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Posted by on Nov 4, 2013 in At TMV, Guns, International, Law, Media, Military, Places, Politics, Science & Technology, Society, Terrorism, War | 25 comments

Military Drone Strikes: The Debate Continues (Updated)



A weekend news analysis piece in the New York Times highlights what some may call the unintended consequences of drone killings and which others may classify in the “you can’t win for losing” or “I’ll never understand” column.

Referring to the Friday drone killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who “was Public Enemy No. 1: a ruthless figure who devoted his career to bloodshed and mayhem, whom Pakistani pundits occasionally accused of being a pawn of Indian, or even American, intelligence,” Declan Walsh writes:

But after his death, it seems, Pakistani hearts have grown fonder.

Since missiles fired by American drones killed Mr. Mehsud in his vehicle on Friday, Pakistan’s political leaders have reacted with unusual vehemence. The interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, denounced the strike as sabotage of incipient government peace talks with the Taliban. Media commentators fulminated about American treachery. And the former cricket star Imran Khan, now a politician, renewed his threats to block NATO military supply lines through Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa — a province his Tehreek-e-Insaf party controls — with a parliamentary vote scheduled for Monday.

Walsh adds “[v]irtually nobody openly welcomed the demise of Mr. Mehsud, who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistani civilians,” and “to some American security analysts, the furious reaction was another sign of the perversity and ingratitude that they say have scarred Pakistan’s relationship with the United States.”

Walsh explains that such equivocation is “rooted in a complex mix of psychology and politics that may be central to the way Pakistanis see their arch allies, the Americans,” that it may be partly a product of Pakistan’s own failure to counter a stubborn insurgency and may stem from Pakistan’s perception that the Pakistan-U.S. relationship is “a long story of treachery, abandonment and double-crossing.”

Walsh also mentions that Aafia Siddiqui, “a Pakistani woman who is serving an 86-year jail sentence in New York for trying to kill Americans in Afghanistan, is a virtual national hero, popularly known as the ‘daughter of the nation,” and that “[o]n the other side, Malala Yousafzai, the teenage education activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban last year, making her an icon around the world, has been demonized in Pakistan, where she is regularly called a C.I.A. agent or a pawn of the West.”

Read more of Walsh’s interesting analysis here.

Original Post:

In an impassioned and valid comment about the loss of innocent lives as a result of military drone strikes, one of our readers pointed to an article where a “former high-ranking official from the Department of State claims that the mass loss of civilian life caused by American-launched drone strikes in Yemen are creating dozens of new militants with each attack.”

Nabeel Khoury, former deputy chief of mission in Yemen for the State Department, writes, referring to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula:

Drone strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number of innocent civilians. Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the US generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones.

The article clarifies: “[Khouri’s] ‘40-60 new enemies’ estimate was not scientifically drawn, but instead relied on his intimate knowledge of Yemeni society.”

Replying to the comment and while acknowledging the loss of innocent lives tragedy, I said:

As to the “creation” of “40” or more new militants (“terrorists”?), yes, I am a math major, but while I am sure that such tragedies create significant hate and resentment towards the United States, I honestly don’t think that anyone can put a number to it. But, as you say, “even 10 percent” is not good.

Coincidentally, in a piece yesterday, former CIA deputy director Philip Mudd writes in “The Truth—and Tragedy—of Drone Warfare” at

Further, the argument that these weapons have created more terrorists than they have killed makes for more rhetoric than reality. Clearly, drone strikes result in high levels of anti-U.S. animosity. Animosity, though, does not equate to threat. The threat we face in North America today is substantially less than what we faced a decade ago, partly because of military operations that rooted out al Qaeda in Afghanistan; actions by sister security services that resulted in successes around the world; and excellent domestic intelligence work in Europe and North America. But behind the scenes, intelligence professionals across the board would agree that one key factor in the decade-plus effort to mitigate threat was simple: drones, and their capability to degrade of leadership and support networks.

Naturally, all kinds of alarms will go off and suspicion will set in when reading such a statement by a “former CIA official” — as should have also been the case when reading the counter-argument by “a former deputy chief of mission.” It probably depends on how one feels about “drone warfare” and the truth probably lies — as with most such controversies — somewhere in-between.

Nevertheless and regardless of how one feels about this issue, it may be informative to read Mudd’s take on this topic. A “take” in which Mudd admits that “[r]ecent human-rights reports have raised valid questions about the cost in civilian lives of drone warfare, with an overarching judgment that the U.S. has underestimated the civilian tragedy that results from these strikes,” but that we should also be cognizant of the “devastating impact drones have had on the al Qaeda network and the dangerous illusion that use of these ‘precision’ weapons somehow means that innocents will be spared in future conflicts.”

After pointing out — rightly or wrongly — that “[r]egardless of the shape of our debates about the use of drones, we should not lose sight of the fact that these weapons have saved more civilian lives than we will ever know in the face of an adversary that purposefully targets innocents,” that “regardless of the precision of ground weapons and air strikes by manned aircraft, these weapons have resulted in tragic loss of life in Iraq and Afghanistan” and that “If we decide to use force, we should accept the consequences,” Mudd concludes by suggesting an area where those who oppose the use of drones and those who support their deployment may agree on:

We should stop calling them precision weapons, and stop suggesting that 21st century warfare will somehow prove more civilized than the wars of the past. War is tragic. And our decisions to deploy force, regardless of how precise 21st-century weapons systems become, should not grow any more casual because of some judgment that drones are a clean solution. They are a devastatingly effective tactical solution. But, like the weapons systems that arm ships, planes, and ground forces, they kill.

I emphasize “may” because I know that — as in many similar critical issues — Americans will continue to “healthily” disagree.

Read more here.


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  • sheknows

    It’s time to confine drone use to desert and open area attacks of enemy personnel.

    It is clearly not the weapon of choice for populated areas. The current people doing this either don’t care or simply don’t have the skills necessary to do this correctly.

    Going to have to come up with something new.. make them much smaller,like insect size drones remotely controlled to a specific target and a very elite training program with much harder criteria.

    We cannot continue to indiscriminately kill innocent civilians.

  • The_Ohioan

    I’m reassured that this president is anything but casual about the use of these weapons. Certainly the number of civilians killed in this vs another type of warfare is less and that is the most important point for my money.

    Unless we desist from warfare against al Qaeda completely, civilians are going to be killed, as they are in every war. If we stop pursuing al Qaeda those civilians not killed by al Qaeda operatives themselves will be saved, but Western civilians will die instead. It’s a vicious maelstrom and there’s no way out – at this point.

    I would hope, given recent events, that Homeland Security is concentrating on any lone wolf operatives they can detect and on the homeland groups that are planning attacks all the time as much as on threats from abroad.

    The Pakistan and Afghanistan people are well aware by this time how dangerous it is to be around any al Qaeda or Taliban groups and are either being paid to house them or being forced to house them. If anyone has a solution for that, the number of civilian deaths would drop dramatically. It seems it is not a concern for al Qaeda or the Taliban how many civilians are killed. They may be using it as a recruiting tool, but surely that is a strategy with diminishing returns.

  • SteveK

    It’s time to confine drone use to desert and open area attacks of enemy personnel.

    Yes, we certainly wouldn’t want any civilians to get hurt in our march to make the world a safer place to live… Now would we?

    It’s a shame that anyone has to get hurt sheknows but I think The_Ohioan’s take on this situation is a more accurate overview of what is, and should be our nations priorities and policies.

  • petew

    To give sympathy to the devil, any American President (including GW Bush)along with the top military brass that directs any of our wars, must be scared to death of another 911 type strike allowed to happen under their watch. I would guess it is one thing to be a congressional Monday morning quarterback, but to actually sit in the oval office and contemplate how to protect innocent American lives, probably takes priority over considering the death of innocent civilians in Pakistan, or Afghanistan.

    I know its unsatisfying to rationalize human death in this way, but, for what its worth, civilians have been killed in any of the wars throughout history, and such a travesty is not really completely avoidable. And although none of us can mathematically place a number on those who become radicalized by losing loved ones in drone strikes, it is true that Al-quada deliberately uses these loved ones, as a tool to decry the inhumanity of America, while being one of the most inhumane forces that the world has ever known.

    Does any of us really know what our decision would be if we were really in the same position as our commander’s in chief? And is there anyway to be certain that failing to kill top Al-quada operatives would not result in greater and even more disproportionate danger to thousands of Americans?

    All of us claim not to want devastating wars, but until we take the universal pacifist position of those who advocate complete non-violence, we will never succeed in deciding how to fight “good” wars, or “moral” wars. It is somewhat sobering to realize that if none of the world’s parents were willing to allow their children to be used as weapons in any and all of humanities wars (no matter what their own personal risks might be) that war would vanish overnight–yet we all know that isn’t going to happen because of the ways we humans currently are.

    I’m not saying that I would have the courage to be a true conscientious objector, but I have always remembered a song done by Buffy St. Marie, a beautiful vocal artist of the 60’s. She sang:

    “How could Hitler have condemned them at Dachau? Without him Caesar would have stood alone! He’s the universal soldier and he really is to blame. His orders come from far away no more. They come from you, and him, and me, and brother can’t you see, this is not the way to put an end to war!”

    Perhaps this is not a completely accurate quote, but I hope I have done justice to the author’s artistic point. And, it will always be an important point to ponder!

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      I know there are /will be many thoughtful dissenting views,l but I have to agree with T.O., Steve and,again, Petew.

      There is a lot to ponder in Petew’s

      “All of us claim not to want devastating wars, but until we take the universal pacifist position of those who advocate complete non-violence, we will never succeed in deciding how to fight “good” wars, or “moral” wars.

  • ShannonLeee

    My question in all of this is about the damage the strikes are doing to terrorist networks. We kill number 1, number 2 steps in. We kill number 4, number 5 takes over. Are we playing wack a mole, going after whomever we have can kill in the top 10, or are we doing significant damage to terrorist networks? For every new terrorist we “create”, is the result of the strike strategically worthwhile?
    I have no problem with the drone program, but it would be interesting to see an analysis of the strategy.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      My question in all of this is about the damage the strikes are doing to terrorist networks.

      Of course that is the $64 million question SL and one that many are asking — and many are answering — at least according to a quick Google search that in 0.43 seconds brings up 2,590,000 results.

      Here are the first five or so:

      Do Drone Strikes Degrade al Qaeda? – James Igoe Walsh
      Unlike other potential measures of terrorist group activity and capacity. ….. impact of drone strikes on terrorist organizations” propaganda output exist in the.

      2. [PDF]
      The Impact of US Drone Strikes on Terrorism in … – Patrick Johnston
      by PB Johnston – ?2013 – ?Related articles
      Jul 14, 2013 – argue that drone strikes disrupt and degrade terrorist organizations, reducing ….. in the effect of drone strikes on militant activities in response to.

      3. Strategic Considerations | Living Under Drones
      One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, …. It is also important to note that similar counter-productive effects have been noted … thatdrone strikes may influence the likelihood of terrorist activity in the US.

      4. [PDF]
      The costs and consequences of drone warfare – Chatham House…/89…/89_1Boyle.pdf?
      by MJ BOYLE – ?2013 – ?Cited by 6
      Dec 16, 2012 – is now using drone strikes to kill terrorist suspects in at least four states …. effects of prevented, and entirely hypothetical, enemy attacks.17 … activity—with the effectiveness of a particular action in achieving a wider goal.

      5. Do Drones Work? – The American Prospect
      May 15, 2013 – There’s no doubt that drone strikes can have horrific consequences. …Other data suggest that drones can be effective at disrupting terror groups. … a stark warning: “any reduction in terrorist activity associated with the drone …

      I would dare to guess that, in general, the answer will be yes — the strikes are doing damage to the terrorist networks — and no — they are not, perhaps even creating more terrorists — depending on whether the author supports drone strikes , or not.

      My own naïve, layman, opinionated opinion is: These terrorist organizations have an implacable hate against and desire to kill as many Americans as possible and do as much damage as possible to our nation and society. The fact that, to my knowledge, there have not been such mass massacres perpetrated against Americans in the homeland by major terrorist organizations since 9/11 is — to me — and indication that we are doing something right. (The cost — moral and otherwise — is another question, and we are all concerned about that and debating such right now)

      If I can find an objective analysis of the strategy, I will try to post it.

      As to “We kill number 1, number 2 steps in. We kill number 4, number 5 takes over.,” the New York Times this morning has an interesting piece on how Pakistani Taliban commanders are meeting to choose a successor to Hakimullah Mehsud, their leader who was killed Friday in an American drone strike, here

      Thanks for your comments/questions

  • ShannonLeee

    thanks for the links D, I saw the article online. Like in any organization, there are certain people that truly cannot be replaced and sometimes these folks are not at the top of the food chain. Sometimes it is better to let terrible leaders live.

  • sheknows

    Ok, ok, I get it. You guys all see this drone thing as the way to go. Actually, nit too long ago I agreed. ( see previous What changed my mind was the fact that too many civilians are dying and we do not hear of that. When we do, it is almost “leaked” information.
    I am just not a fan of women and children being collateral damage in a technology that is supposed to be target specific. What happened to the specific part of that?

  • petew

    There is a hypothetical question that might place this dilemma in perspective—suppose that when Hitler was at the peak of his power and German troops occupied most of Europe—what if our intelligence had determined for certain that he was hiding within the walls of an elementary school in Berlin? What if we knew for certain that we could take him out with a massive bomb, but then we discovered that he was deliberately using the school children as a shield, hoping they would prevent an allied attack on him, based on humanitarian grounds?

    This would obviously be an agonizing decision to make but there would have been so much at stake, that, perhaps the school would have been bombed anyway. And with the Nazis decimated and their leader gone, the allies could have stopped the war much more quickly.

    So, consider that, more than twenty million people died in WW2, and then consider how many of these lives would have been saved—many among them also being children—if destroying Hitler earlier on had brought the War in Europe to an end, perhaps a year or two earlier?

    If such a situation really presented itself to us, many of us would want to quickly decide not to harm the children as merely collateral damage, But until any of us has really encountered such a situation—what would we really do? If killing Hitler shortened the war, and hundreds of thousands or even, millions of lives were then spared—again, many of them also being innocent children? Then what would truly be the best, and most humane, actions to take?

    Our leaders are confronted with the ugly reality of terrorism and violence every day, and, since I couldn’t presume myself to be wiser or have more heart than most of them. What would mine, or yours, courses of action have been?

    When we think many of the answers are just simple, from our civilian perspective, We need to realize that, it’s probably an entirely different shootin match when a President must take aim from inside of the White House!— knowing that the buck stops utterly and completely with him. Nothing about this issue has a simple and clear answer!

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      @ Petew,

      You bring up one of those points/questions that have been haunting many of us when discussing this issue and which — I hope — must weight heavily on the minds and consciences of those who we have entrusted with making just such momentous decisions.

      On a similar subject and while I have steadfastly condemned (check me on this) the torture — sorry, “enhanced interrogation” — that did not go on during the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld triumvirate (and may continue even today), the question that always troubled me is whether our country should torture a person to find out where he (or she) had placed a weapon of mass destruction that was about to potentially kill and main hundreds of our children at, say, some school.

      I truly envy those who have the certitude to unequivocally and unconditionally render judgments on such issues one way or another.

      Thanks for your comment

  • JSpencer

    We will NEVER win hearts and minds as the result of using drones. Sure, we can kill some high ranking terrorists (at least they are terrorists from our point of view) but how many innocent lives do we destroy for each one of those? Therein lies the problem. To the people of these countries such actions will ALWAYS make us the enemy.

    Btw, Hitler could have been stopped years before he was, not because the means were not available to do it, but because the political (and cultural) will wasn’t there to do it. Most people (especially the germans – but also the USA who got into the war late) didn’t grasp how dangerous and crazy Hitler was until the 11th hour.

  • JSpencer

    Hitler was a phenomenon that appealed to a disgruntled germany at a specific time in it’s history, a sort of perfect (horrible) storm. Germany was looking for a cure to it’s economic problems and low national morale. Hitler took advantage of that and filled the vacuum. I don’t see any equivalent to a Hitler in Pakistan or Afghanistan – thank god.

  • DaGoat


    I truly envy those who have the certitude to unequivocally and unconditionally render judgments on such issues one way or another.

    There is no reason to envy them, since they are too uninformed or rigid to see the moral quandary. It is inconsistent to say on the one hand “it is not OK to torture people even if it serves a greater good”, and on the other say “it is OK to blow up little children if it serves a greater good”.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    “It is inconsistent to say on the one hand “it is not OK to torture people even if it serves a greater good”, and on the other say “it is OK to blow up little children if it serves a greater good”.”

    I envy your ability to simplify such complex issues, make such equivalences, and reach such “implications,” DG. Well done!

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Let me add a little something.

    The hypothetical example I used — and am still conflicted about — is using torture to for sure save the lives of hundreds of children which terrorists intentionally would take.

    Drone attacks meant to kill those who would do us harm — including possibly our children — do sometimes tragically and unintentionally kill the innocent, too. Both are tragedies, one hopefully prevented, the other one sadly not.

  • Today

    Like most of us, I am sorry that “innocent” people are being killed by drone strikes. Criminals like the Mehsud types force innocents to hang out around them, which only proves how little they care about human life. However, it is a good reminder to all of us to not hang out with “bad” people. If you have something to lose, stay away from Mehsud types.

  • SteveK


    I know one thing for certain… It’s better (and more humane) to use a drone strike to eliminate a terrorist leader than to carpet bomb an entire city in a failed effort to do the same.

    The lack of comment on the video of our unilateral “shock and awe” attack on a city full of non-combatant citizens seems to indicate that others don’t seem to see a difference.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist


    I am one of hose who read and agreed with your comment but failed to watch or comment on the video.

    And perhaps it was a good thing, because after watching it just now, watching the intentional and wanton carpet bombing of a populated city, knowing damn well that such would certainly kill thousands of innocents, just brought up disgust and anger again…

    (And I do understand the disgust many have about the use of drones to kill terrorists because of the innocent who are also killed)

  • petew

    Da Goat,

    In the case of Syria, we have seen the constant slaughter of innocent civilians without an apparent end in sight, yet we, and the rest of the world, have demonstrated a lack of political will to intercede and remove Assad by force. So,this is another case where we have known for along time how crazy this leader is (slaughtering his own people on a massive scale)and we cannot really know what harm he will do in the future, if remaining in power. But, as with Hitler, we have failed to take the chance to end his influence, when we conceivably could have. So, I would guess that you supported Obama’s original plan to conduct air strikes that might have given anti-Assad forces the upper hand.

    what happened then is that the Congress and the American people, resisted Obama’s plan on a large scale, and were even diffident about the need to intervene in an attempt to specifically eliminate chemical weapons.

    Now that Obama has responded to our national will, and is trying only to destroy Assads arsenal of chemical weapons, he has endured extreme criticisms for not actually doing more in the way of a military intervention. He has even been portrayed as being duped by an Assad strategy to delay and diffuse opposition to his regime. Hitler was also ignored for a long time, because no one really wanted to risk military action when diplomacy might prevail. So, what I am saying is that its always easy for you, or I, or anyone else, to think we clearly know what should be done, when we really don’t anticipate the consequences of our inactions.


    I suppose like me, you have watched the movie “Rendition,” which fictitiously chronicles the abduction and torture of an American citizen for the slightest possibility of being linked to Al-Qaeda. Although the specifics are a product of Hollywood, we know that many similar incidents really did happen which made use of “enhanced interrogation.” What left the biggest impression on me about such abductions was the way the legal rights of the victim were totally suspended, and totally ignored. He wasn’t even told what he was being charged with, or allowed to speak to any kind of legal representation for advice. It impressed me that at least some amount of due process could have been observed i.e. he could have been told what he was charged with and why he was arrested at a minimum, and perhaps this would have provided him an opportunity to explain the incident concerning his cell phone to authorities in a non-incriminating way. But in the concentrated rush to judgment, even this was denied!

    In a way the practice of rendition and torture being used until what authorities want to hear is produced, seems even more inhumane than drone strikes. At least in the latter there must be considerable evidence that the target is for real— even if innocent others near him will die as a result of a strike. And although the Fisa Courts are not presently addressed by a public representative that can present the people’s point of view before a Fisa judge authorizes wiretaps or someones cell phone data to be examined, etc. At least there is SOME respect for the law, and the target is not tortured endlessly unless he or she provides the desired results.

    So as I tried to point out to Da Goat, there will always be plenty of opportunities to use more conventional military interventions before resorting to all of these shady strategies in their place. The question is whether any of us can know in advance, or whether any of us would even make different decisions regarding actions that may, or may not, alleviate additional suffering as a result. The answers just are not ever clear! And this is a case which completely reveals the need for the situational ethics that are required!

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist


      I believe I know where you stand on torture and I have expressed my views on it so many times.

      Since you mention DaGoat in your comment, it would be useful to further the conversation on both torture and drones, to know where he\she stands/stood on torture during the Bush years.

      Thanks Petew.

  • DaGoat

    DDW I think my position on torture is pretty much the same as during the Bush years, namely that in an extreme situation like the one you pose – imminent danger and some surety that the tortured has useful knowledge to avert the tragedy – it could be justified. Realistically that situation rarely occurs. I don’t think it should be used for fishing expeditions which is the way it sounds like it was being used.

    I also feel like there’s an added dimension to torture in that when you are a captor that implies a responsibility to treat your captive humanely.

    • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

      Thanks, DG.

      Talking about torture, here is an eye-opening report on it during the post-9/11 years

  • DaGoat


    I did not support Obama’s plans to bomb Syria. My reasoning didn’t have much to do with moral issues, it was more that as is common in the Middle East the supposed good guys didn’t look any better than the bad guys, and even if we helped the rebels win we would be stuck with another decade or two of nation-building. Also after what happened in Iraq I had trouble with the idea of attacking another country that posed us no harm.

  • JSpencer

    The lack of comment on the video of our unilateral “shock and awe” attack on a city full of non-combatant citizens seems to indicate that others don’t seem to see a difference.

    Steve, my views on the Bush/Cheney War (which of course include “shock and awe”) have been well documented on TMV over the course of many years. There should be no need to reiterate them. My belief is that two wrongs don’t make a right, even when one overshadows the other. That said, I doubt your comment was directed to me.

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