Unaccountable Killing Machines: The True Cost of U.S. Drones

Furthermore, the Intelligence Community (IC) as a whole has been reoriented to support the killing machine. While that isn't of itself a bad thing, we should be asking very probing questions about whether it is necessary and if it is accomplishing the goals it should. The IC already struggles with making useful predictive analysis (i.e. understanding threats to the country and thinking of ways to respond to them). By focusing the IC so strongly on the identification of individuals to kill, the drones program is distorting the collection and analysis priorities of the IC, and in a very real way restricting the resources available to responding to larger economic, military, and nuclear threats. Bureaucracy becomes its own force after a while, and the possibility of ever reassigning these analysts and decision makers becomes less and less realistic the longer the program exists.

A final, important consequence of the dramatic expansion of the drone program is the continued degradation of the IC's Human Intelligence capabilities and the increasing reliance on liaising with "local partners." In both Pakistan and Yemen this has led to severe consequences both for our reputation and for our relations with each government. In Afghanistan, poor HUMINT tradecraft has led to a lot of unnecessary deaths because we relied on sketchy local sources instead of doing the hard work to develop thorough human intelligence. The result, way too often, is firing blind based on "pattern of life" indicators without direct confirmation that the targets are, in fact, who we think they are -- killing innocent people in the process. In Pakistan, the drones program has become so contentious that it's inspired death squads that summarily execute people they suspect of participating in the targetting process. And in Yemen, we are now slowly realizing that our "local partners" are really anything but, and we face the very uncomfortable possibility of being used as pawns to violently resolve conflicts that have nothing to do with us.

This sloppiness with life and death decisions is a substantial moral failing, and should be a huge scandal for President Obama. But, he has decided to both distance himself from it while also taking credit for its successes, even as it focuses on ever less important and marginal figures within the terrorist milieu.

The enormous expansion of drone operations has been a success in the narrowest sense of killing some bad guys. But it has come at an enormous cost: to our reputation, to our morals, to our relationship and status with countries we need to work with to contain and defuse terrorism, and in the lives of the many innocent people we've killed through either sloppiness or ignorance. Rather than asking the difficult questions of whether the success of the drone program has been worth it, though, President Obama has chosen instead to amplify its operations and thus claim victory in killing bad guys, even while he distances himself from the knowledge and personal responsibility for who these dead people are and what crimes they may have committed.

It is an absolute scandal. We owe ourselves better questions and more accountability of the drones we use to wantonly kill people around the planet.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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