So far in our discussion of drone policy, started here by Urja Mittal, we have assumed that this technology is the most efficient for fighting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. By Urja’s account, the debate over drones is currently an issue of educating the public and finagling legal details. I cannot accept this as an initial premise. Before diving into this debate, I wish to make the following clear: drone technology is promising and may solve long-standing technical difficulties in efficient and accurate air strikes. There is a place for drone technology in this war. But to assume that the role it currently plays is fitting, or even that the program should be expanded, skips several vital debates. My questions for Urja and others to take up in debate are these: How do you conceive of efficiency and utility in warfare? What do you consider acceptable collateral damage, and how do you quantify that? And why do you accept the facts and figures presented thus far on drone technology?
Beginning with the issue of legality, facts, and figures, I agree with Urja that we do need to better define the uses and targets of drones, but I believe we must begin that discussion on a more fundamental level. While Urja cites the CIA claim that only 20 civilians have been killed in drone strikes, other sources put the death toll as high as 10 civilians per militant fatality. Most mid-range studies place the death range at something like 860 to 1,264 fatalities by drones from 2002 to now with an approximate 30 percent civilian fatality rate.
This raises two troubling issues, the first being that no real definition exists to qualify which fatalities were militants or threats to U.S. security. As was noted recently by U.N. officials, the CIA has not set forth the legal terms it uses to justify its strike targets. It is likely that a great deal of the discrepancy in numbers results from the confusion over who in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas and Waziristan constitutes a militant. It is also likely that the CIA is projecting more certainty for most of their low-level kills than can exist. Because local custom dictates a fast burial, there is usually no way to confirm all kills with absolute certainty, even if the drone can hover for hours. The only safe bet in this equation is that no one knows the true efficiency in numerical terms of the drone.
When we speak about the efficiency of drone strikes, we talk about the individuals killed and the relative numbers of militants and civilians. We do not account for the fact that we often strike at madrassas, mosques and village infrastructure. We do not discuss the fact that we eliminate income sources to families by killing husbands and wives. We do not consider that it does not matter so much what our own citizens think about drone strikes and what numbers flash on CNN—it matters what those in FATA and Waziristan feel, perceive and think.
It is vital to this war to understand that we are raining hellfire (literally, Hellfire missiles) down upon the breadbasket of suicide bombers, chipping away at stability, and irking tribes whose conception of justice, honor, war and revenge not many American thinkers understand. While we kill one, we inspire others by ideology and necessitate by cultural norms and economic conditions to join with our foes, and we damage the perception of the U.S. Those in the military who do consider these factors, like David Kilcullen, one of the most knowledgeable on this situation, perpetually raise these problems with drone strikes: perception, regional stability, and the long-term effect on the lives of our soldiers and allies.
Even on a basic technical level, there remain several other troubling factors in the technology’s use. Chief among them is the fact that drones can be and have been remotely hacked for as little as $26. The problems that enabled this hack have been corrected, but it is worth considering that the U.S. is not the world’s leader in cyber warfare. Nor do we seem set to be, nor do we understand the capabilities of this type of warfare, nor is this an isolated incident. And, especially when presented with a low-cost means of upturning the power dynamic, our enemies learn quickly.
Unfortunately, we do not seem ready to accept a learning curve for our foes, at least not in national and news discourse. We speak about militants’ no longer practicing in outdoor camps and relying less on satellite phones as a victory; this just means they have learned to train inside, to use alternative communications. They are learning, and it is harder for us to monitor and strike them, especially with the same tactics and technologies again and again. We also say, though, that these “retreats” are coupled with a severing of leadership. It is true that we have killed high-ranking Taliban and Al-Qaeda officers, but this does not mean that the foe will crumble.
Urja’s argument and most others for the drones rest on her stated argument: “[By] removing terrorists from militant hotbeds, the drone strikes are preventing the deaths of many more civilians.” As we can see, it may not be so simple. We may kill militants, and we may even cut off the head, but this is not a chicken that will run about spurting blood—it is a hydra, and a clever one at that. Drones alone cannot be the answer and may even be part of the problem. Existing data only green-lights this program, and its expansion, if one refuses to think about war with nuance or about our enemy as unique, clever and human.
And this drives us right back to the issue of the numbers that make up our existing data. Even if we are dull enough to think of war in terms of militant deaths at discrete moments, as if the sum total of their deaths had the ultimate impact on this conflict, we must stop and think about the civilian casualties. We may deem 30 percent civilian fatalities a reasonable amount of collateral damage, and we may argue that our actions are legal. But legality be damned—I can do many things legally that I should not morally. That figure does not represent “collateral damage”; it represents whole lives. This is an obvious statement, and it is absurd that we should have to make it, but those lives are of value, more value than we give them.
War is hell. No one will dispute that adage. We can accept this, but when we embrace hell and start to justify the death of civilians, when we compound hell with hell, pretend that our efforts and their deaths are just, and walk away, we lose our legitimacy. We lose the power of our mission, the faith of the world, the hearts and minds of those we are ostensibly liberating. We become synonymous with all that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would portray us as: Iblees, Sheytan, the Devil.
I can accept drones, and I can accept that civilian deaths are inevitable. What I cannot accept is the attitude we have in our discourse and our military operations towards drones and the deaths they cause, the way we count and conceptualize them. I argue that drones have a place in the world, but I believe that we must go deeper in questioning what that place is (possibly challenging the way we discuss the war, our foes, and our goals in total) before we even consider many of those assumptions and debates raised by Urja.