Throughout the past decade’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the CIA has consistently used unmanned aircraft and missiles as a warfare tactic. For the most part, the strategy has involved targeting Al-Qaeda or Taliban-affiliated persons with Predator aircraft and their Hellfire missiles. These aircraft provide constant video feeds before and after attacks, allowing officials to count successes and casualties and evaluate the strikes’ efficacy. Today, as tensions reignite in the Afpak region and U.S. drone use escalates, the debate about whether these aircraft should be allowed has arisen once again, more pertinent than ever before. Two things are clear, though: In the current war, drone strikes are a lawful course of action and critical to U.S. security.
According to CIA officials, drone technology is extremely precise and used only after extensive information on the target and his environment has been compiled. Contrary to popular belief, drones do not cause mass civilian deaths. In fact, the number of terrorists eliminated by drones far outnumbers the unfortunate casualties that sometimes occur. The policy group The New America Foundation estimates 500 militant and 250 civilian deaths since 2006; The Long War Journal counts 885 militant deaths and 94 civilian deaths; and the CIA reports only 20 civilian deaths. While the civilian losses are mourned, it is relieving to know that by removing terrorists from militant hotbeds, the drone strikes are preventing the deaths of many more civilians.
The ambiguous nature of international law has led to doubts regarding the legality of the CIA’s program, especially because drone warfare has not been addressed directly. Critics like Philip Alston, a U.N. official and well-known opponent of the program, often argues that the program may violate international law. However, expert testimony submitted to the U.S. Congress recently proved that the use of drones is lawful under “doctrines of self-defense.” In other words, because the U.S. is actively engaging in protecting its citizens from attack by militants proven to be dangerous, the strikes are not only valid, they are necessary for self-defense. Not long ago, a legal adviser from the State Department further supported the argument that international law allows for the use of lethal force, such as drones, for self-defense. The only issue, according to the Congressional testimony, is one of public relations: The CIA should work to better explain the drone program’s legality in order to counter false arguments against it.
That is not to say, however, that the U.S., or any other country, should be able to use drones uninhibitedly. While drones are acceptable and needed in the current war, their misuse is a plausible future scenario. The U.N. would be well-suited to establish international guidelines governing the use of drone-like aircraft. Such guidelines would delineate the borders and environment for acceptable warfare — including zones where there is proof of terrorist presence and evident threat to the attacking country.
Still, once international law is squared away, domestic legalities come into play. Under the Bush administration, the CIA used drones to kill U.S. citizens in Pakistan. Similarly, today under the Obama administration, the U.S. is targeting Islamic cleric and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who allegedly guided the 9/11 hijackers and Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan. In short, the U.S. has marked its own citizens for death. The legal fracas that ensues is unsurprising. But the opposition’s arguments fall flat as the need for self-defense becomes evident once again. Just as al-Awlaki’s possession of a U.S. passport does not stop him from targeting America, it should not stop the U.S. government from targeting him as a terrorist. Naturally, approval in this situation does not give the CIA a blank slate to kill any citizen. But allowing the government to remove visible dangers is a requisite wartime concession. After all, there are exceptions, including American citizen-terrorists, to every law and situation.
Unfortunately, the U.S. will continue to face guerrilla warfare in the Middle East and Afpak regions as the war against terror continues. The use of drones, the most advanced and fitting form of self-defense against terrorists, averts the sacrifice of American troops on the ground and is a wartime necessity. While drone use may be guided, it should not be stopped.