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Drones have had a bad month. Just last week, the Israeli Defense Forces intercepted a drone (an unmanned aerial vehicle) flying toward Israel’s Negev Desert. Likely launched from Hezbollah-controlled south Lebanon and perhaps headed towards Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor, the mission, despite its failure, led to a measure of handwringing in Israel and gloating in Iran. Meanwhile, dozens of Western peace activists traveled to Islamabad to protest Pakistan’s atrocious human rights record. Just kidding. They were there to participate in a convoy bound for South Waziristan to protest American drone strikes, a lynchpin of American strategy for securing Afghanistan’s borders with Pakistan. Because of these recent developments, now seems like an appropriate time for a reminder of why drones are a boon for both the United States and human rights.
The statistics, from both governmental and independent sources, are quite conclusive on the effectiveness of drone strikes both as a military tactic and as a tactic for avoiding damage to civilians. According to the Long War Journal, between 2006 and October 1, 2012, drone strikes in northwestern Pakistan killed approximately 2,400 Taliban, al Qaeda, and other insurgent operatives versus only about 140 civilians.
Some institutes point out the unavoidable challenges in confirming deaths and therefore estimate the number of killed civilians to be slightly higher and the number of killed insurgents to be slightly lower. What no one can dispute, however, is the remarkable strike rate, particularly when compared to the casualty rates of conventional war.
These strikes are not only wiping out threats, but they are also preventing present insurgent forces from organizing themselves effectively. Pir Zubair Shah’s excellent article in Foreign Policy exposed the blistering effect of American drone strikes on the Taliban and insurgent groups. He writes, “The Taliban and al Qaeda had stopped using electronic devices…They would no longer gather in huge numbers, even in mosques to pray, and spent their nights outside for safety, a life that was wearing thin.”
Of course, numbers and anecdotes cannot tell the whole story. A more challenging issue to resolve is whether this strategy trades short-term benefits for long-term regional instability, not to mention long-term distrust of American foreign policy. Although such analyses, like that offered in last month’s report from Stanford Law School, offer accurate critiques of America’s reliance on drone strikes, they cannot really offer any strategic alternatives besides either ignoring North Waziristan with crossed fingers or invading the region. Neither of those options is consistent with our goal of securing Afghanistan.
Critics, besides those who instinctively lambast any display of American power, tend to focus on two problems of moral hazard.
The first moral hazard relates to the creation of a “videogame effect.” The theory is that as the military’s reliance on drones rises, so too does the risk that drone operators will forget that those shapes on a screen are actually human beings. The problem with this theory is that it is, as our vice president might say, malarkey. Although the number of militants killed per strike stayed at approximately six from 2004 to 2012, the number of civilians or unknowns killed per strike has actually declined from a 10.7 in the period from 2004 to 2007 to 0.7 in 2011 and a stunning 0.1 thus far in 2012.
The other moral hazard point, raised by the New York Times, is the precedent set by being the first country to use unmanned drones to kill enemies across borders. As American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi eloquently stated, drone strikes set a precedent that “could be used tomorrow by nations with less respect for the right to life in particular, and human rights in general.” This hazard is real, but it is not actually a convincing argument against developing drones. Nations with less respect for human rights will not care whether a precedent has been set by the United States before developing unmanned aerial vehicles.
Which brings us back to Hezbollah’s drone. Michael B. Oren, besides being Israel’s Ambassador to America, is also an accomplished historian. In his book Six Days of War on Israel’s overwhelming victory in 1967, he points out that fear of an attack on Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert was a decisive factor in Israel’s decision to preemptively strike Egypt’s military during the Six-Day War. Last week’s drone, flying over Gaza and bound for the Negev, may appear to Israel’s military as a case of déjà vu. Regardless of whether or not Hezbollah’s drones could truly provide any tactical advantage, they heighten Israel’s sense of insecurity at a particularly fragile time.
I would be remiss not to incorporate the impending election into this column somehow. As Obama and Romney likely will discuss in their upcoming debates, they both intend to extend the use of drone strikes into the near future. Unless Gary Johnson or Jill Stein pulls off a miracle, they will remain an important component of American military strategy. And that’s a good thing.
Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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