The United States program of unmanned aerial vehicles is way beyond controversial. It is, in certain parts of the world, especially but not exclusively the parts where drones are used, positively loathed. Drones are heavily debated within the U.S. as well, with many people seeing their use as prima facie immoral and counterproductive. The case against them is straightforward: They are prone to inadvertently killing civilians, sometimes many at a time, and thus also risk "creating" more anti-American terrorists than they take out.
So why does the Obama administration continue to rely so heavily on drones? There are three possibilities: the administration is incompetent, the administration is evil or the administration has reasonably concluded that the benefits of drones outweigh their downsides. The case for drones is not one you hear much – who wants to be seen defending a policy so widely associated with accidental civilian deaths? – but clearly there is a case to be made, or else the Obama administration would not continue using them. Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, made that case recently on a national security podcast called "War on the Rocks."
Watts does not argue that drones are great and we should all be thrilled to have them. He is not personally endorsing every drone flight since 2001. But he does lay out the best articulation I've heard for why the U.S. might conclude that they are worth the downsides. I've transcribed his points in full:
It's part of the counter-terrorism package. That, I mean, that is the option we've descended on. That's because of the way our public responds to things and because of the challenges we face. I mean, you could trace it all the way through. We started doing everything under the sun for counter-terrorism and now we've descended on the one, two or three things that have been more effective and that people haven't gotten upset about as fast.
If you look back to 2002, we did everything. We were doing "Three Cups of Tea" in Herat [Afghanistan], trying to win over hearts and minds. We were trying to do all these other things. We were occupying whole countries. So you look at how public perception does shape policy. Go back.
The first thing everybody got worked up about was detention. We don't like black sites and we don't like Gitmo, so people freaked out about that. We stopped black sites and stopped Gitmo [Note from Max: I presume he's making a shorthand reference to the decision to stop adding new detainees to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, which is of course still in use]. What's the next thing we get worked up about? Next thing is that we don't like the NSA spying on us. This is round two of NSA surveillance. There was another one, about 2007, the phone calls or whatever. So, okay, we'll take that off the plate.
Right after the surge going in Afghanistan, it was like, hey, we're not going to occupy and "clear, hold, build" and rebuild nations anymore. It's too expensive and we're not good at it and we're not successful. So we pulled that off the plate.
And the only thing that was really effective against al-Qaeda in Pakistan was drones. It was the one thing that we could do. We tried, you know, militia groups, the Frontier Corps in Pakistan, we tried the Pakistani military, none of that worked. It gives perverse incentives, gives them the incentive to keep terrorists around so they keep getting funded. They lightly go after it or don't really have the capability. So we don't like that and we take it off the table.
So you work back around to drones now, which is where we're at. It worked in Pakistan really, really well. And it wasn't until there was public pushback that anyone really addressed the "eliminating hearts and minds campaign" – eliminating them instead of winning them. But we got there because we took all of the other options off the table. So if you can't detain somebody, or you can't drop them off to a foreign partner because they're going to torture them, or you can't use other tactics for rendition, then we fall back to drones.
When you look at the guys who are executing this, they say, "Well I can't do any of these other things, but I have to get rid of bin Laden and his support network, so I'm gonna go with this." And it was super effective.
The pushback is justified in some cases, even though some of it's mislabeled. Like, the 41 people that died in Yemen weren't killed by a drone, it was a cruise missile. That all sort of gets lumped in; anything that explodes for any reason now around the world is the result of a drone, even it's an aircraft or a cruise missile or whatever.
If you look at the numbers, we've backed off of it. But drones are never, ever going to be perfect. They're not going to go away because the secret that everybody knows in D.C. but nobody will say is that they're our best option that we've got out there. We're only withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan right now because we've come up with that drone system where we can actually interdict targets. Al-Qaeda's running all over Africa and the Middle East in the numbers of ones, twos, threes and twenties. And that's the best to keep an eye on them and to interdict them without putting U.S. troops at home.
So it's not going away. And we're still going to make mistakes. There are going to be civilians that get killed. Civilians will get killed in all options.
I'll just add two caveats here. The first is that Watts is assuming we have to do something; that simply ignoring the terrorists is not an option. There are people who argue that this would be the least-bad policy. That argument rests on a hypothetical that's impossible to prove or disprove, in which terrorism would to some degree simply melt away if the U.S. withdrew from those areas of the world.
The second caveat is that this case for drones is not necessarily a case for a much more controversial subset of drone strikes: signature strikes. That's the policy of attacking people who are not actually identified as specific terrorists or militants but who meet certain "signature" characteristics of bad guys. For example, a bearded 20-something male carrying a gun in a remote region of Pakistan thought to be controlled by the Pakistani Taliban might meet the "signature" requirements and get droned. This is a specific kind of drone strike, it's very controversial and I don't read Watts's points here as necessarily defending them.