Opposition to Drone Use in Libya

by Michael W. Lewis

Ken’s post and the comments following it display an understanding that drones are particularly well suited to this mission because their longer loiter time makes them more discriminating and therefore more capable of proportional strikes than manned aircraft. As someone who has personal experience with the difficulties of discriminating between combatants and civilians while accurately delivering weapons from manned aircraft in an environment like the one currently prevailing in Libya, I was glad to see this understanding demonstrated.

Unfortunately that understanding may not be shared by a meaningful portion of the population. There are two things working against this acceptance of drones as a positive addition to the battlefield. One is quite simply the Terminator-like creepiness of machines making war against men that many people have commented upon in discussing drones. The other is the perception that drones, because they are remotely controlled, are less accurate than manned aircraft. The opponents of drone use in Pakistan and Yemen, whose legal complaint was mainly about whether the legal threshold of armed conflict had been crossed or whether the boundaries of the battlefield were being improperly expanded, often highlighted the civilian casualties caused by drone strikes to support their opposition. This has left an impression with many that drones are less accurate and discriminating, but are used anyway because they are the easy, low risk answer to military problems (a problem that Ken’s piece on the “efficiency” of drones delves into more deeply). David Ignatius of the Washington Post describes drones as a “weapon that has become for many Muslims a symbol of the arrogance of U.S. power”. The subtext being that the United States does not care if it causes civilian casualties, particularly amongst Muslims, as long as it doesn’t have to put its own pilots at risk.

As Ken posits, employing drones in a humanitarian venture like Libya may help to overcome some of the legal objections that have been raised to their use elsewhere. But broader international acceptance of drone use is unlikely to be achieved until the general public has a better understanding of how drones can actually save civilian lives if employed correctly.


15 Responses

  1. From today‘s New York Times:

    An American drone attack killed 23 people in North Waziristan on Friday, Pakistani military officials said, in a strike against militants that appeared to signify unyielding pressure by the United States on Pakistan’s military amid increasing opposition to such strikes.


    Friday’s attack could further fuel anti-drone sentiment among the Pakistani public. A government official in North Waziristan told Pakistani reporters that five children and four women were among the 23 who were killed.

    I think, in light of Lewis’s post, that we have the Army’s new slogan for Afghani civilians:

    Don’t be angry with us: we’d kill far more of you if we didn’t use drones.

    How silly of those Afghanis to not realize that we’re doing them a favor by killing them less indiscriminately than we could.

  2. Unfortunately that understanding may not be shared by a meaningful portion of the population.”

    Well, I can only speak for myself, but my opposition to drone use in Libya has nothing to do with the fact that they are robots.

    What I am opposed to are strategic and tactical mistakes.  We were promised by the President that we were involved in a limited intervention that would be “days, not weeks.”  When that failed tactically, the US did what governments normally do when they make mistakes and that is double down.

    Now we’re expending further American resources in pursuit of a mission of dubious strategic value, we have no further clarity as to whether the expenditure of those resources will produce any tangible tactical (or humanitarian) results, we are arguably going beyond the mandate of the Security Council, and the President still has not sought the approval of the Congress as he continues to make decisions that increase the scope and duration of our mission in Libya.

    Rather than showing the arrogance of US power, as David Ignatius describes, drone use seems to show its limits.  Drones seem to show up wherever US policy makers cannot find strategic and tactical solutions to significant foreign policy and military questions, in the hopes that technology will provide the answers that the bureaucrats do not have, or the US public will not accept.

  3. But what about the argument that because drones are low risk and more accurate, military commanders are more likely to expand the scope combat operations, etc…?

  4. well, ken, no one is expecting the Afghanis to appreciate it. just the american people, and may be the bloggers here. we have a weapon that is better from a military effectiveness standpoint and from a humanitarian standpoint.

  5. roundsquare,

    Ken Anderson’s piece that he links to in his prior post on drones over Libya on the “efficiency” of drones in jus in bello goes into the argument that you make in much greater depth.  I do not disagree that drones may allow for more attacks than manned aircraft, and that theoretically at some point such an expansion of operations could lead to a less humanitarian result overall.  My point is just that all parties involved in any debate over drone use should begin from the understanding that drones are factually a more discriminate weapon.  That is not to say they cannot be misused.   

  6. What Kevin naturally omits in his comment is the fact that the militants targeted by the strike belong to a group that has an “understanding” with the Pakistani Army that they will be left alone as long as they only target Americans and Afghans across the border. 

    On the discrimination issue that he is apparently raising, the latest numbers I have seen (I believe they were from Reuters) indicate that 6% of casualties from drone strikes are “civilians” (i.e. non-militants or insurgents or fighters, whatever term you want to use for properly targetable individuals that would be considered to be “directly participating in hostilities” or fulfilling a “continuous combat function”). 

    If there exists a non-zero number that Kevin would consider as not representing the “indiscriminate” killing of civilians by Coalition forces I would like to know what it is.  I would also like to know what weapons system (special forces, regular army ground troops, artillery, manned aircraft or drones) can achieve that number. 

  7. I have no idea what the relevance is of the “understanding” between the militants and the Pakistani army, other than to help make the point that the war in Pakistan is doomed to fail because the government there has no interest in actually helping the U.S. fight the militants.  My point was simply that “educating”  Pakistani (or Afghani, or Yemeni) civilians to understand that they should support drone strikes because more of them will be killed if the U.S. used other weapons systems is a strategy doomed to failure.  As long as there are significant civilian casualties from drone strikes — it’s easy to dismiss a 6% error rate when it’s another country’s civilians who are being killed — the Pakistani people will oppose them.  It’s that simple.

    That said, I completely agree with Lewis that no weapons system could achieve zero civilian casualties.  There is, however, a much better choice than relying on drones instead of less discriminating weapons systems: ending the failed wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Now that would achieve a zero percent casualty rate.

    (Query for Lewis: does he think that nine civilians for 14 militants is an acceptable ratio?)

  8. prosfessor heller

    i know you didnt ask me the question, but how can anyone answer that- i dont know if 14-to -9 is acceptable (at least its better than cast lead).

    i agree about your point regarding the civilians, but right now our army is training some afghani people how to fight for when we leave (hopefully) in a few years. targeted killing might anger many and create terrorists, but we can target the planners and the organizers- the people who know the terror “buisness”- and we can make them less effective in their strikes.

  9. Andrew,

    We’ve been in Afghanistan for a decade.  When’s that whole training thing going to pay off?

  10. what do you mean by “paying off”? the situation will never be perfect, well try to help these people as much as we can. the decision when to leave is complicated, and im not that qualified to give you an answer. are you qualified? (obviously youre qualified to  answer questions relating to law, but policy?) 

  11. Kevin,

    I do not believe that 9 civilians for 14 militants is an acceptable ratio, although I am pretty sure that the 9 civilian casualties were neither premeditated nor anticipated by the drone operators.  Moreover that strike has to be viewed in the larger context of the overall actions in which reportedly civilians represent 6% of casualties, which means that a large number of strikes do not cause any civilian casualties.  It is always possible to look at a statistical outlier such as this strike (which absolutely should be, and will be investigated to determine what went wrong) to claim that drones should not be used, but doing so is misleading and undermines any serious discussion of whether drones can be a proportional weapons system.

    Lastly, it is worth considering the overall actions of the targets themselves when thinking about proportionality.  A much larger percentage of the casualties that the Taliban and al Qaeda inflict are civilians (40-60% at least although more detailed data should be gathered on that).  Leaving them alone ensures far more civilian deaths than confronting them.  But perhaps, as you suggest, that is just something that the Afghan and Pakistani civilians will have to deal with.    

  12. “A much larger percentage of the casualties that the Taliban and al Qaeda inflict are civilians (40-60% at least although more detailed data should be gathered on that).  Leaving them alone ensures far more civilian deaths than confronting them.”

    If the United States was making any progress against the militants, I would agree.  As it is, though, the U.S. presence has either affirmatively made the militant problem worse or, at best, not improved the situation.  So the U.S. drone strikes add to the number of civilian casualties; they do not reduce them.

  13. yes, usually when a someone starts a war more civilians die than in usual circumstances. the justification for that loss of life is the protection of the citizens of the US.

  14. While the conflicts/operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan are at least strategically linked, the legal bases for each should not be confused. At least in Afghanistan, reference should also be made to ISAF and not just the US. As long as the UNSC is supporting ISAF, it would seem to be appropriate for States to be contributing military (and other) forces.

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