In April, Jonathan Landay of McClatchy Newspapers wrote a story summarizing top-secret CIA reports on the results of drone strikes conducted in Pakistan over a 12-month period ending in September 2011. More than half the people that the CIA intentionally killed—at least 265 of the 482 targeted—were “assessed” as simply extremists of Afghan, Pakistani, or unknown origin. Many of them were members of the Haqqani Network. The Haqqani have ties with Pakistan’s intelligence service and fight alongside some insurgent factions in Afghanistan—but they have never planned attacks outside the region. During this period, only six of the people killed by drones were top al-Qaeda leaders.
In short, even accepting the white paper’s circular logic, the majority of those strikes fell outside the legally permissible boundaries. They were not aimed at terrorist leaders who pose a threat, imminent or otherwise, against the United States.
The third and final condition for drone strikes outside war zones—that steps must be taken to minimize or avoid civilian casualties—is a real restriction. Officials involved in these operations have told me (on condition of anonymity) that on several occasions strikes have been called off for this very reason, even if the target was in sight. In some instances, the decision to strike or not strike has been made by President Obama. This fact inspired news reports of an “Obama kill list.” The term was meant to shock, but in a sense, it should provide reassurance. These sorts of killings are extraordinary events. It they are going to happen, especially if there’s a risk of harming innocent civilians nearby, it’s better to put the decision in the hands of the president—who is politically accountable—than to leave it, say, to a three-star general or the director of the CIA.
The rise of the drone is not a case of technology run amok. It is the result of political calculation and strategic evasion.
The existence of a presidential kill list should also discredit the popular notion that drones are “robots”—autonomous machines—or that the Pentagon is programming them to hunt, find, and kill targets automatically, without human intervention. The idea may be technically feasible (and drones are being designed to do everything on autopilot except pull the trigger), but it goes against the U.S. military’s command culture. The only thing unmanned about an unmanned aerial vehicle is the vehicle, the drone itself. According to U.S. Air Force figures, each drone flying on a combat air patrol is supported by 43 service members rotating in three shifts, including seven joystick pilots, seven system operators, and five mission coördinators—backed by a 66-person intelligence unit, including 18 intelligence analysts and 34 video crew members. Two well-placed officials also told me of a firm rule that a drone’s weapon will not be fired unless the target’s presence is confirmed by at least two sources—for instance, spies on the ground and signals intelligence or cell-phone intercepts.
This is a crucial point. The rise of the drone is not a case of technology run amok. It is the result of human decision: of political calculation and, too often, strategic evasion. Judging from its expanded use over the past five years, the drone’s chief danger is that it makes war too easy—so easy that commanders, including the commander-in-chief, can fool themselves into thinking they’re not fighting a war at all.
The drones hover at godlike heights. There’s no need to send in troops; even their pilots sit in a trailer on a military base half a world away. In the aftermath of two decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where nearly 7,000 Americans have been killed and more than 16,000 severely injured, remote-control warfare has an understandable allure—not just for military commanders and politicians but for all Americans.
An American Weapon, for Now
The drone’s appeal has not been lost on the rest of the world’s leaders. Eighty countries now have drones of some sort in their arsenals; 16 of them have drones that can be armed with bombs or missiles. To date, only two countries besides the United States are believed to have killed people with drone strikes: the United Kingdom in Afghanistan, and Israel in Gaza City. For most countries, drone ownership yields few benefits. The drones are short-range, and the nations owning them lack the satellites necessary for real-time video streaming or accurate targeting.
But this is bound to change. Monopolies don’t last long in arms competitions, and drones are unlikely to be an exception. An old military adage had it that killing people is easy but killing a person is very hard. That’s no longer the case. It’s easy for an American official to kill a particular person anywhere on the planet, so long as that person can be found. Someday it will almost certainly be easy for others elsewhere to kill a particular American.
Today the armed drone is an almost uniquely American weapon, and its effect, in strictly military terms, is mixed. It is worth recalling the many times a drone has reportedly killed a “number 3 leader of al-Qaeda.” There was always some number 4 leader of al-Qaeda standing by to take his place. It’s become a high-tech reprise of the body-count syndrome from the Vietnam War—the illusion that there’s a relationship between the number of enemy killed and the proximity to victory.
Drones are weapons of war, sometimes very useful ones. They make it possible to kill someone more easily than ever. But killing someone, even a major enemy combatant, doesn’t mean winning, or even getting closer to winning, a war. Depending on how the killing is done, it could push the war’s strategic goal further away.
Fred Kaplan is national-security columnist for Slate and the author of four books, including The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (Simon & Schuster, 2013).