A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Pakistani protesters burn an image of President Obama on May 15 during an anti-U.S. demonstration over drone attacks. More than 900 people have been killed in nearly 100 drone strikes in Pakistan since August 2008, fueling anti-U.S. sentiment in the country.
Pakistani protesters burn an image of President Obama on May 15 during an anti-U.S. demonstration over drone attacks. More than 900 people have been killed in nearly 100 drone strikes in Pakistan since August 2008, fueling anti-U.S. sentiment in the country. A. Majeed/AFP/Getty Images
Two events this week framed the argument over the use of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al-Qaida confirmed that one of its founding members — a man named Mustafa Abu al-Yazid — was killed by a drone attack inside Pakistan. U.S. officials called his death a major setback for al-Qaida. The second event was the U.S. military's investigation into the deaths of 23 Afghan civilians in February. It concluded that a team operating a surveillance drone made a mistake and identified a convoy of vehicles full of women and children as an insurgent target.
The two episodes bring into stark relief the most basic question for U.S. policymakers: Do drone attacks work?
No one will argue that the technology is seductive. Drones circle silently overhead and can watch a target for hours at a time without being detected. Then, they can strike without warning. The CIA and the U.S. military both have drone programs.
"On the one hand, they are powerfully effective at eradicating our enemies," said Samuel J. Rascoff, a law professor at New York University and former intelligence chief at the New York Police Department.
The problem, he notes, is that the killings can alienate the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"On the other hand, they might simultaneously be powerful tools at motivating our enemies," Rascoff said. "So from a counterterrorism standpoint, they are very effective; from a counterinsurgency standpoint, they raise lots of questions."
Concerns Over Ethics
The U.S. is trying to do both. Rascoff says the drone sharply contrasts the conflict and tension between those two strategic objectives. That's the argument counterinsurgency experts have been making for months. They say the drone attacks increase the number of Pakistanis who support extremism, and that for every enemy killed, more are created.
"We hear reports ... including from homegrown terrorists, that drone attacks against villages in Pakistan and Afghanistan are part of what is motivating them to engage in violence," Rascoff said.
So, that's the practical question.
There's another debate over whether the drone attacks are legal and moral. These attacks are often called "targeted killings" — of suspected terrorists, for example. The official U.S. position is that the strikes are permitted: The U.S. is at war with al-Qaida and has the right to defend itself.
A new U.N. report questioned that legal logic. Others have raised questions, too.
"The next step in that argument — and where it becomes more controversial — is not only are we in a war with al-Qaida, but this is a war that extends geographically across territorial bounds," said Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School and former Pentagon official.
In other words, if drone strikes are permitted in Pakistan, why not elsewhere? The U.S. drones have already struck in Yemen. Where are the boundaries?
The U.N. report also said that drones fired by the CIA are less acceptable than drones fired by the military. Its reasoning: The CIA is less accountable. Consider the latest CIA drone attack that killed al-Qaida's No. 3 man, Abu Yazid, thought to have been the mastermind of an attack that killed CIA agents in Khost, Afghanistan, last year. The concern is that the CIA drone attack was motivated by revenge, rather than the legitimate right to self-defense.
Holding To A Standard
In addition to the legal concerns, there's one more worry: What to expect of the person who pulls the trigger? Clearly it makes a difference whether you're a drone operator thousands of miles away, or a Marine on the ground.
"The Marine who is on the ground in Afghanistan does not have time," said John Radson, a professor of law at William Mitchell College and former CIA assistant general counsel. "As one Marine said in an e-mail message to one of my research assistants: 'When in doubt, empty the magazine.' "
He says that unlike the Marine, a drone pilot's life isn't in danger. He can have a drone follow a target for hours — gathering intelligence, making sure the right person is in the cross hairs.
"Based on the different facts, there is going to be a different application of the laws of war," Radson says. "We hold the drone operator to a higher standard."
Critics want the U.S. drone program held to a higher standard, too.