Guest Post: Obama Got it Right on Drones

by Michael W. Lewis

[Michael W. Lewis is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University where he teaches International Law and the Law of War.] 

On drones there was not that much new from President Obama yesterday, but what he emphasized tells us something about where the debate on drones remains.  Echoing statements that have been previously made by a number of his advisers he challenged the continuing claims that drones are inaccurate, counterproductive and continue to cause increasing numbers of civilian casualties.  He also officially provided some new information on oversight and the approval process, although much of this information is found in Klaidman’s “Kill or Capture”.

Although there have been exchanges here at OJ as much as a year ago in which there seemed to be a consensus on all sides that drones were not causing disproportionate or excessive civilian casualties when compared to other tools of warfare, that issue still appears to be the primary criticism of drones.  You have to look no further than yesterday’s New York Times to see an editorial that claims that drones continue to cause increasing civilian casualties.

As a result it was important for Obama to outline the alternatives to the continued use of drones in places where the local government is unable or unwilling to counter a terror threat to the US.  As I pointed out in the LA Times in February the alternatives are special forces, manned aircraft strikes and cruise missiles, invasion or turning over the matter to law enforcement.  It is important to remember that “law enforcement” in these contexts is the Pakistani or the Yemeni Army.  In the past, attempts by the Pakistani Army to regain control of areas of FATA have been humanitarian disasters.  The Swat Valley campaign in 2009 displaced over a million civilians when the Pakistani Army used artillery, armor and airstrikes to go after ~5,000 Taliban/al Qaeda fighters.  Last year rumors of a new Pakistani Army offensive in Waziristan sent thousands of civilians fleeing the area even though no offensive took place.

The other options, night raids by special forces, manned aircraft or cruise missile strikes or a full scale invasion by ground troops, would all cause more displacement and disruption of the local civilian population than drones do.  It is important to emphasize, as Obama did yesterday, that…

The bin Laden Aftermath: Why Obama Chose SEALs, Not Drones

by Greg McNeal

For my final guest contribution regarding Bin Laden’s killing, I’m reposting (with permission) a piece that was just published by Foreign Policy magazine entitled The Bin Laden Aftermath: Why Obama Chose SEALs, Not Drones.  I look forward to comments from the OJ community.

Why did the United States choose to launch a raid against al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, rather than bombing it?  It wasn’t because of a “law enforcement mindset.”  And it wasn’t compelled by human rights law.  Rather, it was the best option based on the military objectives, available intelligence, and the law of armed conflict.

On the one hand, practical considerations dictated this riskier kind of raid.  The United States needed to have a body to prove, once and for all, that the hard-to-kill Bin Laden was in fact dead.  The recent media fascination with whether the U.S. will release photos of his body lends credence to this concern.

A second issue prompting the raid was that the Obama administration was worried about collateral damage.  This problem is more serious than some may initially suspect.  Abbottabad is a heavily populated city, with nearly 1 million residents.  Moreover, numerous civilian residences and the Pakistani military academy were near bin Laden’s “drone-proof compound.” There’s little doubt that the risks to nearby residents certainly weighed on the minds of senior policymakers and President Obama.  The matter of collateral damage alone, though, may not have been enough to tip the scales away from a bombing operation.

Instead, the issue may have been the uncertainty over whether Bin Laden was even in the compound.  Nation-states are simply not permitted to  drop bombs in the hope they will kill the right person; they need to be reasonably certain they are attacking the right target.  That fact leads us to the legal concerns that may have necessitated a raid rather than a bombing operation.

The Requirement to Positively Identify a Target

Most contemporary discussions of collateral damage skip the threshold legal question likely posed by the Obama administration, namely whether bin Laden or some other lawful military target was actually inside the compound.  Unless that question could be answered to a reasonable degree of certainty, any bombing operation would have been unlawful, even with no or minimal collateral damage to surrounding persons and objects.

This reality flows from the principle of distinction, (or “positive identification” in U.S. military parlance) a fundamental tenet of the law of armed conflict.  Armed forces are required to “at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.”  Positive identification, according to U.S. policies, requires that commanders know with reasonable certainty that “a functionally and geospatially defined object of attack is a legitimate military target.”  In short, directing attacks against civilians (in this context, non-uniformed personnel) is not permitted, unless they are directly participating in hostilities.

 

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