Drone Drama

In 1996, al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden issued a formal declaration of war against the United States. No serious strategy was developed for defeating what most government officials dismissed as a bunch of fanatics living in mud-brick villages in Afghanistan, shaking their fists at the greatest power on Earth.

Almost two decades later – following attacks from New York to Nairobi to Dar es Salaam to Bali to Riyadh to London to Sana’a to Timbuktu to Benghazi – the US still lacks a coherent plan for neutralizing al Qaeda and its now-multiplying affiliates. The US does, however, have one weapon that it has been deploying to keep al Qaeda off balance – and to thin the organization’s top ranks.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as drones, were originally used for surveillance, in particular by the CIA following 9/11. Before long, however, they were adapted to fire computer-guided missiles. Armed UAVs quickly became President Obama’s weapon of choice in Pakistan and Yemen.

Last week, both London-based Amnesty International (AI) and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued reports charging that America’s use of drones has violated international law, killing scores of innocent civilians and targeting suspected terrorists in ways that, AI asserts, “may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.”

AI and HRW are non-governmental organizations with no legal authority. Nevertheless, White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to their charges, saying the president “would strongly disagree” with the allegations. “US counterterrorism operations,” he said, “are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.”

The concern of AI and HRW for al Qaeda commanders is misplaced. It is neither moral nor helpful to award unlawful combatants, a.k.a. terrorists, more rights than are due honorable soldiers who abide by the laws of war. And make no mistake, AI and HRW are proposing exactly that: They want al Qaeda commanders to be treated as innocent-until-proven-guilty suspects, entitled to all the constitutional rights due an American citizen in a domestic judicial proceeding.

More pertinent is the groups’ distress over civilian casualties – the most tragic component of any war. Intentionally targeting civilians is among the practices that distinguish terrorists from law-abiding soldiers – at least for those not so befuddled as to insist that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” But AI and HRW present no evidence that American drone operators are doing that – though, indisputably, mistakes can and do happen.

How many civilians have been killed by American UAVs remains a matter of debate – and definition: Should an al Qaeda commander’s driver be considered a civilian? How about his doctor or his cook? His wife or son? The use of non-combatants as human shields is a clear violation of the laws of war – a fact that does not appear to raise the blood pressure of AI and HRW activists.

Since 2004, the use of drones has succeeded in eliminating at least 94 top leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and affiliated groups in Pakistan, according to research by The Long War Journal. Those killed have been replaced by other operatives from al Qaeda’s deep bench. Those operatives have continued to plot attacks against the US and its allies, and they have expanded into new theaters.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of HRW, argues that al Qaeda is currently capable of mounting only “sporadic, isolated attacks, carried out by autonomous or loosely affiliated cells. Some attacks may cause considerable loss of life, but they are nothing like the military operations that define an armed conflict under international law.”

Roth further asserts that “the war against al Qaeda is over” and that the US should therefore stop using drones and revert to a strict “law enforcement” paradigm. The paradox he fails to recognize: Doing so would allow al Qaeda to reconstitute its ability to wage the war that Roth claims the US has won thanks in large measure to the use of drones.

And since Roth believes that al Qaeda should be fought only with “law enforcement” methods, he ought to explain how that would work in the garden spots where al Qaeda operatives live and conspire. Would he propose that police forces enter Pakistan’s tribal areas – much of which are now under al Qaeda and Taliban control – and attempt to handcuff suspects? Whose police will be assigned that mission? What happens when governments refuse to enforce the laws (Pakistani authorities don’t want the job, which is why they have secretly consented to American drone strikes) or are incapable of enforcing the law (as is the case in Yemen)?

Another example of fallacious reasoning: Amnesty International asserts that US drone policy sets a dangerous precedent “that other states may seek to exploit to avoid responsibility for their own unlawful killings.” Do AI executives really believe that the rulers of Sudan, Syria, Iran, and similar states are taking into account American precedent before deciding on the most effective means to slaughter those they regard as enemies?

Its pushback against the charges leveled by AI and HRW notwithstanding, the Obama administration does seem conflicted over its drone policy. After 9/11, Congress passed an Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) – a sort of Declaration of War Lite – affirming the president’s power to fight al Qaeda not with warrants and subpoenas but with drones and other lethal weapons. But four months ago, Obama called for the repeal of the AUMF, explaining: “Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end.”

If there’s no war and no AUMF, he would have diminished legal authority to use drones to “dismantle terrorist organizations.” And those implying that President Obama and other Americans are war criminals would have a much more persuasive case. Why the White House would favor such an outcome is a puzzle.

Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security. Bill Roggio is a senior fellow at FDD and the editor of FDD’s Long War Journal, which closely monitors and analyzes US drone attacks.

Tags: , ,


  • A brilliant take on these Human rights wallahs. They should go to North wazirstan and live there for one week and they will know.

  • Anthony Celso says:

    Cliff and Bill:
    You make an outstanding case for continuing the use of drones that have had an appreciable impact on Al Qaeda’s hierarchy in Waziristan. All one needs to do is read the Abbottabad correspondence to find out that AQ commanders are frightened and harried. AI and HRW fury is directly attributable to the success of the drone program—, the successful application of violence secretly enrages pacifists. Based on my own research the drone program is the most successful thing we have deployed against Al Qaeda in the post 9-11 era.
    The argument that we should return to a pre 9-11 law enforcement model continues to enchant certain people who seem oblivious to its likely dangerous consequences. Unfortunately the Administration seems embarrassed by its own success and its efforts to reform and scale back the program is misguided and dangerous. This may be the worst foreign policy team in recent history.

  • Tom Phillips says:

    I think you will find there are a large number of people in western nations who have concerns about the uses that drone strikes are put to.
    In particular the reported use of “double tap” strikes which target first responders to a drone strike. My first impression is that this is not a strategic targeting of a specific individual but a more opportunistic action.
    I am not sure that the right balance has been struck and I would support AI and HRW in raising concerns which the US government has to answer.
    As drone technology develops this issue is going to get more rather than less complex to manage.

  • BC says:

    A great article above with good insight into the UAV programme, which I do support in eliminating HVTs
    On a personal level having studied the group while at university the problem with eliminating AQ is that it is not a defined entity, as has been see in previous conflict. It is an ideology and this makes the problem very difficult to eliminate and deal with one single operation in a set period of time.

  • Jerry Koyczek says:

    “Do AI executives really believe that the rulers of Sudan, Syria, Iran, and similar states are taking into account American precedent before deciding on the most effective means to slaughter those they regard as enemies”
    That statement feels like a straw man argument. I would say that a country like China, Brazil or Russia would certainly take American drone precedent into account when it comes to “policing” dissidents in their spheres of influence. Or in the case of South America, the indigenous. The precedent in question isn’t about America’s perceived enemies launching UAV’s over New Jersey, it’s about quasi-empirical powers noticing that the rest of the world isn’t going to do anything about a few tribesman getting vaporized.
    As a global power the United States asserts a great deal of it’s authority by taking the moral high ground at the UN. The reason why the recent chemical attacks in Syria didn’t propel the US into war is because the empire had no moral high ground to occupy on that issue. The same week that the Ghoutta massacre occurred, the CIA declassified it’s files on directing Saddam to gas the Iranian military. If we ever want to use the brutality of drone attacks to paint a picture of an evil Iran, Russia or China, which we probably will; we should be much more careful about the amount of civilians that we kill with them today.

  • Arjuna says:

    The conclusions of this piece are spot-on. These misguided humanitarian lawyers are doing the world and the USA a great disservice by taking sides with the Al Qaeda propagandists and radical Islamist preachers, who are fanning the flames in Pakistan by exaggerating the collateral damage of these stikes. They don’t understand how much care is taken by our people to AVOID civilian casualties. We shrunk the warheads and ended signature strikes, largely to prevent collateral damage, and we watch targets for literally days to better hit them in a unpopulated spots. Even a Pakistani government internal report recently concluded that civilian casualties made up only 3% of the more than 2,300 drone kills in PK since 2008.
    On a sadder note, again as the piece points up, drone war is not a strategy even if nearly 100 AQ heavies have been taken down (we missed AAZ by hours in 2006 alas). It’s a tactic, and not a very good one when the highest leadership of the enemy knows exactly where the drones are flying and where the kill boxes are. Operations on the ground missions, like the recent ones Libya and Somalia, are highly preferable for intel gathering AND propaganda reasons. The very nature of robot war is chickenshit, and both sides know it. More rounds in more faces and more people joining the US Navy will have a highly positive impact on this conflict. It is much harder to plan ops when you are scared of lots more than missiles from slow-moving UAVs.

  • Andrew R. says:

    Wanting to gradually move away from the AUMF seems like a good idea in that consistent and unending war powers don’t seem healthy for a democracy. What we need is a legal framework for not-quite-war that still maintains American constitutional protections but also acknowledges that you can’t just serve someone with a warrant in North Waziristan or the hills of northern Yemen.

  • Solomon2 says:

    Neither the Bush nor the Obama Administrations highlight post-9/11 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1373. Some like to say 1373 only established an international coordinating mechanism to help individual states nab and prosecute terrorists. Not so; as a Chapter VII Resolution it fundamentally changes international law: member-states now have the sovereign obligation to eliminate terror sanctuaries, etc. on their territory, al-Qaida is “unequivocally” condemned, and all military means “consistent with the Charter” is authorized to combat them. Pakistan’s failure to apply 1373 in N. Wazirstan thus makes the area an open battlefield against terrorists under international law; Pakistan’s claims of sovereignty rights when terrorists are attacked by drone strikes are not supported, nor can charges of “extrajudicial executions” apply when targeting combatants in a war zone.
    Careful reading of the AI report suggests its authors may be aware of the implications of 1373; however, since the U.S. won’t say what, exactly, in international law supports drone strikes Amnesty International disingenuously argues they MAY be illegal.

  • David says:

    Couldn’t agree more, the arguments for the use of armed UAVs is articulate and precise. My blood perssure goes up every time I hear reports from AI or HRW. They are attempting to make a case to provide the same rights provided to US Citizens under the Constitution to those who have vowed to spend their lives planning and executing attacks to kill Americans (combatants or civilians).
    Hopefully the drone program continues (while continuing to decrease the liklihood of civilian casualties) as one thing we know for sure, the various brands of radical Islamist ideology that threatens us will surely continue for the rest of our lives and the lives of future generations of Americans. There will surely be no shortage of jihadis given the ‘incubators’ of Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.
    The fight must continue, and armed UAVs supported with HUMINT on the ground is a great way to reach out and touch these animals.

  • Agent 5 says:

    The Drones are well managed and articulated in event use. There is only ONE use for them-and that’s to kill the enemy. Those who make up stories of concern are useless democratic citizens and in the way of creating PEACE throughout the civilized world.
    Too bad they read the wrong books!
    Go America, the brave.
    Agent 5

  • Scott J says:

    Well done article.
    As far as the AUMF, I think it could be revised and updated, but congressional authorization is a must if we are to continue attacking AQ on foreign soil.

  • DR says:

    The drone program must be good if the usual suspects are complaining. AI and HRW are completely irrelevant in the post 9-11 reality we find ourselves. I too would welcome the utopia they envision but in the meantime its best to keep our citizens safe and our enemies on their toes. Mullah Roth and the rest of his cronies would serve society better if they had real jobs.

  • . says:

    From the little research I have done on Human Rights Watch, George Soros is one of their largest boosters.

  • Nolan says:

    This was an excellent and well-worded article! It frustrates me when the media, humanitarian groups and so-called “experts” bash the drone program without realizing that it is designed to reduce civilian casualties. As you said, mistakes do happen, but the US has come a long way in cutting collateral damage and ensuring their intended targets are neutralized. People forget the firebombing of Dresden, and the carpet bombing of villages in other wars that were deemed as necessary or were actual mistakes. We’d never call our veteran heroes from previous wars evil, because unfortunately awful instances do happen in war. So why is it that these groups want to harp on the drone strikes as if they were evil, when the civilian death count has been relatively minimal? They have been an optimal way of removing our enemies, most wanted criminals and militant leaders in the region.

  • Blackhawk Squadron says:

    There are several instances of drone pilots intentionally murdering medical personnel who arrive at the scene of a drone attack as well as murdering civilians at FUNERALS. Furthermore, the laws of land warfare specifically state that wounded enemy are not to be gunned down as they harmlessly attempt to crawl away to safety–something we see time and time again in the gun cam footage. Come on, Bill, this little piece of yours is quite absurd! Drone attacks may be effective in the sense that they do inflict devastating casualties on the enemy, but they are far from precise and are anything but lawful.
    Animo et Fide,

  • Phineas Worthington says:

    There are some naive enough to believe that all violence, even in self-defense is immoral. They also fail to understand that the deaths of innocents are the fault of aggressors, not those defending themselves. That said, improvements can always be made to isolate targets and minimize the deaths of non-combatants.
    People with a more reality based ideology seek to abate the threats of nefarious people who purposely target and kill innocents for religious and political purposes. I am glad they are still the ones in charge.
    Keep up the great reporting work!

  • Maverick says:

    You must think we live in a world were everyone wants peace and terrorist don’t go around killing innocent people everyday. You have given noting more than hear say. Give hard evidence to back up what you say. Have you seen there funerals they are load with radical jihadist chanting death to America and the rest of the civilized world. And the first responders you speak of are fellow jihadist that are carrying weapons on there back. Blackhawk if you open your eyes you will see what the world is really like and it’s not a fantasy land.

  • Arthur says:

    All the Americans and Westerners in general who justify the unlawful use of drones should consider relocating their family, friends and loved ones to Afghanistan or Pakistan. Its easy to support the use of drones when it does not affect you.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram