A Moral Repugance

by Joshua Foust on 7/17/2009 · 4 comments

I am sympathetic to the argument over the U.S.’s strategic objectives in Afghanistan. I obviously have picked my side, but I also don’t think it immoral to argue why our goals are either misguided or impossible. I think that sort of debate is healthy in a Democracy.

However, if Afghanistan is unwinnable, there must be some sort of mitigation factor, since Afghanistan and Pakistan remain the “global epicenters” (as David Kilcullen would put it) of transnational terrorism. And this is where I step back in horror: what I find absolutely reprehensible is how many in the questioning crowd pretend drone strikes in Pakistan are an acceptable substitutes for actual strategies… and worse, write off civilian casualties as honest mistakes we pink swear not to make again because we have better machines now.

I’ve run across this mindset before, but never as openly-expressed as in this Steven Simon double-review at Foreign Affairs:

Thus, if the core concern is terrorism, Washington should concentrate on its already effective policy of eliminating al Qaeda’s leadership with drone strikes. In what amounts to a targeted killing program, the United States uses two types of unmanned aerial vehicles — the Predator and the faster, higher-altitude Reaper, which can carry two Hellfire missiles and precision-guided bombs — to attack individuals and safe houses associated with al Qaeda and related militant groups, such as the Haqqani network. Most of these strikes have taken place in North or South Waziristan, as deep as 25 miles into Pakistani territory. There were about 36 against militant sites inside Pakistan in 2008, and there have been approximately 16 so far in 2009. Among the senior al Qaeda leaders killed in the past year were Abu Jihad al-Masri, al Qaeda’s intelligence chief; Khalid Habib, number four in al Qaeda and head of its operations in Pakistan; Abu Khabab al-Masri, al Qaeda’s most experienced explosives expert, who had experimented with biological and chemical weapons; and Abu Laith al-Libi, the al Qaeda commander in Afghanistan. Some 130 civilians have also been killed, but improved guidance and smaller warheads should lead to fewer unintended casualties from now on.

Four al Qaeda leaders are, in Steven Simon’s world, worth 130 innocent lives, barely worth the middle clause of a compound sentence. Of course, more innocent people have died as the number of drone strikes in Pakistan have increased.

And it remains a mystery why the U.S. has such an enormous credibility deficit in Pakistan? It’s not that we must conduct a casualty-free war—that would be a silly demand. But the sheer callousness with which these innocent lives are written off is morally repugnant. Even feigning concern over their loss—which does have strategic implications, it is important to remember—would be better than “meh, we have better weapons now.”

Making things worse, Simon then notes approvingly that the drone strikes have driven al Qaeda leadership from the tribal areas into the settled areas of Pakistan like Quetta. Here, he notes approvingly that President Obama has decided to accept the costs of bombing major cities in Pakistan because he might grab a terrorist here or there.

Again: the prospect of killing a lot of innocent people in the process is “meh”—we have the budget, we have the robots, so whatever, right? How disgusting. These are not people we want in charge of our foreign policy.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Alan July 18, 2009 at 4:59 pm

‘But the sheer callousness with which these innocent lives are written off is morally repugnant. Even feigning concern over their loss—which does have strategic implications, it is important to remember—would be better than “meh, we have better weapons now.”’

I think there is enough natural disincentive among UAV operators and political/military leadership to avoid civilian casualties and not end their career by droping a multi-million dollar bomb on a wedding reception. Frankly, the drone program is the least intrusive (for us and the Pakistanis) and visible way to preventing the tribal areas from becoming a save haven for the undesirables. Other short term tactics (permitted/unpermitted targeted ground incursions, cooperation with the Pakistani military) open up a host of of new challenges that do not necessarily decrease the number of civilian casualties or mitigate the Pakistani response to them. Likewise, I doubt a more ‘sincere’ apology from the US military in response to civilian deaths is likely to elicit much of a change in Pakistani reaction.

Driving the leadership to Quetta or other cities does not necessarily mean the drones will follow (no where in the article did it mention Obama has specifically approved future strikes in Quetta or other such cities, it just stated this could be a possibility in the future). However, if Obama did issue such a declaration, it would be a prime example of escalation dominance and not a surprise to anyone with even a modest understanding of IR theory. Keeping the possibility of drone attack in Quetta open puts the enemy on the defensive regardless of whether we actually decide to use such a tactic. Regardless the stance we take on such an issue, its has driven high-value leadership farther from the battlefield and further isolated them.

In the end, from an unequivocally biased and selfish perspective I am more inclined to protect the lives of Americans who I know and grew up with than those who may (but of course may not) have various degrees of culpability and sympathy with the AQ and the Taliban. I know that’s a big statement, but I suspect in their heart of hearts, most Americans feel the same. Of course, the drone program is not perfect. It is simply, in the vernacular of war, politics, and other morally ambiguities, the lesser of evils.

Fabius Maximus July 18, 2009 at 8:35 pm

Yes, it’s so odd that in a neo-colonial war we adopt the values of old-fashioned colonial wars.

Our attitude toward local casualties has been the subject of many many articles during the past 7 years. One of the most recent is by Tom Engelhardt: “Are Afghan Lives Worth Anything?”, TomDispatch, 7 July 2009

infrederick July 18, 2009 at 9:27 pm

Are you arguing that Al Qaeda is not working on biological weapons and plotting to carryout biological attacks on the USA and Europe? I think it is certain that they are based on captured terrorist facilities, videos and documents. Since such an attack could kill millions if not billions of people, 130 people dead because they were present at the location where these terrorists were found is perfectly acceptable and is morally justified.

Joshua Foust July 19, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Alan, the UAV operators’ thoughts on this policy do not become public record the non-chalance in Simon’s piece (which is not unique by any stretch) does. Those public sentiments matter tremendously.

And it’s important to say that I’m not necessarily saying these strikes are unnecessary (I think so, but for other reasons). I’m saying our reaction to them are what is repugnant.

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