In Defense of Drones

by Tom Rogan
A recent U.N. report has it wrong — drones save lives, and we’re still in a global war with jihadists.

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.”

There’s a broader point here. Drone critics condemn those platforms because the pilots are supposedly “armchair warriors playing video games,” turning their fetish into a perverse, corporeal reality at great cost in human lives. The opposite is true: Remote-control technology saves innocent lives. And grounding the drones would greatly endanger them.

Drone critics also claim that a civilian criminal process — arrest, extradition, and trial — would satisfy U.S. national-security imperatives. Even setting aside my point on the Jekyll and Hyde ISI, the facts destroy that supposition. When it comes to effective counterterrorism, whether concerning al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabab, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISI/L), al-Qaeda Core, or any number of other transnational jihadist groups, civilian legal mechanisms, taken alone, are grossly inadequate. Jihadists gravitate toward ungoverned, geographically remote locales for a reason — these areas put them beyond judicial reach.

So, if civilian law enforcement won’t work, what options are left besides drones?

There’s only one: ground forces. As illustrated by the recent SEAL raid in Somalia, ground forces can play a critical counterterrorism role in capturing individuals and intelligence material. Yet regularly applying ground forces in an extraterritorial capacity isn’t feasible. Such an approach would mean a high probability of significant U.S. military casualties and a far lower probability of mission success (see Somalia). In addition, images of American forces on Pakistani or Yemeni soil wouldn’t exactly be conducive to the civil stability of those nations.

This raises the final question: What if we rule out using force altogether?

From a humanitarian point of view, that would be a catastrophic choice. Consider the UK, which has long faced a substantial terrorist threat. Since 9/11, most major plots against the United Kingdom have been organized by terrorists who trained, or who sought training, in one place: the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwest Pakistan. It’s no coincidence that most drone strikes have targeted jihadists in the FATA. Doing nothing would allow plots to ferment. Counterterrorism would be left to the last line of defense — domestic law enforcement. That’s an invitation to disaster. To pursue the two most important humanitarian goals — the protection of life and the preservation of democratic society — we must effectively confront transnational terrorist groups. Drones allow for that.

Emmerson’s third delusion is his notion that military force by definition might be an unlawful counterterrorism tool.

Here, he centers his argument in highly problematic postulations. He states that “there is . . . considerable doubt as to whether the various armed groups operating under the name of Al-Qaida . . . share an integrated command structure or mount joint military operations.” Therefore, he suggests, the U.S. drone program is excessive in reach.

On this point, although al-Qaeda has percolated into various affiliates, the influence of al-Qaeda Core remains profound. This is true both in terms of operational guidance (see al-Zawahiri/al-Wuhayshi) and strategic vision. Beyond al-Qaeda, global logistical networks are integral to the operational capacity of Salafi jihadist groups — this is a genuine movement. Unified by common ideology, these groups are flexible in their affiliated action (consider ISI/L’s burgeoning transnationalism). Most important, as I wrote recently for National Review, they share an aligned strategy: applying violence in pursuit of a global theocracy.

If we recognize this reality, neglecting to use force against the movement would be an act of inexcusable strategic idiocy.

In his effort to cast military force as unlawful, Emmerson further postulates that owing to “the lapse of time since the devastating attacks on the United States in 2001, and the relative infrequency of organized armed attacks on the United States since then . . . the intensity criterion is no longer met.” Armed conflict is no longer warranted because the conflict has abated.

This is a regurgitation of the most ridiculous of all anti-drone arguments: the proposal that because the U.S. and its allies have successfully prevented spectacular attacks since 9/11, the threat is exaggerated. The perverse correlate is that if a nightclub full of young Londoners, or a shopping center full of families, or a cosmopolitan city, or the New York subway system, or eight (or more) passenger planes, or Times Square had become factories of death, then perhaps, just perhaps, the threat would warrant using force. Absurd. The skill (and luck) of counterterrorism services does not determine the nature of the threat. To embrace such a principle is the equivalent of treating cancer only when it becomes terminal.

Ultimately, Emmerson’s report lays bare a deeper point: The memory of 9/11 has receded from our minds. A dangerous false moralism has risen in its place. We obsess about the NSA, but we ignore the threat of international terrorism, especially Salafi jihadism, at our peril. This is not hyperbole — just consider what happened this weekend at a café in Iraq and at a wedding in Egypt and on a road in Nigeria.

If we care about protecting innocent lives, the U.S. drone program must continue.

Tom Rogan is a blogger based in Washington, D.C., and a contributor to and the Guardian.

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