Stop demonizing drones

Criticism of U.S. effort to disrupt Taliban ignores important facts



President 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 in the aggregate 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 last 13 months. These same strikes are estimated to have killed 250 to 400 militants.

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

Four options

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. The Taliban’s shooting of a 14-year-old girl for attending school speaks volumes about access to education under Taliban rule. 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.

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 — utilized armored vehicles, artillery and airstrikes to try to dislodge about 5,000 Taliban fighters. This resulted in the displacement of more than 1 million civilians who fled the army’s indiscriminate firepower.

The third option would be for the United States to use ground troops and special forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations in the tribal areas. 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.

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’ constant presence continues to deny the Taliban a safe haven in which it can train and organize its forces. 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 is a co-author of “The War on Terror and the Laws of War: A Military Perspective.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.