Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ups and Downs of Drone Warfare

I hesitate before trying to argue with Roland Paris about his op-ed on Drone Warfare for two reasons: a) I have not done much research on drones; and b) Roland is about the scariest sharpest person in Canada.  He argued that the US is setting bad precedents by using remote-controlled aircraft in non-wars such as Yemen and Somalia, that the US is engaged in assassinations.  Roland points out that the real escalation in Pakistan has been under Obama from 33 strikes in 2008 to 118 last year.*  He is right to point out that drones are handy precisely because there are few domestic costs (no body bags). 
*  Which might have much to do with the disillusionment with the government of Pakistan as with anything else.
Roland goes on to criticize the secrecy of the target selection, that there is no accountability involved. And I cannot say I disagree too much.  But I guess I wonder how realistic (small r) it is to expect the US or any country to provide information about targeting decisions?  Much exposure of that would reveal the means by which folks are identified--the sources of the intelligence that lead to certain folks getting attention and targeting.

I also wonder what should countries do when potential "evil-doers" hang out in failed states?  Obviously, adversaries will go where they don't have to worry about hostile governments.  Yes, they can reside in territories controlled by friendly governments, but such governments may have to bear costs for their support and betray them occasionally.  Somalia is an obviously friendly environment for those who seek to avoid potentially ambivalent host governments.  Given that the US tried it the other way before (1992-93), what could the US do now? 

The other problem I have is with the focus on targeted killings--that while they are problematic, they are better than the alternative of untargeted killings.  Drones may not be quite as accurate as the Pentagon might portray, but they are still far better at discriminating between target and others.  If the choice is bombing cities to coerce and striking individuals (and yes, this is a semi-false choice, but not an an entirely false one), I would choose the latter.  The discussion of drones reminds me of qualms that some countries have had in operations in Afghanistan when a plan is to pick up or capture a senior Taliban leader.  But the alternatives would be not fighting at all or being less discriminate in the use of force.

Still, Roland's overriding point is well-taken--that the US needs to consider all of the consequences of their actions, assess the tradeoffs, be more honest about the processes, and perhaps even make it clear who are the folks making the decisions, even if we are not privvy to the actual bits and pieces of information that lead to the selection of some targets rather than others.


Anonymous said...

Will there be an official history of drone attacks that evaluates their effectiveness such has been done in the course of evaluating other military and specifically air campaigns. Until then do we have the evidence to intelligently discuss their utility?

Anonymous said...

In the same vein: