Point of View

Drones: Simply no other viable US options

October 24, 2013 

In its muddled report about drones released this week, Amnesty International unwittingly helps the U.S. government justify its alleged lack of transparency in its campaign against Pakistani-based al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists.

With its report littered with bogus names for sources, Amnesty International employs the same tactics of misdirection or concealment that it rails against when governments use them. This obviously makes it virtually impossible to verify the legitimacy of the report’s informers or the accuracy of their assertions.

According to Amnesty, it concealed identities for the sources’ security and because most Pakistani officials with whom it says it spoke requested anonymity. Despite its own serious lack of transparency, Amnesty International nevertheless accuses the U.S. government of an “utter lack of transparency” about its drone program

The U.S. – or any nation – needs to carefully guard its sources and methods of gathering intelligence and conducting operations. In other words, the U.S. government is doing exactly what Amnesty International is doing and for much the same reasons.

Terrorists and other adversaries carefully investigate each piece of released datum to discover its source and then act to counter it – sometimes brutally. Likewise, terrorists study a government’s legal analyses and policy directives to devise ways of turning them to their advantage.

This is why President Obama’s announcement that drone strikes are conducted only where there is a “near certainty” of no innocent civilian casualties is so dangerous: It invites terrorists to create a sanctuary by surrounding themselves with civilians.

To discourage such behavior, international law permits strikes against belligerents even when it is clear that innocent civilians will be killed, so long as such deaths are not excessive in relation to the military advantage anticipated.


Still, it is troubling that Amnesty’s report fails to highlight the steady decrease in both drone strikes and civilian casualties in Pakistan since 2010. Indeed, the New American Foundation is reporting zero civilian deaths in 2013.

There are other flaws in the report, chief among them the almost complete absence of women among its interviewees. Instead, Amnesty relied almost exclusively upon men who somehow materialized in this terrorist-infested area because, Amnesty claimed, they were “anxious to make known the human cost of the drone program.”

In a nation where a schoolgirl was shot in the head by the Taliban simply because she wanted an education, it is quite possible the Pakistani women Amnesty omitted from its report could have enlightened the researchers to the enormous human cost of the absence of a drone program against such monsters.

The biggest failing of the Amnesty report is, however, one that replicates itself over and over again in criticisms of drones: a complete lack of viable alternatives.

No one relishes the death of any human being, but given that there are terrorist operations in what Amnesty calls one of the “most dangerous” and “inaccessible regions of the world,” there are simply no other options in many instances.

Unsurprisingly, Amnesty International’s Musta Qadri had to grudgingly admit the organization was “not saying stop drones.” That is something with which we all should agree.

Charles J. Dunlap Jr. is a retired Air Force major general and a professor at Duke Law School.

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