The Excellent Age of No-Fuss Drones and Remarkable War

I wanted to make sure everyone saw Dexter Filkins' response to this weeks news regarding Obama's justification for the killing of American citizens, as well as the hearings to confirm John Brennan. Filkins describes an earlier visit to meet with villagers in Yemen. The villagers were survivors of an attack by their own government against an alleged Al Qaeda training camp.

Except it later came out that the attack was not launched by the Yemenese government at all, but by Americans lobbing tomahawk missiles into the town of Al-Majalah. To be clear there were Al-Qaeda fighters in the village but the ultimate numbers are chilling--14 Al Qaeda dead, 41 civilians, 23 of whom were children:

Later, when I spoke to American officials, they seemed genuinely perplexed. They didn't deny that a large number of civilians had been killed. They felt bad about it. But the aerial surveillance, they said, had clearly showed that a training camp for militants was operating there. "It was a terrible outcome," an American official told me. "Nobody wanted that."

None of the above is intended as an attack on Brennan, who has spent the past four years as President Obama's counterterrorism advisor. He has a hard job. He is almost always forced to act on the basis of incomplete information. His job is to keep Americans safe, and he's done that. Al Qaeda's leadership, particularly in the tribal areas of Pakistan, has been decimated. Operating in Yemen, where vast tracts of the country lie beyond anyone's control, cannot be easy.
But, as the details from the Al Majalah show, even the best-intentioned public servants operating with what appears to be decent intelligence can get things horribly wrong. Maybe Al Majalah was indeed an Al Qaeda training camp--maybe those aerial surveillance images were spot on. But, in retrospect, we know that the cameras missed the women and children.

Indeed, if there is one overriding factor in America's secret wars--especially in its drone campaign--it's that the U.S. is operating in an information black hole. Our ignorance is not total, but our information is nowhere near adequate. When an employee of the C.I.A. fires a missile from an unmanned drone into a compound along the Afghan-Pakistani border, he almost certainly doesn't know for sure whom he's shooting at. 

Most drone strikes in Pakistan, as an American official explained to me during my visit there in 2011, are what are known as "signature strikes." That is, the C.I.A. is shooting at a target that matches a pattern of behavior that they've deemed suspicious. Often, they get it right and they kill the bad guys. Sometimes, they get it wrong. When Brennan claimed, as he did in 2011--clearly referring to the drone campaign--that "there hasn't been a single collateral death," he was most certainly wrong.
In some ways, I think the white paper obscures the issue. I certainly am concerned with the when and why of killing treachorous American citizens. But much more haunting to me is what Filkins highlights here--the lobbing of missiles into the homes of people, and compounding it by claiming to have done no such thing. 

Again it one thing to say, "We understand that there will be innocent children who will die because of this kind of warfare, but we must employ all available means to secure American lives and interests." And all another to say as Brennan speaking for the Obama  administration did, "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we've been able to develop." In fact, there have been many "collateral deaths," but they are of the sort that most Americans will never see and,most of us suspect, don't much care about.

But if that's really true, then there is no need to dissemble. There's no need for words like "imminent" when you really mean "when I feel like it" or claiming that you're acting with a country's permission when you're pledged to acting regardless. Americans need not feel ashamed for doing what states always do--act in their best interests. I think it's highly debatable whether drones are in our best interests. In fact I suspect we're seeding future wars.

But our real problem is that we somehow think we're above our own interests, that our virtue is divine. Our problem is we think we're better than we actually are. We've gotten so good at telling ourselves this.