American troops are gone from Iraq and will exit Afghanistan next year, but the United States’ “War on Terror” isn’t over: It has moved from boots on the ground to drones in the sky.
Deployed correctly, drones can be an effective tool in counterinsurgency warfare. Their exceptional surveillance capabilities are supposed to improve accuracy and limit civilian casualties in combat. That’s the theory. The practice has been less antiseptic.
This week, reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International document in piercing detail how drones, President Obama’s weapon of choice on “high-value” targets in Yemen and Pakistan, can sometimes be the United States’ worst enemy.
Researchers found that strikes in remote villages often missed their mark, with disastrous results. In Pakistan, a 68-year-old woman tending crops was blown to bits in front of her grandchildren. In Yemen, five men were killed near a mosque; only three proved to be members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The other two were bystanders. One was a cleric who often preached against jihad.
There is a correlation between targeted killings and soaring anger among civilians towards the United States. Drones hovering overhead, not surprisingly, sow high levels of stress and anxiety into the very people and places that Washington and its allies are trying to win over. Mr. Obama justifies remote-control killing by suggesting that taking down a jihadist leader prevents him from recruiting others. But a misfired Hellfire may be the best recruitment card al-Qaeda can hope for.
And yet as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were wound down, the drone campaign was ramped up. Under Mr. Obama, the U.S. has launched 379 drone strikes worldwide, according to an analysis by the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank. That’s nearly eight times the number of attacks undertaken by the Bush administration. And drone operations remain largely in the hands of the secretive Central Intelligence Agency, not the U.S. military.
The President should explain the legal framework for these strikes, and their strategic logic. That’s impossible without transparency. Disclosing the number of high-value targets versus civilians killed would be a good start. The New America Foundation estimates that in Pakistan alone, there have been 365 drone strikes, killing between 1611 and 2767 militants, and between 258 and 307 civilians. In Yemen, the estimated number of strikes is 92, with up to 768 militants and 66 civilians killed.
Is that kind of “collateral damage” worth it? It’s time for Mr. Obama to make his case.