McHenry Lee, JHU:
It is often hard to see the effects and consequences of the war on terror at home, especially for a typical college student. This is largely because the conflict takes place halfway around the globe and, unlike Vietnam, this war is fought by a volunteer army of professional soldiers, not college draftees. However, unlike most schools, the Johns Hopkins University plays an active role in this war. The JHU’s Applied Research Lab in Laurel Maryland is one of the leading research and development sites for drone warfare and the facility actually helps the US government build and manufacture many Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. This has drawn much attention to the school for the active role that it plays in the war on terror in the form of public protests from students to pacifist groups, mainly on moral grounds. Are these protests justified? Does the cost of unintended civilian deaths outweigh the benefits of crippling the networks of groups like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State? Let’s take a look at the facts.
Although the military had used UAVs for some time, their use became more prevalent beginning in 2009. The Obama administration embraced the use of drones as a means of continuing the war on terror in the aftermath of the US withdrawal in Iraq and the impending pullout in Afghanistan. In a political environment marked by public weariness of American casualties, drones seemed to be the perfect solution. This is because they require no military personnel to be put in harm’s way, which is especially important considering the negative public opinion that comes with putting US troops on the ground. They also allow for precision targeting of militants and terrorist cells that conventional military aircraft would have a harder time doing. Drone strikes have been used in many countries in the Middle East, ranging from Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most notably Pakistan. In the wake of the US led coalition against the Islamic State, drone strikes in Syria and Iraq have increased significantly in the last few months.
There are legitimate criticisms regarding the use of UAVs, especially when it comes to unintended civilian casualties and the legality of extrajudicial killings. Since its implementation in 2004, the US drone offensive in Northwest Pakistan, also known as Waziristan, has resulted in the deaths of approximately 286-890 civilians and non-combatants. These are only the reported casualties in Pakistan, as, it is very difficult to get correct numbers on strikes in other countries like Syria, Iraq, and Yemen where there are fewer records kept. Although the strikes are mostly successful and have contributed in decimating Al Qaeda’s ranks, international opinion of the United States has significantly decreased because of these strikes, especially in the Muslim world. Many experts think that the regularity of these strikes and their destructiveness have led to the radicalization of even more Muslims and contributed to increasing the ranks of radical militant groups.
There is also the question of the legality of these strikes under international law. In October 2013, the United Nations launched an investigation into 33 US drone strikes which inadvertently led to the deaths of civilians. However the results of the investigation were inconclusive because of the UN’s inability to access the US drone program’s classified statistics.
Although these are legitimate criticisms, in most cases they are somewhat flawed. These high causality numbers are often because militant networks, such as the Taliban, hide their networks and supplies inside population centers or in extremely remote regions where on-the-ground intelligence is hard to verify. Any strike, manned or unmanned, on enemy infrastructure or personnel would undoubtedly result in collateral damage. Most of these strikes occur in the Pakistani tribal regions where accurate post action reports are hard to verify. Because of this, it is believed that the Taliban has inflated civilian causality tolls to make the United States look bad. Though these numbers appear high, they are actually lower than most estimates suggest would occur in a conventional ground assault or manned aerial strikes. In conventional military strikes in the war on terror, it is estimated that around 33-40% of total casualties are civilians. These numbers dwarf the 16% civilian casualty rate from drone strikes in 2011, and this number is increasingly getting smaller every year. This is because drones are controlled by pilots in offsite locations which allows them to survey and observe potential targets for up to 18 hours, ultimately giving operatives a better understanding of whether the target that they are observing is in fact an enemy combatant. This allows US forces to analyze the potential effects a strike would have on any civilians in the area. Ground troops, in most cases, would not be able to get close enough to make this distinction and manned aerial strikes are much less precise and are more easily detected by the enemy. It is for this reason that most military experts recommend drone strikes as the most accurate and precise form of targeting.
Drone strikes can also be defended from a moral standpoint because terrorist leaders and militants who are killed in strikes are prevented from continuing attacks against civilian populations. If terrorists were allowed to continue their jihad without fear of retribution, there would certainly be more violent attacks in the Middle East and South Asia and possibly in Europe or the United States as well. In other words, UAV strikes have decimated the leadership ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and have severely weakened their forces’ ability to attack civilians.
Along with a high casualty count, drone strikes have forced militants to change their strategy. They are forced to go underground, figuratively and literally, which reduces their ability to launch effective attacks against military and civilian targets. Without the fear of drone attacks, the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan would have a much easier time planning and conducting operations like the horrific school shooting that took place in December 2014.
Although drone use continues to remain a controversial and unpopular practice both at home and abroad, its benefits are too great for the administration and the military to abandon. Drones are a safe way for US military personnel to continue fighting the war on terror without risking US lives. They are also a proven and effective way to pinpoint enemy which can blend in the general population as well as remote mountain regions. Although civilian casualties are extremely regrettable, there is no doubt that they have decreased as targeting technology has become more advanced, effective, and reliable. Most of these strikes are necessary and can be justified on moral grounds because they ensure that militants and terrorists do not launch attacks against civilian targets including schools, hospitals, and crowded markets. Drone strikes are a necessary evil which enables the United States and its allies to better target an enemy that does not fight a conventional war and directly targets innocent civilians. In a war in which ISIS beheads and burns their captives and the Taliban slaughters innocent school children, it is clear that a stance against terror groups must be made, and drones are proven to be the most effective tool to do this.