The morality of war from the sky

By Jeffrey Goldberg

JAAR, YEMEN Locals say 10 people were killed in a July 2012 U.S. drone strike but differ over whether they were members of al-Qaeda

PHOTOGRAPH Yuri Kozyrev/Noor/Redux Pictures

President Obama, who is putatively a civil libertarian — or, at the very least, the preferred candidate of most civil libertarians — has achieved something remarkable over the course of his term. He has led an expansive war against America’s enemies using lethal flying robots that not infrequently incinerate innocent civilians, and he’s been rewarded for it. According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted earlier this year, 83 percent of Americans support Obama’s drone policy.

This is especially noteworthy because those who support the policy don’t actually know what it is. It’s discussed by the administration in only the most cursory and circumspect manner. Obama has provided the public with very little information about its revolutionary consequences.

When it comes to hunting terrorists, drones are extraordinarily effective. They’re unblinking eyes; they can follow targets for days and weeks and, when so directed, deliver lethal blows imperviously. The president’s drone fleet is responsible for the deaths of many terrorists who would otherwise be alive today, plotting to kill Americans.

Now that this is stipulated, here are the more difficult questions. One of the things we don’t know is how many militants have been killed in drone attacks. We certainly don’t know how many civilians have died. Recent studies conducted or authorized by groups suspicious of the drone war suggest the civilian death toll is high — one report by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 2,562 and 3,325 people have been killed by drones in Pakistan since June 2004 and that of those, 474 to 881 were civilians.

It’s impossible to know the precise number of innocent dead for the obvious reason that drones operate over territory that’s too dangerous for Americans to enter safely. Civilian deaths caused by American air-launched missiles are not a new phenomenon; what would be useful to know, and what the government can’t tell us, is whether drone-fired missiles are more accurate than missiles fired from manned aircraft.

Another question is whether drone strikes, particularly in the militant tribal areas of Pakistan, are scattering terrorists across the globe. The fear of constantly buzzing drones over the towns and villages of Pakistan’s tribal areas may be driving young men toward militancy.

In 2010 one small corner of North Waziristan came under U.S. drone attacks nearly once every three days, according to a report on Most young men in the tribal regions are reliably anti-American already, but the civilian deaths caused by drones may create in these men a desire to retaliate against Americans.

One reason the people of North Waziristan — the innocent as well as the guilty — find drones so frightening is the matter of “signature strikes,” or “atmospheric strikes.” The U.S. national security infrastructure allows the targeting in certain benighted places of clusters of young men whose identities are not known but whose behavior is deemed suspicious. This policy is as remarkable as the president’s decision to use drones to assassinate American citizens on foreign soil, as he did with the al-Qaeda strategist Anwar al-Awlaki, based in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was a despicable figure, but isn’t it just a bit strange that the federal government can’t eavesdrop on a U.S. citizen’s phone conversation without a court order but can assassinate him without one?

Drones have served another useful purpose for the administration: They’ve helped mask an enormous post-Sept. 11 policy failure. Not too long ago, it was thought that the U.S. could build up reliable local intelligence and military organizations in such places as Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. These organizations would suppress terrorism so America wouldn’t have to. Reality suggests otherwise. Instead of having allies do the hard and sometimes dirty work of counterterrorism, the U.S. is doing it for itself.

In the short term, drone campaigns have done quantifiable damage to al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. Long term, the effects of this campaign — making it so much easier for presidents to kill people, making the U.S. open to blowback from countries that feel they’re entitled to fly drones over U.S. territory — are not understood. And that’s because the president refuses to talk straight about his war, and neither the American people nor their representatives in Congress seem interested in knowing the complicated truth.


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