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The Morality of Drone Warfare

I am all for careful targeting in counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism operations. Not only is it the humane thing to do, but being accurate and precise in the application of firepower can avert civilian casualties that will only create fresh grievances and breed new insurgents. That said, there is a limit on how precise any act of war can be. Human rights organizations, which are up in arms about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, have unrealistic expectations that cannot be fulfilled absent a stoppage of the entire drone program–which would allow terrorists to kill ever more people and commit ever more human-rights violations.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have new reports out denouncing drone strikes for causing collateral damage, and the New York Times has weighed in with a lengthy article of its own on the supposedly awful impact of drone strikes on Miram Shah, a Pakistani frontier town that is the headquarters of the Haqqani Network, one of the most dangerous terrorist networks in the world. The Times rather melodramatically informs us:

It has become a fearful and paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with an additional 25 in adjoining districts — more than any other urban settlement in the world…

While the strike rate has dropped drastically in recent months, the constant presence of circling drones — and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike — is a crushing psychological burden for many residents.

Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared, said Hajji Gulab Jan Dawar, a pharmacist in the town bazaar. Women were particularly troubled, he said, but men also experienced problems. “We sell them this,” he said, producing a packet of pills that purported to treat erectile dysfunction under the brand name Rocket.

I wonder what 1940s residents of Dresden or Tokyo would have made of the Pakistanis’ laments? German and Japanese civilians had much bigger worries than erectile dysfunction. Their cities were flattened by American bombers. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed–and that’s even before the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski. A single raid, the March 9-10 firebombing of Tokyo, produced many, many times more fatalities (around 90,000 people died) than all of America’s drone strikes in Pakistan combined over the last decade-plus. There is simply no comparison, given that Amnesty International is complaining “that at least 19 civilians in the surrounding area of North Waziristan had been killed in just two of the drone attacks since January 2012.”

That is not an argument for going back to the crude carpet bombing of World War II days. Drone strikes are a better instrument for the War on Terror. But it is crazy to attack drone strikes for their supposed immorality when they are the most precise and therefore the most humane type of warfare ever waged.

One suspects that the critics would love for the United States to discontinue its strikes entirely. Then what?

The Times article makes clear that the Pakistani army is doing little to police Miram Shah: Although a large Pakistani military base is located in the northern part of town, “the soldiers are largely confined to their base, leaving residents to fend for themselves.” The drone strikes, while not a magic bullet, are thus the only effective method to prevent the Haqqanis and their murderous ilk from entirely dominating the frontier region of Pakistan, which they use as a base for exporting terrorism to Afghanistan. Are Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International seriously arguing that it is moral to let these fundamentalist killers oppress and kill people in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, unopposed? Perhaps not, but that is the implication of their blinkered reports.


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