The morality of drone warfare
The reports about civilian casualties are unreliable.

Carl T. Jacobson/US Navy

The guided missile destroyer USS Lassen (DDG 82) launches a BQM-74E drone from the flight deck while under way in the Pacific Ocean Sept. 21, 2010.

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  • A London nonprofit disagrees with #WhiteHouse saying drones have caused 45 civilian deaths

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Last week, the London-based nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a series of articles accusing the U.S. of covering up civilian casualties caused by drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas. In a New York Times op-ed on Sunday, retired Adm. Dennis Blair, President Obama's former director of national intelligence, declared that America's drone campaign "is eroding our influence and damaging our ability to work with Pakistan to achieve other important security objectives like eliminating Taliban sanctuaries, encouraging Indian-Pakistani dialogue, and making Pakistan's nuclear arsenal more secure."

In reality, drones represent the most discerning--and therefore most moral--form of aerial warfare in human history. In Pakistan, they keep terrorists on the run. They also help Washington to pressure an ostensible ally that doesn't respond to carrots alone.

"Instead of cutting back on drones, the U.S. should threaten to ratchet up their use if the army and ISI fail to suppress anti-NATO forces in Afghanistan."--Sadanand Dhume

According to the Bureau's journalists, drones have killed at least 45 civilians over the past year. This flatly contradicts White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, who said in June that drones have not caused "a single collateral death" since last August.

Then there's the realpolitik argument. Drones allegedly create day-to-day friction in U.S.-Pakistan relations. Without the bad blood they cause, Adm. Blair suggests, ties between Washington and Islamabad would flourish.

To be fair, neither argument can be casually dismissed. The claim of zero collateral deaths in a land where militants often live with their families, or cheek-by-jowl with other civilians, appears implausible. The strikes--53 so far this year--tend to draw street protests and harsh criticism from the Pakistani press. Both Pakistan's parliament and the provincial assembly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province have passed resolutions calling for their end.

On closer examination, however, this case collapses. According to U.S. government officials quoted in the Times, the Bureau's reportage is unreliable. To begin with, Pakistani authorities, and the local reporters they hold sway over, have an incentive to fabricate or exaggerate casualty figures. And the reports rely, at least in part, on information provided by a Pakistani lawyer who publicly outed the CIA's undercover station chief last year.

Though even a single civilian casualty ought not to be taken lightly, the focus on alleged collateral damage distorts the essence of the drone program. Technology allows highly trained operators to observe targets on the ground for as much as 72 hours in advance. Software engineers typically model the blast radius for a missile or bomb strike. Lawyers weigh in on which laws apply and entire categories of potential targets--including mosques, hospitals and schools--are almost always out of bounds. All these procedures protect innocent civilian life.

As for affecting U.S. popularity, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey, the U.S. favorability rating--long battered by conspiracy theories and an anti-American media--hovers at about 12%, almost exactly where it stood before the drone program's advent in 2004.

The program also serves a larger purpose. One of Washington's most pressing objectives in Pakistan is to end the use of its territory for attacks on NATO forces in Afghanistan. Another is to wean the country off its historic support for terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, India and beyond. It cannot achieve either without the help of the Pakistani army and its notorious spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence.

But the Pakistani army, riddled with jihadist sympathizers, and with a two-decade old belief in its mission to dominate Afghanistan and bleed India, has shown little inclination to do much more than the bare minimum. The violently anti-American Haqqani network remains comfortably ensconced in North Waziristan near the Afghan border. And terrorists such as Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, whose group was behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people, including six Americans, routinely give inflammatory speeches to adoring crowds.

Against this backdrop, drones offer a practical way to eliminate some terrorists and keep others on the run. They also raise the incentives for the Pakistani military to crack down on terrorism, or else deal with the social unrest unleashed by the strikes.

Instead of cutting back on drones, the U.S. should threaten to ratchet up their use if the army and ISI fail to suppress anti-NATO forces in Afghanistan. Over $20 billion in aid in the past decade has not done enough to alter Islamabad's behavior. A carefully calibrated drone strategy, backed by resolve to stay the course in Afghanistan, may produce better results.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

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