02 June 2010

Droning On About UAVs

Droning On About UAVs

At just about the same time last year, there was a flurry of debate about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - commonly referred to as "drones" – to target enemy combatants. Now, there is another flurry with the same arguments, and fundamentally the same debate.

While much of the back-and-forth involves arguments about the challenges and potential failures of the UAV program, its advocates have also documented their success in removing otherwise inaccessible bad guys from the battlespace, while keeping U.S. and ISAF troops out of harm’s way and averting nasty exchanges of gunfire. So-even if it’s complicated - their potential value should not be dismissed lightly.

Every anti-drone commentator clearly describes the contours and texture of the elephant part that she or he is currently touching. At the risk of drastically over-simplifying a complex set of issues, drone opponents seem to have three basic points of concern – but the empirical evidence in support of these points is less than completely clear:

  1. That drones inflict an unacceptable and disproportionate number of civilian casualties;
  2. That targeting specific individuals for these attacks is tantamount to assassination or execution; and
  3. That America’s use of attack drones is unpopular and breeds resentment toward the U.S. – perhaps even igniting a surge in homegrown radicalization.

If one accepts the assumption that killing an enemy during war is at least sometimes justified, points 1 and 2 seem somewhat related. When using lethal kinetic force in contemporary combat operations, most state forces seek to maximize the selectivity with which enemy combatants are killed, while avoiding or minimizing harm to the civil population.

Of course, in insurgencies, this is much more easily said than done. Innocents and combatants do not wear different colored hats as they meander about. And, in reality, the dualistic civilian-combatant distinction is often … shall we say… fuzzy. Beyond that, I will leave the legal and ethical parsing and comparisons to others who are much smarter and better informed about these things than I am.

Regarding the notion that drones inflict an unacceptable number of civilian casualties, Christine Fair has observed that no real “data” have been presented about drone-inflicted civilian casualties. The Pakistani Taliban - whose motives might be in question – are the only source of reporting to the local Pakstani press – and the Pakistani press reports are the source for most of the international news outlets. So newspaper reports may be a less-than-optimal data source. She notes, personally, that “high-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me that very few civilians have been killed by drones and their innocence is often debatable.”

Regarding the assertion that America’s use of attack drones is unpopular and breeds resentment toward the U.S. – perhaps even igniting a surge in homegrown radicalization, this again may be difficult to discern – for at least two reasons. First, local sentiment about drone attacks and their effects mostly come from local reporting and “word-of-mouth.” Even if they are unpopular, the reasons (and there may be many) for that unpopularity may or may not have any basis in fact. Second, survey results – some of which are available - depend heavily on how the questions are framed. So if someone asks you if you hate the U.S. drone attack program – you might ask yourself: “relative to what?” Face-to-face firefights between ISAF forces and Pakistani Taliban are certainly no less likely result in collateral casualties, and the Pakistani people already are reported to fear the Pakistani army's tactics. Fair states:

What is clear enough, however, is that the drone strikes, however unpopular they may be, are likely to be more popular than the realistic alternatives: the Taliban's violence or the Pakistani army's operations, which have displaced millions. Mosharraf Zaidi, a Pakistani journalist and commentator, vividly captured the complex reality in his May 11 piece in The News: ‘The relative popularity of drones is almost as emphatic as their absolute unpopularity. Pakistani military operations have a reputation in the region now, for being so brutal, that entire parts of towns are destroyed. Drones that destroy one or two homes at a time, obviously represent less damage, and therefore, an option that is preferable to the military's artillery campaigns.’

We need to understand empirically the challenges associated with UAV attacks not just anecdotally argue about them. In my post last year, I posed the following:

In the current era of "effects-based operations," shouldn't the moral (in the Clausewitizian sense) costs and benefits of drone attacks be explicitly anticipated, measured, and weighed as part of operational planning? USJFCOM defines an “effect” as "the physical and/or behavioral state of a system that results from an action, a set of actions, or another effect. A desired effect represents a condition for achieving an associated strategic or operational objective, while undesired effect could inhibit progress toward the same objective" (I-3).

Charli Carpenter suggested in a recent posting that “It’s Not About the Drones, It's About How We Use Them.” I think neither drone technology nor popularity is the real issue here. The intelligence-driven targeting process and decisions about who should be killed where and how can be debated from ethical and legal perspectives, but the UAV is simply the delivery system of lethal force – it is not the “decider.”

Moreover, if we could get reliable data, we might still conclude that UAV attacks are unpopular among the Pakstani population. But popularity is not the issue – legitimacy is the issue. Popularity doesn’t drive defense policy. I’m sure lots of things in war are unpopular, but if the actions are lawful, then the interest of the state using that force is primarily not to undermine its own legitimacy.

This leads to the second facet of the problem that we need to get a handle on – the perceptions. That the Pakistani Taliban can control the “narrative” of U.S. drone attacks may be at least as big of a problem as any actual effects of those attacks in shaping what people think of America. The “buzz” about UAVs may primarily be an instrument of TTP’s informational power.