A brewing dispute about deaths of innocent civilians in U.S. airstrikes by remotely operated drones takes root in a conflicted public perception of war. It is unthinkable that a drone dropping a 500-pound bomb on a target wouldn’t, at some point, kill an unintended victim. Yet the Central Intelligence Agency would have us believe that drones have been successful in killing 600 militants over the last year without a single civilian casualty.
The idea, apparently, is to assuage public fear by presenting drones — operated from computer consoles thousands of miles from bloodshed — as cleaner instruments of killing that take some of the ugliness out of war. The word surgical is frequently tossed around.
It is indeed a powerful development in war-making that a drone’s successful hit means a battalion of U.S. soldiers never needed to be on the ground engaging in mortal combat. But a drone is a bomber without a pilot. It brings on the damage of any war involving real people: maiming and killing. Its use means that some innocent people will eventually get hurt or dead no matter how accurate the strikes.
The debate blew up recently after one of our drones took out a pickup truck carrying militants in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border and the CIA insisted nobody but nine militants were killed. But Pakistani and British journalists reviewing the incident quickly asserted our drone’s missiles also hit a school, a restaurant and a house, killing 12 militants and six civilians.
Both could be wrong, though it appears the CIA has the most documenting yet to reveal. Either way, drones have shown themselves to be remarkably accurate in their targeting and have become a key weapon in the war against terrorism, whether in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia.
The first and most pressing challenge we face: to accept the inevitable corollary damage of drones. Better official accountings, meanwhile, will help.
The Oregonian, Portland (Aug. 17)
Uncertainty in Libya
If the latest reports of the Libyan rebels’ breakthrough at the strategically important city of Zawiyah are to be believed, the six-month conflict could soon be entering its endgame. The capture of Zawiyah would put rebel forces just 30 miles from the capital Tripoli, the stronghold of Moammar Gadhafi. While pro-Gadhafi forces are still putting up stiff resistance in the city, the fact that Libyan government forces have fired their first Scud missile at rebel positions suggests the regime is becoming increasingly desperate.
While the surprise resurgence in the rebels’ fortunes is most welcome, NATO and its allies still face a formidable challenge in persuading Gadhafi to relinquish power without indulging in further bloodshed. Gadhafi’s forces have an estimated 200 Scud missiles, as well as limited stockpiles of chemical weapons, and there is always the risk that the dictator will take measures of last resort in his determination to cling to power. Gadhafi’s disinclination to stand down, moreover, will have been strengthened by the International Criminal Court’s warrant for his arrest on war crimes charges, a move that had the enthusiastic backing of William Hague, the foreign secretary. But what incentive is there for the Libyan leader to leave office when all that awaits him is a prison cell in the Hague?
Gadhafi will also draw encouragement from the disarray that has befallen the rebel leadership following the murder of their military commander, General Abdel Fattah Younes, by Islamist militants. The conflict might be nearing its end, but the final outcome remains far from certain.
The Telegraph, London (Aug. 17)