Two recent reports, released by Amnesty International and HRW, have alleged a number of cases in which civilians have been killed in drone strikes under circumstances that resemble war crimes. There appear to be some flaws in these studies, and these flaws have been discussed in concise and helpful articles by David Axe Timothy Hoyt, and Joshua Foust among others. Setting aside for a moment how much confidence we put into these reports, it seems to me that they imply two possible conclusions.
The first is that drones are not as accurate as their proponents claim them to be. The second is that drone operators are negligent.*
A major argument of the pro-drone crowd is that the technology permits greater discrimination and precision in the use of lethal force. The armed drones that the US uses to carry out these strikes are capable of spending many hours ‘orbiting’ a possible target, allowing its operators to collect further information and to wait for an opportune time to strike. This does suggest that drones are, in theory, capable of a high degree of discrimination; drone operators can spend a while figuring out if they’re about to bomb a legitimate target and to ascertain whether there are many illegitimate targets (ie civilians) in the area. If there are lots of such illegitimate targets dying, then one or both of the conclusions implied by these two reports provides an explanation.
How should we approach these conclusions?
Well, first of all, we have some reason to think that neither are warranted because the claims of these reports might be based upon bad information and analysis.
Second, we should probably compare drone strikes to ‘counter-factual’ alternatives. Unless one is of the opinion that the government of Pakistan should surrender some or all control of its frontier to the Taliban, it seems to me that the only alternatives to drone strikes are some sort of ground operation or airstrikes launched from a different platform. As Axe’s article explains, both of these options, and particularly the former, will likely produce vastly more harm than the drone strikes do.
Third, we should probably want the US government to make more explicit how it ensures that its drone operators comply with international humanitarian law when deciding whether to strike a target. It is unreasonable to expect drone operators to avoid killing any innocent people. Innocent people die in war, and as I’ve already said, the alternative to this war, at least in Pakistan, is a different war that is even more harmful or a peace that would be intolerable to the people who would then have to suffer under Taliban rule. It is not at all unreasonable, however, to ask for more transparency, oversight, and accountability in how the US security apparatus uses force.
Not only that, but such improvements would probably be to the US’s strategic advantage. That is, the perception of the drone strikes as assassinations carried out by shadowy intelligence officers acting unilaterally in the sovereign territory of another country frames them as violating of all sorts of international norms. The more the public is able to see that their worst fears about the strikes are probably not true, and the more the public sees that particular acts of negligence – for it would surprise me if there aren’t at least a few – are identified and punished, the less hostility the drone strikes are likely to garner and the less useful of a rhetorical bludgeon they will be.
*A third possibility is that they’re deliberately targeting civilians, but this seems unlikely to me.