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'Targeted' Drones Strikes and Magical Thinking

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As we enter year twelve of the "war on terror," drones are arguably the coolest tool in the American military arsenal. There is a breathless tone in describing these machines that loiter for hours, then fire Hellfire missiles at remote targets. But just below the gee-wiz is a simmering debate over the secrecy and legality of their strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.

There is so much rhetorical action amid the dazzle and we are so busy listening to the patter that we may miss the sleight of hand under way. We are told the strikes are secret, and at the same time that they are perfect. The Pentagon and CIA refuse to acknowledge their existence and usually won't answer questions about the program, though President Obama defended the strikes in a Google Plus forum.

We know there have been more than 270 drone strikes targeting insurgents and militant leaders in Pakistan and Yemen since 2002. The U.S. has more than tripled drone strikes this year in Yemen. Anonymous sources leak the names of the militants killed. And Congress holds hearings on who leaks all this.

We are assured that the targeted killing program is legal with its legality resting firmly on three grounds.

  • First, drone strikes are closely monitored by the president, who says, we are not killing people "willy nilly." President Obama says,"It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash. It's not a bunch of folks in a room somewhere just making decisions."
  • Second, we are assured that the executive branch has all the legal authority it needs and that Congress has authorized it as, says Obama, "part and parcel of our overall authority when it comes to battling al-Qaeda." And the courts, we are told, have no business getting into the details, even when American citizens are named as targets and killed.
  • Third, we are told the strikes satisfy the laws of war. According to Obama's counterterrorism tsar, John Brennan: "Targeted strikes conform to the principle of proportionality, the notion that the anticipated collateral damage of an action cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage."

This final assertion is the key to the drone strike debate -- the contention that drones have astonishing precision, yielding little "collateral damage" civilian killing or injury. "It's this surgical precision," Brennan has argued, "the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al-Qaida terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it, that makes this counterterrorism tool so essential."

Obama told the Google audience that drones have "not caused a huge number" of civilian casualties. Sen. Diane Feinstein said the number of civilian casualties have gone down. Drones, we are told, dramatically reduce the danger to innocent civilians, yet neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have been precise about the numbers of civilians killed. They've said at times "fewer than 20" or "single digits."

The equation of precision with few civilian casualties is the sleight of hand. While we marvel at the technology, see reporters get rebuffed when they ask about the not-so-secret program, get assured of the strikes' legality as our system of checks and balances is derided, and even debate minutia such as whether the remote pilots of drones are really pilots, we overlook the disappearance of civilian bodies from the scene of the strikes.

Estimates of civilians killed and injured by drones vary widely. The New America Foundation and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, put it in the hundreds while Pakistani sources say as many as 2,000 civilians have may have been killed and injured since 2004 in Waziristan. The same fog exists with regard to the numbers of civilians harmed in Yemen. The conservative web site Long War Journal, counts more than 130 civilians killed in Pakistan and more than 50 Yemeni civilians killed in U.S. strikes.

But the people of Pakistan and Yemen can't lose sight of the civilian dead and wounded. The intention/assertion of distinction and proportionality is not its fact. And the cruel irony of waging a hearts-and-mind strategy which puts civilian protection at its core in Iraq and Afghanistan, while denying the harm to civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, is not lost in those countries.

In July, the U.S. Army released a new "Civilian Casualty Mitigation" manual. It argues that civilian casualties lead to "ill will," undermine U.S. legitimacy, and diminish the likelihood of military success. Among the tools to maintain and regain that legitimacy, according to the Army, is to investigate incidents of civilian harm, acknowledge when civilian casualties occur at U.S. hands, and tell the truth.

It took years for the U.S. to acknowledge that civilian casualties were not only a grave concern to Afghans and Iraqis, but were also hurting the U.S. war efforts. Generals admitted that for every civilian killed, a number of insurgents were born and attacks on U.S. soldiers grew. It is time that the U.S. apply these lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq to the not-so-secret, not-so-legal, and probably not-so-precise drone war.

Neta C. Crawford, a political science professor at Boston University, was co-director of the "Cost of War" project and is author of a forthcoming book about collateral damage.