In Opposition to the Implementation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

By Gabriel Brison-Trezise


In his piece in the Jan. 16 issue of the Observer, Jacob Weiner argues in favor of the implementation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). I will endeavor here to refute some of his arguments and discuss more broadly the grave flaws of American UAV use.

American UAV use—ostensibly designed to dismantle al-Qaeda and the Taliban through the targeted killing of their leaders and members—is increasingly comprised of “situation” and “double-tap” strikes. In “situation” strikes, the CIA targets individuals based not on any hard evidence of oppositional militant activity, but on “signature” activities and traits supposedly common to militants. According to the CIA, a militant is not necessarily someone who has been painstakingly and positively identified as such; rather, he is merely any military-aged male in a strike zone, or anybody possessing any of the other “signature” characteristics. That means if I lived in Waziristan, for example, the U.S. might target me for no other reasons than my particular age and sex. I could be traveling in a car with some friends or tending to animals—I wouldn’t even need to be holding a gun or fraternizing with a known militant—when, out of nowhere, two Hellfire missiles are trained on and shot at me. Weiner holds that the moral uncertainty of whether using UAVs now will cause us to use them unjustly later should not stop us from using them in the present. If we accept this as valid, though, we must also recognize that we are uncertain of the identities and intents of a great many of those we target in UAV attacks. If we let moral certainties guide our actions, we should immediately cease our use of “situation” strikes.

A “double-tap” strike signifies an attack on those attending to the victims of an earlier attack, the rationale being that terrorists will come to the aid of their fallen comrades. However, the number of civilians killed in these attacks is, understandably, almost always higher than the number of suspected militants. The U.S. has also used UAVs to attack funerals that they believed enemy militants might be attending. The practices of “double-tap” strikes and attacking funerals are not only callous and ineffective but also hypocritical and illegal. The U.N. has classified “double-tap” strikes as a war crime, and they have been aptly likened to bombing the Red Cross. Additionally, employing “double-tap” strikes and bombing funerals delegitimizes the U.S.’s repeated denunciations of Syria and al-Qaeda—a stated target of our UAV war—for doing exactly the same thing. A great bulk of our UAV attacks are unjust, which Weiner might concede, but what if the U.S. decided to stop performing “situation” and “double-tap” strikes? Could UAV use be advisable then?

Weiner suggests that employing UAVs has resulted in fewer civilian casualties than have ground operations; however, his is a misleading analysis. The data Weiner cites are of UAV attacks in Pakistan from 2004-2007, a period in which the U.S. carried out only 10 total strikes, compared to well over 300 since. Additionally, Weiner’s data rely on American and Pakistani media accounts, which are generally derived from government statistics.

However, the U.S. government has systematically low-balled the number of civilians killed, even suggesting recently that the number since Obama assumed office was in the “single digits”. The governments of both Yemen and Pakistan have also misrepresented casualty statistics, and the Pakistani government refuses to let any journalists or foreigners into Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). This precludes the possibility of a thorough, independent casualty record.

Researchers from Stanford and New York Universities, however, have made perhaps the best attempt to construct an accurate casualty record. They ventured to Pakistan and managed to interview 100-plus eyewitnesses and other knowledgeable individuals. They discovered that high-level militant targets made up only a minute fraction (under 2 percent) of the casualties of American UAV attacks in Pakistan, the rest being either civilians or “suspected” low-level militants, who may or may not pose a serious threat. These numbers are troubling but are not terribly surprising, given the U.S.’s proven tendency to target people based on scant evidence that they participated in military activities. A key component of Weiner’s argument is that UAV warfare yields minimal collateral damage; however, it appears that this is probably not the case.

UAV warfare, especially in light of the associated collateral damage, is counterproductive. It turns local populations against the United States, which they perceive not as a benevolent force but as a terrorist one. One resident of Waziristan described to the university researchers what living under the threat of UAVs is like: “We can’t go to the markets. We can’t drive cars. … Some refuse to leave their houses. Funerals are sparsely attended. Friends no longer visit one another’s homes. Yet no one ever feels safe anyway.” This remark reflects the constant stress and fear under which tribal Pakistanis of all stripes live. UAVs are ubiquitous in the skies above FATA and inescapable for those below. Across the region, school enrollment has declined. American UAV attacks, which have hit Pakistan at a rate of one every four days over the last five years, have engendered widespread anti-American sentiment and increased both enlistment in and civilian support for al-Qaeda. Even Plaw and Fricker, whose data Weiner cites, recognize that the U.S.’s current strategy is “likely to increase resentment both locally and throughout Pakistan and in turn to strengthen the Pakistani Taliban and possibly increase local recruitment.” It makes no strategic sense to use UAVs when they will only turn the local populations against us and compromise whatever support we have built up in the region.

Weiner asserts that, in a just war, using available UAV technology is morally both permissible and obligatory. He presents a scenario of just war in which the only choice is that of weaponry: UAVs or “boots on the ground.” Consider, though, that outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described UAVs as “the only game in town” to combat al-Qaeda, implying that the option is not between UAVs and “boots on the ground” but between UAVs and nothing (or more sparing UAV use).

Thus, the choice Weiner presents is contrived and hypothetical and a relatively pointless one to ponder given the current nature of the U.S.’s UAV program. The injustice of current U.S. UAV use should not, says Weiner, factor in to a discussion of the morals of UAV use generally. But to separate America’s present use of UAVs from the theoretical morality of UAV use would be wrong.

Is it merely coincidental that all of our half-dozen ongoing UAV wars—with another apparently imminent in Mali—are undeclared and, under humanitarian law and the just war theory, unjust? Can a war in which we rely largely or wholly on UAVs ever be just? Well, for it to be just, its perpetrator would first have to conduct it legally and transparently, actions the U.S. has unwaveringly forsaken. The CIA will not even acknowledge the existence of its UAV program, because if it did, it would be forced to reveal what we already know: that its killings are not “surgical” or just, and that it has systematically broken international law (and American law—President Ford barred American intelligence groups from performing any kind of assassination).

Perhaps in the situation Weiner outlines I would favor UAV usage. If the U.S. military could kill Hitler with a UAV or send its just warfighters into World War II to achieve the same end, I would completely favor the former. But the choices the CIA are faced with are not nearly as cut and dry. Its UAV wars have not been approved by Congress, are carried out in utter secrecy, terrorize large numbers of innocent people and are far from certain to protect American lives and interests in the long run. Simply put, it’s both wrongheaded and counterproductive for us to continue our UAV program.

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