The Drone War: Mitigating Collateral Damage

December 3, 2014 Updated: April 23, 2016

Since the terror attacks on 9/11, the United States has been in what is referred to as the “Forever War,” or a perpetual war against violent extremism to keep the Homeland and Americans safe.  A key component for continuing to keep the Homeland safe is unmanned aircraft or drones.  Drones are essential to this effort because they can provide nearly unlimited surveillance on enemies and some have the dual capability of lethality, which has become very controversial.  President Obama has not been afraid to use this lethality in taking out high ranking leaders of terrorist organizations abroad in an effort to cripple these groups and thus keep Americans safe.

However, this strategy has received criticism for several reasons.  Most notably for the unintended civilian casualties or “collateral damage” that has served as a byproduct of a high stakes counterterrorism campaign to eliminate some of the most dangerous men in the world.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates between over 400 and over 1,000 civilians have been killed in strikes.  Several other reports indicate civilian casualties serve as a catalyst for extremists to recruit new members who are enraged at the audacity and carelessness of the United States’ military incursions in their lives.

This bad PR combined with the lack of due process afforded to targeted American citizens who have joined terrorist groups has led to widespread outrage and reform proposals such as “drone courts” that would involve the judicial branch in the approval process for targeted killings.  Steve Coll recently profiled the Obama administration’s drone war in Pakistan and the negative affect it has had on much of Pakistan’s tribal population for the New Yorker.  “‘Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more,’ Malik Jalal, a tribal leader in North Waziristan [Pakistan], told me. ‘They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-16s might be less accurate, but they come and go,'” Coll wrote.  Coll continued, “Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders moved from hujra [guesthouse] to hujra to avoid detection…North Waziristan residents and other Pakistanis I spoke with emphasized how difficult it would be for a drone operator to distinguish between circumstances where a Taliban or Al Qaeda commander had been welcomed into a hujra and where the commander had bullied or forced his way in. If the Taliban ‘comes to my hujra and asks for shelter, you have no choice,’ Saleem Safi, a journalist who has travelled [sic] extensively in Waziristan, told me…During 2009 and 2010, many of the deaths of children and other civilians recorded contemporaneously by the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] government occurred during strikes on hujras and homes.”

While no global citizen who is not associated with terrorist activity should fear for their life, the overwhelming issue of collateral damage boils down to intelligence and a willingness to pull the trigger.  The hellfire missiles that are outfitted on Predator and Reaper drones are extremely precise.  These weapons are laser guided and a leading think tank report on the US drone policy stated that drone weapon technologies “enable greater precision in targeting than most other common means of warfare.”  Unlike inaccurate barrel bombs, which are barrels strapped with explosives and dropped from above, drone technologies always hit their intended targets.  Demonstrating restraint on poor or sketchy intelligence is the best way to try to avoid more civilian causalities.

Furthermore, in a stunning tragedy, a US drone strike thought to be targeting militants of al-Qaeda’s Yemeni faction killed members of a wedding procession in December 2013.  The strike was carried out by the US military, specifically the ultra-covert Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).  Typically, the CIA conducts the majority of drone strikes.  After this particular incident, the debate of whether to shift the drone program fully to the defense department for transparency and congressional oversight purposes changed somewhat.  “The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which carried out the December strike, insists that everyone killed or wounded in the attack was an Al Qaeda militant and therefore a lawful military target, U.S. officials say…The CIA, which runs a separate drone killing program in Yemen, saw it differently.  According to two U.S. officials who would not be quoted discussing classified matters, the CIA informed the command before the attack that the spy agency did not have confidence in the underlying intelligence,” according to a report under the headline, “Debate grows over proposal for CIA to turn over drones to Pentagon.”

Signature strikes, which rely on monitoring digital activity or generic patterns for striking a particular area, are not backed by more reliable surveillance-based intelligence.  Signature strikes are described as “strikes conducted against individuals who ‘match a pre-identified “signature” of behavior that the U.S. links to militant activity,’ rather than targeting a specific person.”

The United States is currently engaged in an armed conflict with members of radical terrorist groups who wish it harm.  Given the state of armed conflict, the issue of due process for non-national, enemy combatants is not an issue.  Scholars are split over whether targeted killings are permissible under international law, yet, there is almost unanimity in criticism for the way in which the United States has conducted their program.  President Obama has maintained that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” prior to a strike being authorized – a standard referred to by one scholar as “folk international law” because it sets a dangerous precedent in which “Once you start picking and choosing from [] distinct bodies of law to create a confusing mélange of vague norms and principles outside of their intended judicial framework, it becomes very difficult to control the longer-term consequences for the stability and effectiveness of international law to regulate armed conflict.”

There is also the argument that targeting terrorist leadership is not an effective policy.  As one counterterrorism expert put it, it is a mistake to think “that if you sort of lop off the top of the pyramid, the whole thing crumbles,” in terms of a hierarchical organizational structure of these terrorist groups.  Shoddy intelligence, in some instances, combined with an inherent desire to decimate terrorist organizations has led to an unacceptable number of civilian causalities.  In wars, there are always civilian causalities, however, the current armed conflict with terrorist groups in which the United States is engaged is atypical and these casualties should and can be mitigated.  It is easy to say the US should rely on better intelligence because the intelligence community is always working to embed more members and beef up their networks.  However, these civilian causalities are a direct result of lost priorities and this must be corrected.