The New Yorker, November 24, 2014 issue
In Pakistan, there have been an estimated four hundred drone strikes since 2008, all with the purpose to weaken Al Qaeda. The Obama administration considers these strikes as successful; they have killed Al Qaeda personnel and inflicted “few civilian casualties”, all while keeping American troops safe. However, this article questions the humanitarian advancement and effectiveness of drone strikes in the Middle East. A 2012 report from NYU and Stanford law students stated that the Obama administration's assertion that drone use in Pakistan is “surgically precise” and “effective” with “minimal downsides or collateral impacts” is false. In fact, the estimated civilian death toll is between four hundred and nine hundred and fifty. The CIA responded to this report by dismissing the counts as influenced by Pakistani and Taliban propaganda. They referred to classified documents that show annual civilian deaths to be “in the single digits”. However, there are reasons to be skeptical of CIA’s estimates; according to former officials, the CIA’s Counter-terrorism Center assesses collateral damage in after-action reports using a specialized, independent group to investigate. However, these investigators assess their colleagues and bosses, so objectivity comes into question.
The article continues to lay out the precedent and justification for the current drone strike policy, citing guidelines and statements made post 9/11 by the Bush administration. Specifically, the counter-terrorism Memorandum of Notification (MON) signed on 9/17/2001 that authorized targeted killings of terrorists and their allies was cited as the foundation of the drone operations. The MON includes guidelines on how to nominate a suspected terrorist for killing or capture and instructions to avoid civilian casualties “to the maximum extent possible”.
In the early years of the drone strike campaign in Pakistan, the Bush administration needed Pakistani government approval for every drone strike. However, by 2008, President Bush approved a plan to increase drone strikes without the necessity of permission from Pakistan. These changes gave birth to the “signature strike”, a strike targeted at any armed military-aged males engaged in suspicious activities without identification needed. According to UN officials, signature strikes are unknown to international humanitarian law; currently, the laws of war dictate that for a person to be targeted, they must have a “continuous combat function” or are “directly participating in hostilities”. As a result, if a suspect is targeted without sufficient information showing the necessary involvement, it is unlawful. The Obama administration’s current position is that the CIA’s remote operators are able to determine whether armed men are against American personnel and interests, and therefore it is not necessary to known names or identifications before ordering a strike.
Additionally, the article describes the Pakistani civilian perspective with multiple interviews with university students in Islamabad. The students recognize and acknowledge the atrocities and terrorist activity of the Taliban, but they also consider the United States a similar threat. It is believed that because of the United States presence in the Middle East, the Taliban exists. Drone strikes only exacerbate the issue, and they create a sense of terror in the villages comparable to the presence of terrorists. Furthermore, terrorists use the drone strikes to garner support and sympathy; ISIS media specialists are known to tweet photos of child victims of drone attacks in Yemen. Through all of the uncertainty and controversy surrounding the drone attacks, the Obama administration has not has not publicly investigated reported civilian deaths or compensated survivors. This has further outraged critics of the drone strikes.
The current controversy surrounding the legality of drone strikes is similar to the debate over extraordinary rendition and torture discussed in class. On one hand, the executive branch’s power to control and order military operations in the interests of national security and war justifies drone attacks against suspected terrorists. This power is evident in the 2001 MON created by the Bush administration, which eventually gave rise to the current policy on drone strikes. This MON used vague and non-specific wording, especially with regard to civilian casualties, stating avoid them “to the maximum extent possible”. This is similar to the language employed in the 2002 Bybee memo on torture, which described torture as interrogation techniques causing pain equivalent to severe injury or death. The broad language allows for multiple interpretations on the maximum extent of civilian casualties. On the other side of the drone debate, international humanitarian law condemns the killing of suspected targets without adequate confirmation that they are directly involved in terrorist activity against the United States. This debate between national security and international humanitarian law was exhibited in the extraordinary renditions court cases, specifically the El-Masri case, which used the State Secrets doctrine to avoid civil prosecution of state officials for torture and extraordinary rendition. This case held that the executive branch and state department had the right to withhold state secrets as evidence from the court to protect these secrets. In order to determine whether evidence or information meet this criteria, officials within the executive department make a decision. This raises the question of objectivity, and a similar conflict is mentioned in this article; collateral damage from drone strikes is assessed by officials within the CIA, who are then reviewing their own colleagues or supervisors.
I personally have mixed opinions about drone strikes. I understand the necessity for difficult decisions and sacrifices in ensuring national security, and this means that collateral damage cannot always be avoided. However, drone strikes are employed often enough that there needs to be better regulation and monitoring in regards to civilian casualties. At the very least there could be a group outside the CIA and executive branch evaluating drone strike collateral damage. Unfortunately, I do not think there is adequate concern for civilian rights in the United States, especially for civilians in the Middle East and Muslims. I have an emotional investment in this issue; I have half of my family living in Iran, a country that is on very tenuous terms with the United States. I have been to the Middle East, and this has given me a different perspective of the region. I deeply sympathize with those living under constant fear of drone threats, but sadly I do not think there are enough people who do.