Pakistan were classified as “other militants”, a label that was used by the CIA when the casualty’s organizational affiliation could not be determined. This further raises questions as to how if at all the Central Intelligence Agency determined that the decedent constituted a threat to U.S. national security, much less a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.

The document similarly indicated that the identities of many killed in these drone strikes were not known. However, in spite of this, of the approximately 600 people listed as killed by drone strikes in Pakistan during that period of time, only a single individual is described as a civilian. These figures must be contrasted with those generated by outside sources, including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which indicates that anywhere from 2004 to 2013, anywhere from 407-928 civilians were killed as a result of drone strikes, and the Pakistani government which claims that at least 400 civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes.

In spite of the numerous problems that drone strikes have presented, they continue to hold the approval among American policymakers, and the American population. A recent poll indicates that 66 percent of Americans are in favor of using drones to kill suspected members of al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups. Only 16 percent voiced their disapproval of the practice.

Proponents of drone strikes have pointed to their effectiveness at removing leadership from terrorist organizations, at a cost that is significantly lower than alternatives in terms of economics, and human life. Proponents attempt to present drone strikes as a lesser evil to other military action that would apparently be costlier to all involved. There is some merit to these arguments, although there are serious problems with them. While drone strikes have in fact killed al-Qaeda leadership, they still do so at a high cost in terms of civilian casualties. Once again, we must return to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which estimates that of the 2505 to 3584 people killed by drones in Pakistan, anywhere from 407 to 928 were civilians. If these figures are to be believed, it indicates that anywhere from 11 to 37 percent of people killed in Pakistan by drone strikes were civilians.

Arguing that drone strikes are a lesser evil, however, ignores the larger issue. While carpet bombing Pakistan as if it were Cambodia would definitely be more morally reprehensible than launching drone strikes into the region, nobody is seriously considering the former as an option. The lesser evil argument serves to insulate the drone program by presenting one with a false choice like one listed above, and as such, prevents a serious discussion about the merits of the program, in terms of the effectiveness of its targeting criteria, or the ways in which it may violate international law.

It must also be noted that removing organizational leadership from terrorist organizations through target killings is not enough to adequately solve America’s problem with terrorism. Merely removing the head of the organization fails to undermine the organization in other ways, including, but not limited to, its support network, and its ability to recruit new members.

A drone policy of this type similarly fails to undermine anti-American sentiments that lead people to join organizations, and indeed may serve as an effective tool for terrorist organizations that can use the declining standing of the United States, as well as the population’s negative view towards drone strikes to recruit new members. This has proven to be especially true in Yemen. Investigative reporting conducted by Jeremy Schaill revealed that drone strikes were responsible for an increase in anti-American sentiments. Al-Qaeda and groups affiliated with it benefited greatly from this, and dramatically increased in size as a result of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen. Consequently, drone strikes, at least to some degree, constitute a threat to American national security through the threat of blowback.

As a result of the ethical and practical concerns that drone strikes raise, it is clear that the policies governing drone strikes require reform, and that drones should be used with greater discretion than they are currently. Modifications in this way would help to eliminate a point of dispute between the United States and Pakistan, as well as other nations in which drone strikes are occurring. The negative effects that drone strikes have had on America’s ability to use soft power to combat terrorism is especially apparent in the case of Pakistan, where the majority of drone strikes have taken place, insofar as they have served to harm diplomatic relations between Pakistan and the United States. The responsible use of drones with the consent of governments like Pakistan would serve to normalize relations with those countries.

 

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2 Comments to “Reforming the Drone Program”

  1. From my viewpoint, I can see why drones have a 66% approval rating: it’s not harming people near them and it helps to ensure their peace and safety. Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion on the use of drones, I would like for their usage to be toned down, but for better or worse, I can’t bring myself to be actively outspoken against them at this time.

    But, I can also see how the government’s policy on drones needs to be reformed. It’s certainly difficult to justify the use of drones when for every civilian killed, only five supposed terrorists are killed, not the best ratio in my opinion.

    I’d be interested in hearing your opinions on what should be done with drones. There are some options that I can think of off the top of my head. One is to carry on, another is to limit it to conflicts the US is actively involved in. A third is what the UN chief stated: to limit the use of drones to only surveillance and should not be weaponized. I ask for your opinion because you say that drones should be used responsibly, but responsibility is a spectrum. Responsible use can be not using them at all or it can be using them only in conflict. That’s why I’m interested in your opinion; I’d like to know what you consider is responsible, or at least, what alternatives exist for ensuring the safety and prosperity of US citizens.

  2. I’m a college student looking to use your article in an academic setting (not a paper). Would you be willing to provide your name for citation?

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