The Limits of Drone Warfare

As a new U.S. strike kills seven in Pakistan, ex-CIA counterterrorism official Philip Mudd explores the moral questions about where we draw the line—and the next targets we might train drones on.
August 3, 2012 |
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The impact of drones in the counterterror campaign is hard to overstate:  terror groups, like many organizations, develop into global threats not because they can recruit suicide bombers but because they have leaders with vision, capability, commitment, and experience.  Tactical leaders might view a local government as their primary adversary; strategic leaders, from Osama bin Laden to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq to Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, have broader horizons. They see the United States and its allies as the root of their problems, and they inspire groups to respond to their vision. Like it or not, they are leaders.

In warzones, drones are another tool to eliminate this leadership.  Like bullets from rifled weapons that are more accurate for sniper killings than mini-balls from muskets; like tanks that pack more firepower than infantry; like advances in aircraft that proved so devastating against German cities during World War II.  Drones, too, are another advance in the way we can strike an adversary with lethal force, a more surgical, high-tech way to kill an enemy in a warzone, but another weapon in the machine of war nonetheless.

Questions about the ethics of drones, in warzones, would seem misdirected.  We have a common understanding, rules of war, for battlefields.  If you hear an adversary’s voice on a radio and fire a piece of artillery against that position, you have acted within the rules of warfare.  If you strike with a drone, the delivery tool is different, but the target and result are the same.  It often appears that our focus on drones stems more from fascination with new technology than with any real distinction between what a drone is designed to do—eliminate the enemy—and what a conventional airstrike would accomplish.  Drones capture the public’s attention partly because they are a rare example of reality that looks like TV drama.

Beyond the question of whether drones are inherently different weapons, we face a more serious question:  What, if anything, is new? The answer raises a much more complicated series of ethical and policy decisions than the technology itself. In an age of non-state threats that are as deadly as al Qaeda, and more pervasive—drug trafficking organizations, human trafficking networks, and pirates off Somalia, to name a few—armed drones give policymakers, and operators, the option of intervening in areas that are not warzones.  If we can kill one of the few remaining al Qaeda leaders in the tribal areas of Pakistan, a leader who represents a declining threat, why not the leader of a Mexican drug cartel, whose organization in 2012 will destroy the lives of far more American children than any al Qaeda leader ever will?

Many would be uncomfortable with this scenario, particularly if Mexico’s political leadership had not approved.  But what if they had, should we proceed?  Would such a strike be an appropriate use of American force? And if not, why is al Qaeda a more appropriate target than the leader of a drug trafficking organization who will damage our way of life in every city and town in this country?

Many of the groups we worry about operate in areas that, unlike Mexico, do not have effective governance.  Some of these groups are terror organizations.  We have already chosen what our path is against these targets:  al Qaeda-affiliated leaders in Somalia are dead, and the threat from the Horn of Africa diminished, as a result of this choice.  But in the new, stateless battles that are not terror-related, if they are cartels, should we make the same choice?

During the past decade or more, Americans have been clear about their redefinition of national security:  it is not just an offshore threat, a Soviet nuclear arsenal or Chinese missiles directed at Taiwan.  Instead, we expect government to prevent the rise of transnational problems that are reaching our streets from overseas, from Central American gangs to Southeast Asian human traffickers to drug dealers.  But they also have a sense that America is the land of rule of law, where justice is served in a court unless a grave national security threat requires war.

Today, with the advent of drones, we are facing questions about whether we should keep these threats offshore, without an American boot on foreign soil. Do we want to authorize the killing of cartel leaders who threaten our children?  Or do we believe that the expansion of drone killings moves us away from a culture where the rule of law dominates, and toward a culture where targeted killings are accepted as justice?

Drones are not technological challenges.  Nor do they require a fundamental rethink in our concept of war.  They are, however, a potential revolution in how we think about the projection of American power, and the capability we have given future Presidents to intervene without human intervention.  The questions are harder:  Do you want to kill, to reduce an emerging threat before it reaches our shores?  Or do you want to limit authorized killings to warzones?  If it’s security you insist on, we now have the most surgical killing machine the world has ever seen.  Is that the future you want?  And if not, are you prepared to accept the consequences?