Are Drones Defensible?


Friedersdorf believes that my posts on drones are at odds:

Sullivan is … celebrating Obama's drone kills and suggesting that they're part of why he deserves reelection. And yet, in more considered moments, he asserts that the drone campaign (a) violates the constitutional imperative to get Congressional permission for war; (b) constitutes the use of a technology that inclines us to blowback and permanent war; (c) effectively ends the Founders' vision; (d) empowers an unaccountable and untrustworthy agency; and (e) kills lots of innocent children.

Hold on. (a) The war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan was explicitly authorized by the Congress back in 2001. (b) recent research suggests blowback is not inevitable in all cases (although I certainly agree it is a major drawback) and the attacks themselves are extremely effective in what they are trying to do:

On the basis of comprehensive analyses of data on multiple terrorist and insurgent organizations, [two new] studies conclude that killing or capturing terrorist leaders can reduce the effectiveness of terrorist groups or even cause terrorist organizations to disintegrate … [R]eligious terrorist groups were almost five times more likely to end than nationalist groups after having their leaders killed.

(c) What ends the Founders' vision is religious terrorists from mountains in Middle Asia successfully invading and terrorizing major cities in the US and killing thousands. What frustrates me about Conor's position – and Greenwald's as well – is that it kind of assumes 9/11 didn't happen or couldn't happen again, and dismisses far too glibly the president's actual responsibility as commander-in-chief to counter these acts of mass terror. If you accept that presidential responsibility, and you also realize that the blowback from trying to occupy whole Muslim countries will be more intense, then what is a president supposed to do? I think the recourse to drone warfare is about as reasonable and as effective a strategy as we can find. It plays to our strengths – technology, air-power, zero US casualties, rather than to our weaknesses: occupying countries we don't understand with utopian counter-insurgency plans that end up empowering enemies Moqtada al Sadr and crooks like Hamid Karzai, and turn deeply unpopular at home. Given our country's fiscal crisis, massive expensive counter-insurgency is no longer a viable option.

Not that blowback isn't a real worry; not that all of Conor's concerns shouldn't be part of the equation. It's possible, for example, that wiping out the entire mid and top leadership of al Qaeda could make things worse:

What is coming next is a generation whose ideological positions are more virulent and who owing to the removal of older figures with clout, are less likely to be amenable to restraining their actions. And contrary to popular belief, actions have been restrained. Attacks have thus far been used strategically rather than indiscriminately. Just take a look at AQ’s history and its documents and this is blatantly clear.

But as Will McCants explains:

Al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders seek to kill as many citizens as possible in the non-Muslim majority countries they don’t like, particularly the United States and its Western allies … It is hard to imagine a more virulent current in the jihadi movement than that of al-Qaeda Central’s senior leaders. Anyone with a desire or capability of moderating that organization was pushed out long ago.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Clint Watts side with McCants. Bill Roggio returns to basics:

Nine years into the drone program, it is now clear that while drones are useful in keeping al Qaeda and its affiliates off-balance, the assassination of operatives by unmanned aircraft has not led to the demise of the organization or its virulent ideology. During both the Bush and Obama administrations, US officials have been quick to declare al Qaeda defeated or "on the ropes" after killing off top leaders, only to learn later that the terror group has refused to die. Instead of being defeated, al Qaeda has metastasized beyond the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, and has cropped up in Yemen, Somalia, North Africa (including in Mali), and even in the Egyptian Sinai.

And there does seem a danger, especially in Yemen, that drones may be focusing the Islamists' attention away from their own government and onto ours. Which is why this program needs to be very carefully monitored, excruciatingly reviewed, constantly questioned. So yes, I'm with Conor on the need for more accountability and transparency on this.

But if you'd asked me – or anyone – in 2001 whether it would be better to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq to defeat al Qaeda, or to use the most advanced technology to take out the worst Jihadists with zero US casualties, would anyone have dissented? And remember the scale of civilian casualties caused by the Iraq war and catastrophic occupation: tens of thousands of innocents killed under American responsibility for security. The awful truth of war is that innocents will die. Our goal must be to minimize that. Compared with the alternatives, drones kill fewer innocents.

Of course, we need to be incredibly careful to limit civilian casualties even further. Counting every military-age man in the vicinity of a Jihadist as a terrorist is a total cop-out. We should see the real casualty numbers and adjust accordingly. But we also have to stop the Jihadist threat. It is real. And a president does not have the luxury of pretending it isn't.

(Photo: A MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle prepares to land after a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The Reaper has the ability to carry both precision-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles.)