Much of the best and fairest treatment of the use of drones in the war on terror that I have read comes in this Atlantic article, “The Killing Machines,” by the outstanding reporter Mark Bowden.
The entire article is well worth reading—it surveys fully all of the problems inherent in drone warfare, from concerns that it removes an essential element of warfare by allowing drone operators to kill with no risk to their own safety, to concerns that it creates more enemies than it eliminates by embittering targeted populations. Bowden rightly warns against relying too heavily on drones, and notes that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has expanded in size during the time its Yemen-based leadership has been targeted by drones.
But he also points out that drones are much more discriminating than bombs or missiles fired from afar and are much less likely to result in civilian casualties than raids by Special Operations Forces. (Bowden attained fame with his book Black Hawk Down, a chronicle of one such raid gone wrong, which resulted in the deaths not only of 18 American soldiers but also at least 500 Somalis.) Even according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an anti-drone group, the total number of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes has fallen from 12 percent of total deaths in 2011 to just 3 percent in 2012—an amazing advance in making warfare more humane.
Bowden concludes with a measured paean to drones: “They are remarkable tools, an exceedingly clever combination of existing technologies that has vastly improved our ability to observe and to fight. They represent how America has responded to the challenge of organized, high-level, stateless terrorism—not timidly, as bin Laden famously predicated, but with courage, tenacity, and ruthless ingenuity.”
Anyone reading Bowden’s remarkable article with an open mind will be compelled to agree.