Striking Back on the Drone Debate: 3 Questions

October 24, 2013

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations are again drawing attention to the issue of the “drone campaign” waged in the remote regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) by the United States.  Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, currently visiting Washington, is certain to raise the issue of these attacks.  Pakistani opposition groups—including umbrella organizations like the Defence of Pakistan Council (which includes prominent leaders of Islamist political parties and militant groups) and political leaders like Imran Khan of the PTI—condemn these attacks as a violation of sovereignty.  International bodies have, in turn, criticized Pakistan for not doing enough to assert its sovereignty and protect its citizens—an ironic critique given the strong evidence that the drone campaign has had support from the Pakistani regime in the past, including the use of drone basing on Pakistani soil.

Human rights groups, understandably, have a different focus than governments and militaries.  Each civilian death is counted as an indication of a violation of international law, an irresponsible and (perhaps) preventable act on the part of the perpetrator, and (to some) an act of imperialism by a larger power on the territory of a beholden allied state.  Government and military officials in the U.S. and occasionally in Pakistan, take a different view arguing that drone attacks have been remarkably accurate, that civilian casualties are low and actually decreasing in the past few years, and that they are an unfortunate necessity in a shadowy conflict that includes not just the problem of terrorism and militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but also the export of terrorists and expertise to the West.  Many terrorist attacks and plots since 9/11 have been traced back to training camps in the FATA, which is also the sanctuary for Taliban-affiliated groups that continue to menace the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It may be impossible to reconcile these two viewpoints.  But there are certain questions that need to be asked and may better inform experts on both sides of the equation with answers that contribute to better policy and discussion.

1.  How many civilians have actually been killed in these strikes?

The data on these strikes is subject to enormous manipulation. The number of people killed by drones is uncertain.  At times, Pakistani officials and other spokesmen have taken a reductionist view of this problem and stated that since only a handful of key targets have been killed, everyone else killed in the attacks must be considered a civilian.  Recent reports by human rights groups have come up with more realistic figures—at least 400 civilians killed, with another 200 – 500 who “might” have been civilians.

Historically, this is actually a very low rate of civilian casualties: roughly 15-30%, although some sources suggest even lower figures. These figures also verify that the significant majority of deaths in the drone campaign are legitimate fighters.  That suggests then that the arguments of leaders regarding the (relative) accuracy of these strikes are not mere dissembling, but rather reflect a genuine consideration of the relationship between law, ethics, and military effectiveness.  The fact that the governments involved have considered proportionality is not generally credited by critics, but evidence shows that it does seem to be part of the decision-making process.

2. What are the numbers of civilians and militants killed in Pakistan’s conventional attacks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas?

This question is rarely raised, but is a critical corollary in any discussion of the morality of drone attacks.  We know Pakistan has suffered over 50,000 civilian fatalities from terrorism since 2003 (a figure that alone might justify the strikes since so many of the attacks occur in and around the FATA by groups based in that region).  We know that Pakistan has launched major conventional assaults—often after months of preparation—on particular districts in the FATA.  These assaults have displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and by local accounts, have been waged with heavy firepower and relatively indiscriminate targeting (the movement of populations before the assault undoubtedly reduces the number of civilians killed).  But if the number of civilian deaths caused by alternative forms of warfare is significantly higher than drone-related killings, this should be factored into the moral and ethical discussions about the drone campaign.

3.  Given the opacity surrounding the issue, how do we know what we know?

Pakistani critics of the drone campaign tend to live and work far from the actual target sites (drone attacks are limited to a very small area in western Pakistan).  They frame their critiques in terms of sovereignty.  The fact that American weapons are being used for attacks on Pakistani soil and killing innocent people is then linked to assumptions about the growth of anti-Americanism, the contribution of drone strikes to broader support for terrorism and militancy, and the growth of the threat in the FATA to the greater Pakistani state and the international community.

The fact is, however, that our knowledge of drone strikes and their effects is surprisingly limited.  They have clearly been supported, at times, by the Pakistani military and government.  The U.S. reportedly flew drone strikes from bases in Pakistan until at least 2011, and has pre-arranged target boxes where drones are allowed to engage (and other areas that are off limits).  The drone strikes have targeted threats to Pakistan (Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistani Taliban, was a prominent early target).  Press reports suggest that Pakistani military operations in the FATA have benefited from the support of U.S. drones.  Can a country’s sovereignty be violated if the weapons doing the violating are there at the request of responsible authorities?  In the case of Pakistan, where the military has substantial areas of policy autonomy and a long-standing political role, who has the ultimate say on issues of national security and sovereignty, particularly in a war zone?

The question of innocence is another very murky area.  Reporters and journalists have only the most limited access to the FATA, or to Pakistani military operations.  The wide range of casualty estimates demonstrates the difficulties in knowing what exactly is going on.  This reflects, in part, the nature of the conflict. Drone strikes tend to target residential compounds where militants—leaders or combatants—have been identified. The militants fighting in the region, and training for terrorism abroad, live in family groups. Young men are often active fighters because militants from Pashtun and neighboring cultures fight as well as live in their family groups.  These realities challenge Western definitions of combatants, new categories like “child soldiers” (who are usually assumed to be forcibly conscripted, rather than volunteers and family members), and proportionality.

A third subset of this problem is uncertainty about who carries out attacks.  As David Axe has recently reported, there is good reason to believe that a number of attacks are more likely to have been carried out by the Pakistani military (air force fighters or army helicopters) than drones, simply based on eyewitness accounts of the tactics used.  Pakistani attacks are generally less accurate, use larger weapons, and are carried out by multiple platforms working together.  Drone attacks are solo runs with smaller, more precise weaponry.  To an observer on the ground, however, it might be reasonable to assume that any airborne attack was American, simply because the Pakistani presence in the FATA (their own territory, but a very minimally governed space by most standards) is so rare and unexpected.

Finally, perhaps the most important audience is the natives of the FATA itself.  Much of the criticism of the drone campaign is based on the psychological, morale, and alienating impact of the strikes.  Given that the campaign is centered on a small area, with a relatively modest population (the seven areas of the FATA have a combined population of about 3.5 million, and not all are being targeted), it is astonishing that we do not have more firsthand information from the locals about the impact of the strikes.

The information we do have, however, is counterintuitive from the perspective of the drone critics.  Residents of the FATA appear to support the drone strikes, and are in fact much more supportive than the Pakistani population as a whole.  The reason for this appears simple—the social fabric of the FATA, based on tribal leaders (maliks), patron-client networks, local governance through jirgas, and self-protection through local militias (lashkars), has been dissolved over the past two generations by an influx of foreign fighters, foreign ideologies, outside money, and ruthless violence.  The state offers locals no protection, and the traditional sources of protection and support are being systematically annihilated by militants and terrorists (at least some of whom have the support of the Pakistani military).  Drone strikes kill the people who most threaten the average FATA native, and if the Pakistani state cannot provide security, FATA natives will take security from whoever provides it.  This is, apparently, a very inconvenient truth, but it is one that needs more study and much more discussion in the overall debate.  The source of Pakistani opposition to the drone strikes lies embedded in the safe zones of Punjab, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi.  The source of support for drone strikes comes from the regions where the war is being waged.

The death of citizens, and especially civilians, of one state at the hands of another state creates legitimate questions about justification, legal authority, and morality.  These questions are complicated when the states are, officially, allies—killing citizens of an allied nation is very unusual in either war or peace, and a protracted aerial campaign in the territory of an ally is very rare.  Unfortunately, the threat posed by militants in the FATA is significant, and cannot be resolved through negotiation (Pakistan has tried repeatedly, with consistently negative results). Some kind of response is necessary, and finding the one that is least harmful to civilians is a pressing consideration. War is a murky arena of relative morality, and a “war on terror” is even murkier.  A war where the civilians in the target area apparently want the attacks to continue, while the allied government in Islamabad simultaneously supports and condemns them, is a very, very murky war indeed.  In this case, however, the greater good for both the locals and the international community may continue to be served by the drone campaign.


Timothy D. Hoyt is Professor of Strategy and Policy and John Nicholas Brown Chair of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect the policy of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any other institution of the U.S. government.

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force