The Case for Drone Warfare

Balancing civilian casualties against the damage to al-Qaeda

This article is from the archive of our partner .

The U.S. use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan and Pakistan has long been controversial. The drones, armed with missiles and flown constantly above areas where U.S. troops cannot go, are estimated to kill one civilian for every two militants. President Obama's increase in the program in December was met with wide skepticism. Critics warn that the drones, because they foment anti-American rage and needlessly kill civilians, do more damage than they are worth. Yet  the drones have killed some high-value terrorist targets. Now, some war-watchers are wondering whether the drones could be effective enough to merit the terrible costs. Are they right?

  • 'Battered' Al-Qaeda Is Constrained  The New York Times' Jane Perlez reports that drones have "battered Al Qaeda and its Pakistani and Afghan brethren in the tribal area of North Waziristan." She writes, "The strikes have cast a pall of fear over an area that was once a free zone for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, forcing militants to abandon satellite phones and large gatherings in favor of communicating by courier and moving stealthily in small groups." She reports that strikes sometimes come "multiple times a day."
  • Program Is Legal, Correct  The New York Daily News lambastes critics of the drone program, which it says have "wandered far afield into trying to litigate wartime proprieties in courts." They affirm State Department lawyer Harold Koh, who recently argued for the program's legality. "Koh's muscular statement of a wise Obama policy was all the more remarkable because he had been one of the fiercest legal opponents of Bush administration tactics in the war on terror. Now that the we're-not-at-war types are wringing their hands in Obama's direction, one-time critics in the administration have the duty to talk sense."
  • 'The Moral and Legal Case'  Joint Force Quarterly's Amitai Etzioni makes it. "The reason UAS have recently gained special attention is largely because of their novelty and because their employment is rapidly growing." But he says that the drones are just as or more effective than conventional forces, and that all that remains is building the appropriate legal framework. "We should work toward a new Geneva Convention, one that will define the status of so-called unlawful combatants. These people should be viewed as having forfeited most of their rights as civilians by acting in gross violation of the rights of others and of the rules of war."
  • This War Has Bigger Problems  Outside the Beltway's James Joyner declares, "Terrorists, guerrillas, insurgents, and other non-state actors who are waging war are combatants, pure and simple. And combatants can be targeted for killing rather than arrested. There’s no doubt about that under existing law." However, "The primary gray area in international is what to do with enemy combatants who are captured in an asymmetric war."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.