The Arguments For and Against Drones

John Rentoul

drone 300x199 The Arguments For and Against DronesDavid Aaronovitch has a fine column today on the case for and against the use by the US of drones in Pakistan, in The Times (pay wall). As a model of clarity in argument, he first disposes of the irrelevant clutter:

For the purpose of this important argument I will ignore the routine anti-Americans. Some of them will not be satisfied or convinced until they find themselves hanged publicly for blasphemy outside the Caliph’s palace.

Then he sets out the four main arguments against drones, and assesses each one:

1. Too many civilians are killed or traumatised.

To leave the militants alone is, at the very least, to invite attacks in Pakistan and around the world from bases in the borderlands. This isn’t conjecture. But to root them out through a ground campaign would kill and displace far more civilians than drone-use would.

2. Drone strikes fail to reduce armed militancy and may be counter-productive by causing radicalisation.

Young jihadis from around the world can no longer regard attendance at a training camp in Waziristan as the safe bit before the big operation. Remarkably, in view of the arguments of the no-drone campaigners, those who actually live in the areas of drone strikes are less hostile to them than Pakistanis generally. Living with jihadis can be a pain.

3. They are contrary to international law.

This will be tested in the courts and it’s right that it should be. My instinct is that the history of terrorist violence and its nature will show plenty of cause for most drone strikes.

4. Their very cheapness removes an important inhibition in the use of extreme violence.

This point has truth to it. Drones are so easy, so cheap, so comparatively accurate, that we might well feel that we could use them in situations and in numbers we otherwise wouldn’t contemplate. In other words, we might get drone creep. So let’s keep an eye on it.

It seems that the arguments against drones are mostly arguments against the principle of the use of military force to harass and deter jihadist terrorists.

I am surprised that the legal position has not been more discussed, however. The use of military force against targets in a country that has not asked for help seems to raise different questions from those in, say, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. This seems more analogous to the law on assassination, such as of Osama bin Laden. One legal discussion I have seen, of the killing by the Israeli Defence Force of Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas military leader, is rather general although leans in favour of its being legal.

If anyone knows of good articles about this, please let me know.

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  • stonedwolf

    Aaronovitch was the man who similarly shouted, repeatedly, FOR the Iraq war. And then to hedge his bets after the Anglo-American genocide he did a Hari and changed his mind.

    According to US universities drones kill 49 civilians for every militant they get.

    Are Muslims morally permitted similar ratios?

  • creggancowboy

    1. They are the anti-thesis of military valour, killing at a remove. Compare to pub bombs.
    2. Jihadis a pain? Is that why they have popular support in the Umma? BTW plural form is not jihadi.
    3. International law is written by the winner as in all conflicts.
    4. What next? Drones used on the Resistance in the UK?
    Is the Indy operating a “Truth wall”?

  • Trudy Cooper

    …”Remarkably, in view of the arguments of the no-drone campaigners, those who actually live in the areas of drone strikes are less hostile to them than Pakistanis generally.” I hope that the author, David Aaronovitch, offers some citations for this in his article. I’ll check, but since you asked about references for good articles, here are four, that counter this supposition of his. 1) Living Under Drones, Stanford / NYU study, which consists of interviews with people living in Waziristan, the main target of the US drones strikes; 2) Columbia University Study, “The Civilian Impacts of Drone Strikes,” 3) medea Benjamin’s “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control; 4) the book, “Under the Drones,” which is all about the life, culture, and rich complexity of life in the tribal areas, that makes sweeping statements like the one above seem absurd…

    And on the legal side of things, an EXCELLENT resources is Glenn Greenwald. he’s a consitutional law attorney and expert on international human rights and humanitarian law. He has written numerous articles, all searchable on Google.

    Aaronovitch’s insinuation that drone strikes will be found legal based on his “instinct” that “the history of terrorist violence and its nature will show plenty of cause for most drone strikes,” reveals no understanding of international law. Killing civilians and even killing “suspected militants” without any chance for surrender, without charges, without trial, without even knowing their identities before hellfire missiles are dropped on their homes, cannot be justified post mortem on the grounds that “terrorist violence” is so awful. Very sloppy thinking and absolutely no research, if this is his “argument.”

  • RW

    I haven’t seen the figures, but would suspect that drone strikes may not be that “cheap.”
    Morally, the drone is the rosiest dream of the bully/coward. Think about it–being able to rain death and destruction at NO RISK to yourself. Civilian casualties? We just write them off as “collateral damage.” We Americans are never consulted by our government on these issues. Only people who must obey orders have any say about targeting decisions. Given that we are fighting the Taliban next door in Afghanistan and that Pakistan is not fully in control of its own national territory, there might be SOME instances where drone strikes are justifiable there. Yemen, I think, is more of a stretch.

  • JohnJustice

    The difference between drones and Muslim terrorists is that when drones miss their target civilians get killed, when terrorists miss their target civilians don’t get killed.

  • Carl

    On 12 -13 July 2012 I contributed artwork to an international 2 day workshop at The Centre for International Intervention [cii], School of Politics, University of Surrey, UK. The conference, Hitting the Target?” How New Capabilities Are Shaping Contemporary International Intervention, was held to discuss how new capabilities generated by new technology affects intervention at a legal, political and military level. Their workshop brochure has papers from these participants and can be downloaded:

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