In Defense of Drones
A recent U.N. report has it wrong — drones save lives, and we’re still in a global war with jihadists.

MQ-9 Reaper


On Thursday, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on drone warfare released his interim report.

It’s worth reading.

Although his findings are provisional, Ben Emmerson has done something important. He’s codified the casual delusion that has come to infect the drone debate. Emmerson is ignorant about both the international jihadist threat and the utility of the drone platforms, and his fallacies take root in three distinct areas.

His first is in regard to Pakistani sovereignty.

Here, Emmerson suggests that without the Pakistani government’s blessing, U.S. drone operations are likely to constitute “unlawful” “aggression.” On paper it’s so simple: Pakistan is the the United States’ counterterrorism partner, and its sovereignty is therefore inviolable.

Unfortunately, this notion ends at the paper’s edge. Yes, Pakistan renders invaluable counterterrorism support to the United States. Since 9/11, Pakistan’s primary intelligence service, the ISI, has helped capture dozens of terrorist leaders. Simultaneously, however, the ISI supports those same groups, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The ludicrous story of al-Qaeda operations officer Rashid Rauf encapsulates this contradiction. In 2006, Rauf was detained by the ISI on the direct request of Michael Hayden, who was then the director of the CIA. After managing previous atrocities, Rauf, as al-Qaeda’s control officer for the 2006 transatlantic liquid-bomb plot, was on the cusp of becoming the operational heir to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He was a driven ideologue, but one savvy to Western culture and skilled in terrorist tradecraft — in short, a man capable of killing on a 9/11 scale. Again, in terms of U.S.-Pakistani cooperation, his arrest looked good on paper. But then something happened. In December 2007, Rauf’s guards allowed him to escape. The mastermind was back in action. At that point the U.S. had two choices: to gamble that Rauf wouldn’t succeed in murdering more innocents, or to confront him with force.

In late 2008, Rauf was killed in a drone strike, as were a number of other al-Qaeda operations officers with whom he had been meeting.

In Rauf’s story lies a basic point. Like Emmerson, many legal observers base their analysis of sovereignty on a false premise: that friends and foes are neatly delineated. As the ISI’s Jekyll and Hyde character proves, this is not always true. An expansive notion of extraterritorial self-defense is intrinsic to a counterterrorism policy that’s rational.

On to delusion number two: Emmerson’s notion that the U.S. drone program degrades humanitarian norms. He demands that the U.S. release civilian-casualty figures and its method of calculating them. Emmerson also concludes that “in any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been, killed, the State responsible is under an obligation to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation.” Emmerson’s meaning is clear: The United States is neglecting its humanitarian duties. He’s wrong.

Let’s be clear: Humanitarianism is a prerequisite of lawful, strategically viable counterterrorism. This is especially true in the conduct of intelligence operations beyond the eye of public scrutiny. Still, as it relates to counterterrorism, ill-focused oversight is the enemy of humanitarianism. As CNN’s Peter Bergen has noted, technological advancements have given drone operators a much-improved targeting capability relative to their predecessors before 2009. Able to quietly watch an individual or group for many hours, operators can more carefully determine whether to use lethal force — drones actually mitigate civilian risks. Interestingly, albeit in a heavily qualified manner, Emmerson hints at the same conclusion: “Remotely piloted aircraft are capable of reducing the risk of civilian casualties in armed conflict by significantly improving the situational awareness of military commanders.”


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