A moral theologian defends the ‘surgical’ use of drones to assassinate terrorist leaders: but is their use really intended to minimise civilian deaths?

A US Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan (AP)

There has been increasing interest (the BBC’s Moral Maze did a programme about it) in the morality of the military use of what are euphemistically called “drones” — “euphemistically”, because a drone, says the Oxford dictionary, is “a person who does no useful work”; these things are hardly torpid or inactive. The dictionary, however, also defines what I am talking about as “a remote-controlled pilotless aircraft or missile”.

One argument against using these things is that mechanisation of what used to be done by piloted aircraft threatens to make war even more inhumane. Already, it seems, the use of automatic drones which would be programmed to search, identify and fire on targets without direct human intervention is being considered. This “brave new world” prompts all kinds of ethical problems; above all, it would compound an objection already being forcibly put forward by those opposed to the current use of drones, particularly in Pakistan: that the use of drones makes warfare much easier. Sitting at a computer screen thousands of miles away isn’t at all the same thing as ordering those under one’s command to risk their lives: it’s risk-free. There are no more body bags, except in the vicinity of one’s targets.

The moral argument in favour of this deadly new technology is that since it can be so accurately targeted it seems on the face of it admirably to conform to the requirement of just war criteria that aggressive action should be “proportionate” and should as far as possible minimise civilian deaths.

Mgr Stuart Swetland puts the question, in a very interesting piece in the National Catholic Register. “Assuming the ‘war on terror’ is a legitimate application of the jus ad bellum criteria,” he asks, “does the use of drones meet the jus in bello requirements?”

His answer is interesting. “Before answering this question,” he goes on, “the decision-making procedure for a drone strike should be examined … a fairly clear picture has emerged. ‘Targeted killings’, as they are sometimes called, are authorised on al-Qaeda operatives (and their supporters or allies like the Taliban) only after they have been placed on the unfortunately named ‘kill list’. This list is drawn up at the highest level of the American political and military chain of command. Names are added only with the direct approval of the commander in chief, the president of the United States … According to the [New York] Times, he personally authorises all strikes in Yemen and Somalia and many in Pakistan. All strikes must meet strict ‘rules of engagement’ when it comes to identifying some high-value person of interest or group on the approved attack list … More often than not, the weapon of choice is a missile strike from a drone.

“Drones have several military advantages. They offer little or no risk to the US forces. They are less expensive and dangerous than maintaining manned aircraft on station. They can remain in the air for an incredibly long time, and they have proved both deadly and accurate.

“The New America Foundation, a widely accepted non-partisan analyst, estimates there have been approximately 337 drone strikes in Pakistan alone from 2004 until October 24 2012 … causing casualties of between 1,908 to 3,225 people. These strikes have killed 1,618 to 2,769 combatants, about 153 to 192 civilians and another 130 to 268 persons whose identities were unknown.

“This means the collateral damage estimates range from seven per cent to 15 per cent. Over time, this figure has decreased, as targeting methods, technology and technical skills of the remote pilots have all improved. Compared to other methods of attack and other wars, these collateral damage figures, though still tragic, are fewer. These statistics make clear that US military authorities are seriously attempting to minimise civilian casualties and make these attacks as ‘surgical’ as possible. And we know from captured documents and other intelligence that these strikes have seriously hampered al-Qaeda’s efforts to carry out terrorist activities and recruit and train new leadership.”

“Therefore,” concludes Mgr Swetland, “these strikes seem to be serving a real military purpose (just cause) in the ongoing battle to disrupt terror activity”: and since their use is proportionate and targeted, it is morally justified.

This argument seems persuasive enough to me. Its soundness, however, depends on the validity of that estimate: that collateral damage ranges from seven per cent to 15 per cent, and that that US military authorities really are seriously attempting to minimise civilian casualties. I would like to know a little more about the figures, though: how do we actually know that “these strikes have killed 1,618 to 2,769 combatants, about 153 to 192 civilians and another 130 to 268 persons whose identities were unknown”? Who says that so many of those killed were in fact combatants?

And are these strikes really designed to cause as little disruption as possible to innocent civilians? Precisely the reverse is being claimed. According to a recent article in the Independent newspaper:

More and more, while the overall frequency of strikes has fallen since a Nato attack in 2011 killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and strained US-Pakistan relations, initial strikes are now followed up by further missiles in a tactic which lawyers and campaigners say is killing an even greater number of civilians. The tactic has cast such a shadow of fear over strike zones that rescuers often wait for hours before daring to visit the scene of an attack.

“These strikes are becoming much more common,” Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents victims of drone strikes, told The Independent. “In the past it used to be a one-off, every now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”

The expansive use of “double-tap” drone strikes is just one of a number of more recent phenomena in the covert war run by the US against violent Islamists that has been documented in a new report by legal experts at Stanford and New York University.

The product of nine months’ research and more than 130 interviews, it is one of the most exhaustive attempts by academics to understand – and evaluate – Washington’s drone wars. And their verdict is damning.

Throughout the 146-page report, which is released today, the authors condemn drone strikes for their ineffectiveness. Despite assurances the attacks are “surgical”, researchers found barely two per cent of their victims are known militants and that the idea that the strikes make the world a safer place for the US is “ambiguous at best”.

Researchers added that traumatic effects of the strikes go far beyond fatalities, psychologically battering a population which lives under the daily threat of annihilation from the air, and ruining the local economy. They conclude by calling on Washington completely to reassess its drone-strike programme or risk alienating the very people they hope to win over. They also observe that the strikes set worrying precedents for extra-judicial killings at a time when many nations are building up their unmanned weapon arsenals…

Reprieve, the charity which is trying to challenge drone strikes in the British, Pakistani and American courts, said the report detailed how the fallout from the extra-judicial strikes must be measured in terms of more than deaths and injuries alone.

“An entire region is being terrorised by the constant threat of death from the skies,” said Reprieve’s director, Clive Stafford Smith. “Their way of life is collapsing: kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meeting or anything that involves gathering in groups.”

The source of this story, the not-so-Independent newspaper, should be noted; but I would like nevertheless to know a bit more about those “double tap” attacks. Is this an established tactic? Is it how drones are really being used? If so, the supposed proportionality that has been claimed for their use is just a cynical joke. I would like to know more about all this. If you know anything, let’s hear it. In the meantime, in the old cliché, the jury is still out. The question is, has it heard all the evidence?