Posts Tagged ‘drones’

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Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. The views expressed are his own. Sign our CREDO petition to reject escalation in Afghanistan & join Brave New Foundation’s #NoWar candlelight vigil on Facebook and Twitter. But make these your first steps as an activist to end this war, not your last.

Once again, the United States is rattling a saber about killing people in Quetta, despite all the inevitable civilian death and mass outrage. Such a move would show the shallowness of the “just war” talk in President Obama’s disgraceful Nobel paean to Mars. Quetta is a city of 850,000 people, which is somewhere between the size of Detroit, Michigan and San Francisco, California. Imagine targeting a person or group with a drone-borne, 500-lbs., roughly 125,600-square-foot-effective-kill-area [pi x (effective kill radius of 200 ft., squared)] bomb in San Francisco’s Union Square, and you get some idea of the civilian death and injury we’re talking about. (Actually, this kill area is larger than Union Square…)

And if you think that the U.S. would never use a drone to drop that kind of weapon on a mass of noncombatants that might also contain Taliban heavies, you’d be wrong.

According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, between 35-40 percent of those killed by drone strikes are civilians, and that’s a middle-of-the-road estimate. David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum estimated that as many as 50 civilians die for every two militants. The drones have been used in such an indiscriminate way that British legal expert Lord Bingham, a senior law lord, said:

the aircraft could follow other weapons considered “so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance” in being consigned to the history books. He likened drones, which have killed hundreds of civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gaza, to cluster bombs and landmines.

Former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter expresses a similar sentiment in his recent Truthdig column:

Rather than furthering the U.S. cause in the “war on terror,” the [remotely piloted vehicle] RPV program, which President Obama seeks to expand in the Af-Pak theater, in reality represents a force-enhancement tool for the Taliban. Its indiscriminate application of death and destruction serves as a recruitment vehicle, with scores of new jihadists rising up to replace each individual who might have been killed by a missile attack. Like the surge that it is designed to complement, the expanded RPV program plays into the hands of those whom America is ostensibly targeting. While the U.S. military, aided by a fawning press, may seek to disguise the reality of the RPV program through catchy slogans such as “warheads through foreheads,” in reality it is murder by another name.

If the U.S. pushes ahead with the idea of targeting suspected militants in Quetta, we can put this idea of “just war” to bed. Or, in any of the inevitable civilian graves.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

Apparently I underestimated the U.S. government’s capacity for crazy.

Last week, I said:

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In the days after my attribution of a modicum of good sense and humanitarian concern to the U.S. government, the Telegraph reported that the U.S. is threatening to launch drone attacks against suspected Taliban targets in Quetta. The story labels this potential move a “major escalation,” and they’re not kidding.

[L]ast week Anne Patterson, America’s ambassador to Islamabad, told the Daily Telegraph that the offensive in Swat was not targeting the insurgents posing the greatest danger to Nato forces in Afghanistan.An official at the Pakistani interior ministry told the Daily Telegraph: “The Americans said we have been raising this issue with you time and again. These elements are attacking Nato forces in southern Afghanistan, especially in Helmand. The Americans said ‘If you don’t take action, we will.'”

US unmanned drone strikes have so far been confined to Pakistan’s federally administrated tribal border regions where Islamabad holds little sway. But attacks in or around Quetta, in Baluchistan, would strike deep into the Pakistan government’s territory and are likely to cause a huge outcry in the country.

This is crazy town, people. An attack on Quetta would cause a phase shift in Pakistan. We’re talking destabilization par excellence. A recent poll by Gallup Pakistan showed that the Pakistanis view the U.S. as the biggest threat to their country, far surpassing India and the Taliban:

When respondents were asked what they consider to be the biggest threat to the nation of Pakistan, 11 per cent of the population identified the Taliban fighters, who have been blamed for scores of deadly bomb attacks across the country in recent years.

Another 18 per cent said that they believe that the greatest threat came from neighbouring India, which has fought three wars with Pakistan since partition in 1947.

But an overwhelming number, 59 per cent of respondents, said the greatest threat to Pakistan right now is, in fact, the US…

That kind of visceral reaction to the United States comes, in large part, from a popular rejection of U.S. drone activity over Pakistan. From a May op-ed in the NYT by Kilcullen and Exum:

[T]he drone war has created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians…the strikes are now exciting visceral opposition across a broad spectrum of Pakistani opinion in Punjab and Sindh, the nation’s two most populous provinces. Covered extensively by the news media, drone attacks are popularly believed to have caused even more civilian casualties than is actually the case. The persistence of these attacks on Pakistani territory offends people’s deepest sensibilities, alienates them from their government, and contributes to Pakistan’s instability.

An airstrike open-season over Quetta would be the apotheosis of stupid. It would cause public opinion in Pakistan regarding the U.S. to metastasize further while increasing sympathy for the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Pakistani civilian government, already pushed by public outrage into publicly distancing themselves from the drone policy and assuring their populace that it would end soon, would look impotent and consent to their governance could become brittle. In short, we’d succeed in taking on the role we’ve attributed to the Taliban–the destabilizer of a nuclear-armed Pakistan.

In addition to lighting the fuse on the instability mentioned above, there’s the moral repugnance of firing ordinance into such a densely populated area. From a March NYT story on the same topic:

Missile strikes or American commando raids in the city of Quetta or the teeming Afghan settlements and refugee camps around the city and near the Afghan border would carry high risks of civilian casualties, American officials acknowledge.

Drone operators executing strikes in Pakistan tend to rely on spotters on the ground placing infrared beacons near suspected Taliban targets. (Otherwise, the drone operators are firing on people that appear to be moving dots on the ground, indistinguishable from non-combatants.) Those beacons are often placed by paid informants who have financial incentives to place as many of them as possible, meaning there’s no guarantee the missiles will hit actual Taliban. Thus, the drone strikes have killed massive numbers of civilians and relatively few suspected Taliban or other combatants. But, even if you’re fine with the potential for non-combatant deaths, you still need some functional intel coming in to guide the strikes if the purpose is to kill Mullah Omar and/or Bin Laden.

The Telegraph’s story seems to make clear that we either lack actionable intelligence, or we lack confidence that the Pakistanis wouldn’t tip off the targets and allow them to escape:

Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s interior minister, said the US had so far been unable to provide detailed intelligence to target the Quetta Shura. He said: “We need real-time intelligence. The Americans have never told us any location.”

The lack of trust and/or usable intelligence leads the U.S. to consider even worse ideas, like sending U.S. commandos into Quetta:

Western intelligence officers say Pakistan has been moving Taliban leaders to the volatile city of Karachi, where it would be impossible to strike. US officials have even discussed sending commandos to Quetta to capture or kill the Taliban chiefs before they are moved.

As Joshua Foust noted back in 2008, if we take this belligerent stance of, “Do it or by God we’ll do it,” and then we follow through with boots on the ground or missiles from the air without the authorization of the Pakistani government, it’d be tantamount to a declaration of war on Pakistan.

Note: Derrick Crowe is the Afghanistan blog fellow for Brave New Foundation / The Seminal. You can learn more about the dangers posed to U.S. national security by the war in Afghanistan by watching Rethink Afghanistan (Part Six): Security, or by visiting http://rethinkafghanistan.com/blog.

The Pentagon expects to receive General McChrystal’s troop request by the end of the week (remember, you heard it here first). If we accept Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell’s remarks during today’s press briefing, Defense Secretary Gates will pocket the document until the Obama Administration completes its strategic review. But, Morrell is clearly working to prevent the document from becoming a “moment of truth” for the secretary and the president, and I would be very surprised if a strategy assessment took place without a cost/benefit analysis. After all, a discussion on strategy not constrained by resource considerations would produce strategies as useful as a retirement plan that included “win the lottery” as a necessary step.

Looking for evaluative tools for the upcoming troop request, I flipped through my copy of The 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene and came across this passage:

…Rommel once made a distinction between a gamble and a risk. Both cases involve an action with only a chance of success, a chance that is heightened by acting with boldness. The difference is that with a risk, if you lose, you can recover: your reputation will suffer no long-term damage, your resources will not be depleted, and you can return to your original position with acceptable losses. With a gamble, on the other hand, defeat can lead to a slew of problems that are likely to spiral out of control. …[I]f you encounter difficulties in a gamble, it becomes harder to pull out–you realize that the stakes are too high; you cannot afford to lose. So you try harder to rescue the situation, often making it worse and sinking deeper in to the hole that you cannot get out of. People are drawn into gambles by their emotions…Taking risks is essential; gambling is foolhardy.

The worst way to end…a war…is slowly and painfully…Before entering any action, you must calculate in precise terms your exit strategy…If the answers…seem to vague and full of speculation, if success seems all too alluring and failure somewhat dangerous, you are more than likely taking a gamble. Your emotions are leading you into a situation that could end up a quagmire.

Before that happens, catch yourself. And if you do find you have made this mistake, you have only two rational solutions: either end the conflict as quickly as you can, with a strong, violent blow aimed to win, accepting the costs and knowing they are better than a slow and painful death, or cut your losses and quit without delay. Never let pride or concern for your reputation pull you farther into the morass; both will suffer far greater blows by your persistence. Short-term defeat is better than long-term disaster.

Greene writes these words interpreting the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. They apply equally well to the situation in which the United States finds itself in the same country.

Let’s review how we got here. (Finger-pointing, unless you were one of the brave few who were against a military response to 9/11, is useless. We got here together.) President Bush (backed by almost all of us) acted on our emotions following the attacks without planning all the way to the end. Then, he launched the Iraq war without adequately thinking through the consequences for the endeavor in Afghanistan. While President Obama correctly assailed him for the Iraq blunder (such a small, inadequate word for that crime), he and the Democrats managed a neat trick of being anti-Iraq-war hawks by promising a chest-thumping charge into Afghanistan to “finish the job.” Obama and his allies also failed to plan all the way to the end, to account for things like lost time, sputtering public enthusiasm for another presidential term lost in fever dreams of war and the awful human cost of the tough-guy promises to hit terrorists in Pakistan with drone strikes.

But, damning the torpedoes, we went full speed ahead, and in the period during which President Obama escalated drone strikes over Pakistan, ordered and escalation and then sent the new troops on a push into Helmand, the insurgent influence in Afghanistan went from this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Nov. 2008

to this:

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

ICOS Map of Permanent and Significant Insurgent Presence in Afghanistan, Sept. 2009

The number of insurgent attacks has also followed a steady upward trend since the U.S. invasion.

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan Jan 06 - Jun 09

There’s little doubt that we’re in the morass against which Greene warns in the quote above.  It should be useful, then, to examine Greene’s “two rational solutions” to the problem: the violent, crushing blow that ends the conflict quickly, or the rapid exit to prevent a worse catastrophe.

The prospects for success of a quick, violent blow are dim.  The hardened core of the Taliban is the Quetta Shura Taliban. It’s called the Quetta Shura Taliban because it’s based in Quetta, capital of Balochistan in Pakistan. That’s where we suspect Mullah Omar and possibly Osama bin Laden hide from U.S. forces. It’s also a major city of 750,000+ people, almost all of them non-combatants. Thus, our ability to strike the “violent blow” that could end the al-Qaida/Taliban threat (assuming we’re not willing to drop 600,000+ troops into Afghanistan tomorrow to suddenly begin a textbook counterinsurgency) would depend on our willingness to repeat the carnage of Fallujah 2004 in a city roughly twice its size. This move would ignite Pakistan, to put it mildly, and it would put their nuclear arsenal on the game board in the scramble.

In other words, no sudden, violent blow, absent pristine intelligence revealing the precise, time-stamped location of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, can end this conflict quickly without entailing costs we cannot bear.

That leaves us with option 2: cut your losses and quit without delay. So why do we remain?

First, the strategic complications of the situation boggle the mind. However, the strategic implications of the region have been on our radar for years, but cooler heads without the burden of the 9/11 trauma kept the U.S. out of a heavy military operation in Afghanistan even at the height of the Afghan civil war, and I can imagine that a desire to avoid precisely this predicament played a role in those decisions. But while I do not doubt that the strategic monstrosity of Iran/Afghanistan/Pakistan/Kashmir/India deeply concerns the president, I can also imagine that what really keeps him and his advisers up at night are fears of a possible crisis that would fall most heavily on the civilian population of Afghanistan following a U.S. withdrawal. The human, economic and political costs of our military operation are so high that, absent this humanitarian concern, I doubt we’d still be discussing whether to add or subtract troops. We’d be on our way home.

Regular readers of my blog know that I am a Christian whose understanding of Jesus’ teachings prevent me from supporting the use of violence in any circumstances. The far more (nominally) prevalent formulation among fellow Christians, obviously, is my faith’s adaptation of just war criteria. One of the main architects of Christian just war theory, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and tutor to Augustine, articulated the viewpoint that helped drive just war criteria into Christian thought, and it’s exactly this sentiment that keeps well-meaning people of all faiths and of no faith tethered to the moral “necessity” of a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan:

He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it.

This is the sentiment that bridges the gap between the Sermon on the Mount and the Christian acceptance of war. And, as much as I disagree with it (note the deftness with which it queues noble sympathy for a friend while avoiding the truly revolutionary call of Jesus to love one’s enemies and to not violently resist an evil person), I understand it. However, the middle clause of the sentence is one of the most important pieces of guidance for the just war adherent: “if he can.” Courage is not the only issue, nor is sentiment: likelihood of success is crucial. That’s why the Catechism of the Catholic Church includes in its explanation of just war this explicit restriction on military actions with poor prospects for success:

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3. there must be serious prospects of success;

4. the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC 2309].

Desire to keep harm off a friend is insufficient to excuse your use of violence to save him. To be morally permissible, in this view, your violence must have a serious prospect of succeeding. Otherwise one simply adds to the level of violence and suffering already present.

The U.S. lacks a credible, legitimate partner in our attempt to use counterinsurgency strategy as a means of counterterrorism, and in COIN operations you live and die by the legitimacy of the host nation government. The COIN manual goes so far as to call host nation government legitimacy the “north star.” Steadily rising attacks and maps of spreading insurgency are all symptoms of our lack of this fundamental prerequisite for the success of our chosen strategy. In addition, every single troop increase has been followed in the next year by an increased civilian casualty rate and a persistently increasing level of insurgent violence. Insurgents now have a significant presence in more than 90 percent of the country. Finally, evidence shows that even our humanitarian aid funneled through the military fuels violence in Afghanistan. We lack “serious” prospects for success; it is stretching to even say we have “credible” prospects for success. As such, our use of violence in pursuit of even humanitarian objectives only adds to the butcher’s bill in Afghanistan, and we can no longer be excused by our good intentions.

And don’t think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a massive increase in death and suffering caused by U.S. forces. If one accepts the proposition that our purpose in Afghanistan is primarily to reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States, one should carefully consider the following from P.W. Singer’s excellent book on military robotics, Wired for War:

[Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar concludes] that another unintentional effect must be watched out for. The greater use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of American unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”(p. 312-313)

Singer also quotes Nir Rosen, who expects:

that the continuing trend will “encourage terrorism,” maybe especially among those not fighting that way now. As he explains…not every fighter is an al-Qaeda terrorist intent on attacking the United States. “the insurgents are defending their area and focusing on troops they see as occupiers. But if they can’t kill soldiers on the battlefield, they will have to do it somewhere else” He predicts that the more we take American soldiers off the battlefields [through robotics], the more it will “drive them to hit back home.” (p. 313)

None of the credible violent options in Afghanistan offer real chances for rolling back the insurgent reaction to our presence and to the corruption of the central government, nor do these options hold the potential for reducing terrorism against the United States. Because we lack a serious prospect for success via military force, we cannot justify its continued use. We should therefore make the only justifiable strategic and moral decision by grounding the drones and bringing our troops home, seeking instead humanitarian, political and diplomatic means to alleviate the inevitable suffering caused in part by our bad gamble in Afghanistan.

UPDATE:

Embedded in General Stanley McChrystal’s classified assessment of the war in Afghanistan is his conclusion that a successful counterinsurgency strategy will require 500,000 troops over five years.

Any takers?

The United States should pursue strategies in Afghanistan that focus on reducing civilian deaths and enhancing stability.  However, a report today by Julian Barnes at the LA Times shows that the U.S. is shifting drones from hunting al-Qaida to attacking suspected Taliban in Afghanistan, a shift likely to cause more civilian deaths and further destabilization.

This actual policy of escalating drone strikes runs exactly counter to the “official policy” of reducing airstrikes and civilian casualties in Afghanistan under McChrystal’s much ballyhooed new orders. We know from experience in Pakistan that drone strikes kill far, far more civilians than they do suspected militants, and that drone operators in other branches of the U.S. government are firing their weapons even when they lack intelligence to back them up. Ratcheting up their use in Afghanistan will mean more dead civilians, and a higher ratio of civilian-to-militant death.

While the rationale offered for increasing drone attacks against the Taliban is to “prevent the country from slipping deeper into anarchy,” their use could very likely have the opposite effect. Again, as we’ve seen in Pakistan, rampant drone attacks were used against targets under the rationale of preventing the country from ‘falling into anarchy.’ However, their use helped contribute to one of the largest human migrations in recent history, actually pushing the country closer to anarchy. Drones will not help stabilize Afghanistan.

If the U.S. wants to reduce civilian casualties and enhance stability in Afghanistan, we should decrease, not increase, the number of drone-based airstrikes.

To their credit, the folks over at the Brookings Institution have become one of the first mainstream think tanks to recognize the horrendously indiscriminate nature of drone attacks in Pakistan. Brookings Institute scholar Daniel Byman wrote last Monday:

Critics correctly find many problems with this program, most of all the number of civilian casualties the strikes have incurred. Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.

I’ve been citing numbers that show a worse civilian-combatant ratio (15-1), but the Brookings citation makes the same point: drones kill far more civilians than suspected militants. Good for Brookings for bringing this to folks’ attention.

Unfortunately, though, Byman fails to really get into the details of what causes the high ratio, preferring instead to attribute them to the Evil Taliban:

To reduce casualties, superb intelligence is necessary. Operators must know not only where the terrorists are, but also who is with them and who might be within the blast radius. This level of surveillance may often be lacking, and terrorists’ deliberate use of children and other civilians as shields make civilian deaths even more likely.

The preceding paragraph demonstrates an amazing Fareed-Zakaria-like ability to take the vile and the shocking and transform it into a passive-voice bromide. Translation: “We need good intel to avoid killing noncombatants. We don’t have good intelligence. We don’t let details like that get in the way of firing the weapons, so we kill 10 civilians for every one suspected terrorist. Oh yeah the Taliban are bad.”

Americans should be terrified and horrified that CIA operators use a weapons system whose ability to avoid killing innocent men, women and children depends on “superb intelligence” when such intel does not exist. Essentially, what the CIA is doing is analagous to a police sniper aiming into a bank crowded with hostages with a sniper rifle whose barrel lacks rifling, pointing at a suspected robber and pulling the trigger. When the bullet goes astray due to the lack of a key feature that makes the sniper rifle accurate–the rifling– and kills a hostage, the police officer shrugs. “The robber used human shields.” If the public found out that our hypothetical police sniper knew in advance that he had, oh, say, a 90-percent chance of killing a hostage rather than a robber and he pulled the trigger anyway, they’d be howling for his head on a platter. But this kind of vile nonsense is exactly what the administration asks the American people to accept through further escalations of the CIA’s undeclared war on the Pakistanis unlucky enough to be living near our national enemies.

I repeat:

The strikes have caused such carnage that leading British legal experts “said the aircraft could follow other weapons considered ’so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance’ in being consigned to the history books,” likening them to “cluster bombs and landmines.”

Byman’s analysis of the problem, though, ultimately misses the point. It may be true that the high civilian death rate is bad because it undermines our counterinsurgency efforts to win hearts and minds. However, the real problem is not the political consequences of these deaths, but rather the deaths themselves. Even if the 10-1 civilian-combatant death rate had zero political consequences, it would still be immoral to continue the use of drones. As I said on July 14,

“The worst effect of all this talk about counterinsurgency is that it has reduced the civilian populations of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to mere means to the end of our strategy. They’re not. Drones may be awful in part because their use leads to more terrorism, but the worst effect of their use is the slaughter of people whose right to life exists independent from our goals for the region.”

Get those drones on the ground, now.

UPDATE: Despite its problems, the Brookings article shows that the CIA is lying to the American people about the drones.  Here’s Leon Panetta in a May 2009 speech:

“[Drone] operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting and it involved a minimum of collateral damage.”

Very simply, Panetta lied.

UPDATE II: The Long War Journal just published an analysis of drone strike activity in 2009 compared to 2008 [h/t/ Noah Schactman at Danger Room]. Their study shows that compared to last year, drone strikes have been more frequent and have killed more people, with the total number of deaths for 2009 already exceeding the 2008 total :

…In 2009, the frequency of Predator strikes in Pakistan has continued to trend upwards. There have already been 31 Predator strikes in Pakistan this year (as of July 18) – nearly matching the total of 36 strikes for all of 2008.

If airstrikes continue at the current rate, the number of strikes in 2009 could more than double the dramatic increase in Predator activity seen in 2008.

Using low-end estimates of casualties (including Taliban, al Qaeda, and civilian) from US strikes inside Pakistan, we have determined that airstrikes resulted in 317 deaths during 2008. Already, the airstrikes in 2009 have surpassed that total, with 365 killed in 2009 as of July 18. [see Chart 2, Deaths]

…Another indicator of the increasing lethality of US airstrikes inside Pakistan is the rising average number killed per attack. So far in 2009, the average casualty rate has been 11.77 killed per strike, compared to 8.81 in 2008. [see Chart 3, Lethality]

So, to summarize:

  • CIA drone operators lack the “superb intel” needed to prevent civilian casualties, but are firing their weapons anyway, causing them to kill ten times as many civilians as suspected terrorists.
  • CIA Director Panetta, however, continues to lie and/or propagandize about the drones’ accuracy and “minimal collateral damage.”
  • Despite their indiscriminate and inhumane nature, the U.S. has doubled the rate of drone strikes and is killing more people per attack in 2009 compared to 2008, which has caused the death toll from these weapons so far in 2009 to exceed the death toll for all of 2008.

History will not be kind to us if we continue to use these indiscriminate weapons that kill ten times as many civilians as suspected combatants.

The Wall Street Journal‘s recent editorial [h/t Jeremy Scahill] supporting the CIA’s drone war over Pakistan is rank propaganda. In it, the editors denounce critics of drone strikes who rely on reporters instead of unnamed intelligence sources with unverifiable claims, and they assert that drones–which have killed roughly 800 civilians so far in Pakistan–are humane:

A U.S. intelligence summary we’ve seen corrects the record of various media reports claiming high casualties from the Predator strikes. For example, on April 1 the BBC reported that “a missile fired by a suspected U.S. drone has killed at least 10 people in Pakistan.” But the intelligence report says that half that number were killed, among them Abdullah Hamas al-Filistini, a top al Qaeda trainer, and that no women and children were present.

In each of the strikes in 2009 that are described by the intelligence summary, the report says no women or children were killed. Moreover, we know of planned drone attacks that were aborted when Predator cameras spied their presence.

Wait, wait…despite widespread reporting on the CIA drone war, the U.S. does not acknowledge that we’re even dropping bombs in Pakistan. If the editors saw hard evidence from U.S. intelligence reports that proves conclusively that the U.S. is bombing Pakistan–a country with which we are not officially at war–they should have given it to their reporters so they could write a front-page story about it. But that’s far from the only problem in this propaganda piece.

The overall argument presented by the WSJ–“drones have made war-fighting more humane”–is ludicrous on its face. (Scahill: “Ah, yes, that famous humane war we have all been waiting for. Finally!”) We know that the drones find their targets based on infrared beacons placed by paid informants who get high-dollar rewards for a “successful” strike, and reputable writers on the subject voiced concern that the financial incentives prompt the impoverished informants to sight false targets to get paid. Regardless of the reasons for the errant bombs, though, Predator/Reaper strikes have been absolutely lethal for non-combatants. According to a May 2009 column by Abdul Malik Mujahid, as of the date of his writing:

“There have been 65 to 85 US drone attacks on Pakistan, killing about 780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.”

The assertion that “in 2009 … no women or children were killed” is a bald-faced lie. In just one strike, 35 local villagers, including 10 children ages five-to-10 and four local tribal elders were killed.

But what about the assertion that the drones can distinguish between men, women and children and abort the strikes when women and children are spotted? Let’s think about this for two seconds. Is the Wall Street Journal really ready to claim that, in a patriarchal society like that of the Pashtuns’, any gathering of men spotted by a drone is a legitimate target?

The worst transgression of this piece, however, is the assertion that we should suddenly start believing unverifiable (and therefore unchallengeable) kill reports. Uh, hello…remember this?

[U.S. Army General David] McKiernan, however, hinted that the American airstrikes might not have been responsible for the deaths in Farah. “We have some other information that leads us to distinctly different conclusions about the cause of these civilian casualties,” McKiernan said. He declined to provide more detailed information until the U.S.-Afghan team was able to investigate further.

A U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “the Taliban went to a concerted effort to make it look like the U.S. airstrikes caused this.” The official did not offer evidence to support the claim, and could not say what had caused the deaths.

The military had its own “intelligence” based on “hours of cockpit video.”

The footage shows insurgents streaming into homes that were later bombed, said Col. Greg Julian, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan. He said ground troops observed some 300 villagers flee in advance of the fighting, indicating that not many could have been inside the bombed compounds….Investigators later reviewed hours of cockpit video from the fighter jets as well as audio recordings of the air crew’s conversation with the ground commander. Julian said the military would release the footage and other evidence in the coming days.

That ‘vindicating evidence’ never materialized. It turned out that mistakes by U.S. forces caused the deaths of dozens of civilians. The U.S. stuck to that story until it was completely unable to do so because reputable third parties challenged the official story. We see here the same pattern: a propaganda piece defending government policy, with insiders insisting they have definitive proof of official claims and lamenting the fact that they just can’t show it to you.

And should such evidence turn out to be not so solid, according to WSJ, we should ignore contrary information provided by reporters, which is a fun argument for a newspaper to make [emphasis mine]:

In both cases, the argument against drones rests on the belief that the attacks cause wide-scale casualties among noncombatants, thereby embittering local populations and losing hearts and minds. If you glean your information from wire reports — which depend on stringers who are rarely eyewitnesses — the argument seems almost plausible.

You know, the funny thing about this age of the Interwebs is that news organizations often embed a search engine into their website. You know what else is funny? I used the Wall Street Journal’s search engine to search their site, and found this article that they published online:

Associated Press

PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A car bomb destroyed an Internet cafe and tore through a bus carrying handicapped children in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, killing at least 11 people and wounding many more, police said.

Elsewhere in the troubled region, an apparent U.S. missile strike hit a Taliban training camp, killing 29 militants, while Pakistani troops killed dozens of Taliban in their bid to re-conquer the Swat Valley, officials said.

Must be an isolated incident, right? I mean, the WSJ wouldn’t be caught dead relying on stringers for wire services like the Associated Press who “rarely witness events first-hand.” Right?

Associated Press

ISLAMABAD — Suspected U.S. missiles struck a Taliban compound in a northwestern Pakistan militant stronghold bordering Afghanistan on Sunday, killing three people, officials said.

Err, maybe not.

The facts are these:

  • Drone strikes are inhumane and indiscriminate, regardless of the Wall Street Journal’s propaganda. As of May 2009, they killed more than 15 civilians for every one suspected terrorist.
  • The strikes have caused such carnage that leading British legal experts “said the aircraft could follow other weapons considered ‘so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance’ in being consigned to the history books,” likening them to “cluster bombs and landmines.”

With the mothership’s creditibility already on the ropes due to staff lawlessness, you’d think the Journal would think twice about damaging it further by publishing rank propaganda. You’d be wrong.

Unmanned drones are indiscriminate and inhumane. Ground them, now.

UPDATE: Among the distortions in the WSJ piece is the assertion that one of the things that makes the Predator so “humane” is its compliment of “laser guided munitions with low-explosive yields.” Again, the WSJ’s propaganda piece omits essential information:

However, the Predator has now been joined by the much larger MQ-9 Reaper, which can carry a heavier payload, around three thousand pounds, including a large number of Hellfires and GBU-12 Paveway II and GBD-38 JDAM bombs. These are different types of 500-pound bomb, one with laser guidance and the other satellite guided. Both are based on the 1950’s-vintage Mk 82 bomb ; less than half the weight of the bomb bomb is explosive, and the rest is the steel casing. The reason for having such a thick casing is shrapnel: when the bomb detonates, the casing blows up like a balloon before bursting and spraying high-velocity steel fragments in all directions. It is these fragments, rather than blast, that do most of the damage.

Marc Herold, in looking at casualties in Afghanistan, quotes an ‘effective casualty radius’ for the Mk82 of 200 feet: this is radius inside which 50% of those exposed will die. Quite often the target is taking cover or lying down and the effect is reduced, but if you can catch people standing up or running then the full effective casualty radius will apply.

Obviously, this information disrupts the story WSJ’s editors want to tell, so they left it out. Again, classic propaganda.

UPDATE II: One final, but massive, point of disagreement. The editors are flat wrong that “the argument against drones rests on the belief that the attacks cause wide-scale casualties among noncombatants, thereby embittering local populations and losing hearts and minds.” That’s one argument made by the folks they cite in the article, yes. But a larger and more important argument is not that drones “undermine the war effort by turning people against us,” but that they consistently kill people who are not parties to the conflict, period. The worst effect of all this talk about counterinsurgency is that it has reduced the civilian populations of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to mere means to the end of our strategy. They’re not. Drones may be awful in part because their use leads to more terrorism, but the worst effect of their use is the slaughter of people whose right to life exists independent from our goals for the region.