Three weeks into the new year, and the United States has already launched eight drone strikes across Pakistan and Yemen, killing 50 people. Among those killed was Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban leader in tribal Pakistan. While Nazir’s death has been portrayed as another in the long line of successful strikes against militants who may threaten America, it also has demonstrated the collateral damage that comes with our secretive drone war. Thousands of Pakistanis took to the streets in protest after Nazir’s death, denouncing the United States, and senior Pakistani security officials worry his removal will only increase violence and instability in the region.
Our embrace of drones has changed how the United States weighs the costs and benefits of waging war. Drones are cheap and effective, so much so that they make it easy for government officials and the American public to forget the sacrifices and consequences that come with using lethal force against another nation. As the United States increasingly relies on drone warfare, it is past time to have a serious public discussion about whether drone strikes are to be the exception or the rule. A recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that drone warfare presents four pressing problems: its foreign policy implications, unknown number of civilian casualties, lack of transparency or effective oversight, and unresolved legal questions. Whatever benefits our drone strikes may have, each of these issues raises serious concerns about the wisdom of relying on drones as a regular tool of war.
Former government officials and policymakers have voiced concerns that the United States is using drones as a crutch rather than developing a serious long-term strategy to combat international terrorism. In an interview Monday, retired General Stanley McChrystal, who developed the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, cautioned that drone warfare produces “resentment . . . much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one.” And for good reason—a study last fall by NYU and Stanford law schools revealed with vivid detail how the constant presence of drones has terrorized the civilian communities over which they patrol.
Critics were quick to contend that the study had a small sample size, but unfortunately, that reflects one of the biggest problems with our use of drones. Hard data is difficult to come by. It may be true that drone warfare produces fewer civilian casualties, but there is no way to know at present. We cannot even be certain how many drone strikes have occurred. Data aggregated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggests that somewhere from 2,562 to 3,325 people in Pakistan alone were killed by drones between June 2004 and September 2012. Headlines suggest a steady stream of successes in killing militants from above, but “militant” has been so broadly defined by the Obama administration as to include any military-age male.
The standards that guide when we can target these so-called militants can amount to nothing more than the CIA’s belief that an individual is engaged in a pattern of suspicious behavior. In fact, there are very few clear guidelines governing America’s use of drones, or if there are, the government refuses to say. On the very same day Nazir was killed in Pakistan, a U.S. federal court denied a request by the American Civil Liberties Union andThe New York Times to force the Obama administration into revealing the legal basis for its targeted killing program. Lamenting the “Alice-in-Wonderland nature of this pronouncement,” the court conceded it was caught in a “paradoxical situation” and a “veritable catch-22.” But like United Nations special rapporteurs and members of Congress who had tried in the past, the court was unable to lift the administration’s veil of secrecy. Whatever legal justifications exist for our use of drone strikes, the administration refuses to disclose them, and our drone warfare program remains officially classified.
Absent any meaningful oversight or public discussion it is impossible to determine whether our use of drone strikes has been either effective or legal. A tremendous disconnect exists between American decision-makers and the people in Pakistan, in Somalia, and in Yemen who feel the actual impact of our drone strikes. The capacity of the United States to wage war without placing a single soldier in harm’s way has made us blind to the growing chorus of people whose lives we have taken and societies we have destabilized all in the name of more efficient war. President Obama began his presidency with promises of openness and transparency, and he was elected with a mandate to bring sanity to the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban. He should begin the new year and his second term by reevaluating whether drone warfare accomplishes either.