Drones have become popular recently. Not with the American people, but with the government. During the Obama years, drone strikes have grown by as much as 200%. Frustrating as this is for much of his base, it is entirely consistent with the purported goals of his foreign policy: i.e. to keep America safe while drawing down wars abroad and reducing the military budget.
On the latter two points, anyway, there is a clear case to be made for favoring drones over troops on the ground. As to whether or not it keeps America safer, the answer is more ambiguous, but apparently not to the Obama administration. Progressives like Glenn Greenwald and libertarians like Conor Friederdorf often argue that drone warfare is merely an extension of the tactics employed during the Bush years and that, when it comes to dealing with Al-Qaeda, the only fundamental issue is either fighting them endlessly or seeking some sort of peace.
But this reasoning is flawed. The Obama administration does not use drones because it is so eager to get involved in foreign conflicts; the opposite is true. As I argued last week, drones are more a modern expression of an Eisenhower-like foreign policy: The sort which attempts to address events abroad, but doesn’t want to put any Americans at risk while doing so. A destroyed drone might have had a name, but it doesn’t have a soul. For this reason, they can be used in more dangerous situations than is the case with infantrymen or human pilots.
But the capabilities of a drone aren’t interchangeable with what someone on the ground can accomplish. The administration may not have realized this, but it isn’t hard to illustrate. If the Central Intelligence Agency had used a drone instead of Navy SEALs to kill Osama Bin Laden, not only the terrorist ring leader but 13 children would have been killed. A drone is less discriminate than a trigger finger. This isn’t to say that drones are as inaccurate as the media portrays them to be. In spite of Columbia University’s study on the subject, it is almost impossible to say how many of the individuals killed by drones are, in fact, civilians.
Labeling an individual “a civilian” is a difficult business. There are numerous insurgents with very little interest in an Islamist who might work with terrorists one day and then never hear from them after. Surprising as this may be to some commentators, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have recruited children for their operations. If you are a teenager living in a community where the average income is less than $1,000 per year, it might seem like a good offer if a Taliban recruiter comes to you with $200 to dig a hole by the side of a highway and drop an improvised explosive device (IED) in it.
Drone warfare might not be a war crime but it might not be a wise policy either. A strategy for defeating insurgents requires more than the ability to kill them. Drones can kill the people who dig the holes and plant, but a permanent victory means eventually taking out their recruiters. Doing this requires not just getting the children in Afghan or Pakistani villages to say no when a Taliban operative offers them $200 to dig a hole, it means that the children have to be ready to tell the authorities afterward.
At the very least, this will require that they have some level of confidence that the government can offer protection from reprisals. This might mean more engagement in places like Afghanistan, where it is inevitable and less in places like Libya, where it was inefficient. A drone is an effective weapon when it comes to ending a life, but when it comes to preserving it, a machine hovering one mile above the ground can only do so much. This might be the first premise for a more effective strategy.