Earlier this month, the United States finally provided a public estimate of the number of civilian casualties resulting from its drone program that targets terrorists around the world. Critics ridiculed the timing of the report, claimed the number was too low and complained the transparency measures it advocated are too limited. The drone program deserves more scrutiny and accountability as it looks increasingly like how conflict will be fought in the future.
A pillar of U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for the presidency was his opposition to the Iraq War and his pledge to end the U.S. force presence in that country and Afghanistan. His position on the need for greater accountability and a higher threshold for action when deciding to go to war not only won him the presidency but earned him the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. In his speech accepting the prize, Obama focused on the tensions between war and peace, the idea of “just war” and offered what was for many a surprising defense of realism in foreign policy, a position that acknowledged the need to use force in defense of national and international interests. To call Obama a starry-eyed idealist or a naive pacifist, as critics often do, is an unfair and misinformed assessment of his thinking.
Obama has tried to honor his campaign pledge. Since winning the White House he has reduced the number of U.S. troops deployed to fight around the world from 180,000 to less than 15,000. At the same time, he has increased the U.S. reliance on drones, or unmanned remotely operated aircraft, to attack discrete targets. The use of drones has been largely invisible to public scrutiny: The program has been highly classified, the targets are distant and the strikes usually occur in remote locations.
On July 1, the Friday before the long weekend that marks celebrations for Independence Day, the Obama administration released a presidential executive order and a brief — 2½-page — report about “U.S. counterterrorism strikes against terrorists outside areas of active hostilities.” According to that report, between Jan. 20, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2015, there were 473 strikes that killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and between 64 and 116 noncombatants.
Human rights groups challenged the report. They first questioned the definitions of key words: Which branch of the government is involved: the military or the CIA? What constitutes a “strike”? Where are the areas of “active hostilities” and what does “outside” mean? In addition, they questioned the numbers. After all, the report excludes deaths caused by airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. At the same time, other estimates of the number of civilians killed by U.S. strikes in those “areas outside active hostilities” range from 200 to more than 1,000. To their credit, U.S. officials concede that the numbers are uncertain — pointing to the distance and the remoteness of many of the attacks.
Nevertheless, the U.S. says it seeks to minimize casualties and that it acts on the basis of accurate intelligence. In too many cases, however, innocent lives have been lost and the U.S. government has admitted that it got key facts wrong — such as in the January 2015 CIA drone strike on an al-Qaida compound in northwest Pakistan that mistakenly killed two foreign hostages, one of whom had been held for four years. Despite a long period of surveillance, the U.S. had no knowledge that hostages were present at the building.
Legal scholars note that the Obama administration has not yet provided the legal rationale that gives it authority to carry out those attacks. Executive authority in the U.S. is tightly circumscribed: The president can only wage war pursuant to congressional mandate. Yet many of the attacks occur in countries where the U.S. has not officially declared to be at war. In some cases, the targets are U.S. citizens, and the decision to hit them is equivalent to acting as judge, jury and executioner. U.S. citizens enjoy rights that the president cannot unilaterally and arbitrarily ignore. Yet, the “strike policy” appears to do just that. The Obama administration counters that it uses “rigorous standards and procedures” that have “resulted in extraordinarily precise targeting.”
The critics also note that the executive order Obama issued that calls for protective measures for civilians and requires future administrations to release an estimate of civilian casualties each year can be easily rescinded by the next president.
A real and enduring commitment to transparency will be important since drone warfare will be increasingly popular, and not just in the U.S. The proliferation of such technologies is already widespread and their use in conflict has become an increasingly attractive alternative to traditional war fighting. Drones can provide long-term surveillance, provide more intelligence and, when the time comes, deliver increasingly lethal payloads against discrete targets. It eliminates many terrorist safe havens. And not only do drones allow an attacker to use precision in hitting targets, but they avoid the mass deployments of force that risk all other sorts of problems.
Civilian casualties undercut that advantage. And these attacks make war harder to see, raising moral questions about accountability and the ease of killing. Such invisibility is not necessarily a virtue.