Posted by Curt on 25 May, 2013 at 11:03 am. 2 comments already!


Kenneth Anderson @ Commentary:

How, exactly, did drone warfare and targeted killing become key elements in America’s counterterrorism strategy? And why should we care about them as essential national-security tools for the future?

Barack Obama campaigned for his first presidential term on the platform of ending America’s wars. Obama voters and much of the rest of the world figured this promise referred not only to the conventional conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also to what liberals considered the long and unnecessary national nightmare of the war on terror. It now seems clear he was misunderstood—though we don’t know yet whether the misunderstanding was by Obama’s design or due to changes that took place after he assumed office. Obama’s policy proved not to be “peace breaks out.” It was, rather, that America would wind down its two counterinsurgency, boots-on-the-ground wars and undertake a refocused effort against the terrorists who had set this all in motion. He framed it this way during the 2008 race. “If Pakistan cannot or will not take out al-Qaeda leadership when we have actionable intelligence about their whereabouts,” he said on the campaign trail, “we will act to protect the American people. There can be no safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorists.” No safe havens—that has been Barack Obama’s strategic lodestar in the war on terror.

It is this proposition, more than any other, that gets us to drone warfare.

Even as Obama publicly disdained the institutions and methodologies of Bush’s war on terror, he was issuing a new call to arms in that war. Taking the fight directly to the enemy required a means of combat other than counterinsurgency warfare on the ground, and the United States turned to a technology the Israelis had used effectively in their war against Palestinian terrorists: unmanned surveillance drones, now weaponized.

This tool had been used during the Bush administration, but sparingly-—largely due to geopolitical fears, but also because it was only by the second Bush term that the CIA had established ground-level human-intelligence networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan sufficient for making independent targeting decisions without having to rely on the questionable and self-interested information coming from Pakistan’s intelligence services.

The strategy has worked far better than anyone expected. It is effective, and has rightfully assumed an indispensable place on the list of strategic elements of U.S. counterterrorism-on-offense….

…Effectiveness is one thing, morality another. The leading objection to drone warfare today is that it supposedly involves large, or “excessive,” numbers of civilian casualties, and that the claims of precision and discrimination are greatly overblown. These are partly factual questions full of unknowns and many contested issues. The Obama administration did not help itself by offering estimates of civilian collateral damage early on that ranged absurdly from zero to the low two digits. This both squandered credibility with the media and, worse, set a bar of perfection—zero civilian collateral damage—that no weapon system could ever meet, while distracting people entirely from the crucial question of what standard civilian harms should be set against.

The most useful estimates of civilian casualties from targeted killing with drones come from the New America Foundation (NAF) and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which each keep running counts of strikes, locations, and estimates of total killed and civilian casualties. They don’t pretend to know what they don’t know, and rely on open sources and media accounts. There is no independent journalistic access to Waziristan to help corroborate accounts that might be wrong or skewed by Taliban sources, Pakistani media, Pakistani and Western advocacy groups, or the U.S. or Pakistani governments. Pakistan’s military sometimes takes credit for drone strikes against its enemies and sometimes blames drone strikes for its own air raids against villages. A third source of estimates, UK-based The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), comes up with higher numbers.

TBIJ (whose numbers are considered much too high by many knowledgeable American observers) came up with a range, notes Georgetown law professor and former Obama DOD official Rosa Brooks. The 344 known drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2012 killed, according to TBIJ, between “2,562 and 3,325 people, of whom between 474 and 881 were civilians.” The NAF, she continues, came up with slightly lower figures, somewhere “between 1,873 and 3,171 people killed overall in Pakistan, of whom between 282 and 459 were civilians.” (Media have frequently cited the total killed as though it were the civilians killed.) Is this a lot of civilians killed? Even accepting for argument’s sake TBIJ’s numbers, Brooks concludes, if you work out the “civilian deaths per drone strike ratio for the last eight years…on average, each drone strike seems to have killed between 0.8 and 2.5 civilians.” In practical terms, adds McNeal, this suggests “less than three civilians killed per strike, and that’s using the highest numbers” of any credible estimating organization.1

Whether any of this is “disproportionate” or “excessive” as a matter of the laws of war cannot be answered simply by comparing total deaths to civilian deaths, or civilian deaths per drone strike, however…

…The objection to civilian deaths draws out a related criticism: Why should the United States be able to conduct these drone strikes in Pakistan or in Yemen, countries that are not at war with America? What gives the United States the moral right to take its troubles to other places and inflict damage by waging war? Why should innocent Pakistanis suffer because the United States has trouble with terrorists?

The answer is simply that like it or not, the terrorists are in these parts of Pakistan, and it is the terrorists that have brought trouble to the country. The U.S. has adopted a moral and legal standard with regard to where it will conduct drone strikes against terrorist groups. It will seek consent of the government, as it has long done with Pakistan, even if that is contested and much less certain than it once was. But there will be no safe havens. If al-Qaeda or its affiliated groups take haven somewhere and the government is unwilling or unable to address that threat, America’s very long-standing view of international law permits it to take forcible action against the threat, sovereignty and territorial integrity notwithstanding.

This is not to say that the United States could or would use drones anywhere it wished. Places that have the rule of law and the ability to respond to terrorists on their territory are different from weakly governed or ungoverned places. There won’t be drones over Paris or London—this canard is popular among campaigners and the media but ought to be put to rest. But the vast, weakly governed spaces, where states are often threatened by Islamist insurgency, such as Mali or Yemen, are a different case altogether.

…Without a hardheaded effort on the part of Congress and the executive branch to make drone policy, the efforts to discredit drones will continue. The current wide public support in the United States today should not mask the ways in which public perception and sentiment can be shifted, here and abroad. The campaign of delegitimation is modeled on the one against Guantanamo Bay during the George W. Bush administration; the British campaigning organization Reprieve tweets that it will make drones the Obama administration’s Guantanamo. Then as now, administration officials did not, or were unforgivably slow to, believe that a mere civil-society campaign could force a reset of their policies. They miscalculated then and, as former Bush administration officials John Bellinger and Jack Goldsmith have repeatedly warned, they might well be miscalculating now.

U.S. counterterrorism policy overall needs to be embedded in policies, processes, and laws that get beyond mere executive-branch discretion and bear the stamp of the two political branches coming together in tools available in a stable way across presidential administrations of both parties. We are not there now. While the critics are not wrong to call for reform of drone-warfare processes, many of them see these merely as the first step to ending drone warfare altogether. They are advocating procedural reforms not to give it a permanent and steady framework for the long run, but effectively to outlaw the practice.

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