As the legal debate over reforming U.S. drone strike policies escalates, absent from the discussion are the long-term ethical and political implications of civilian casualties. In neglecting these considerations, U.S. policymakers are forgetting a fundamental lesson learned over twelve years of state-building in Muslim countries: to accept responsibility when it maims or kills innocent civilians. Specifically, the U.S. must work with host governments to compensate victims and the families of lost loved ones. If the U.S. continues to perpetuate drone strikes without giving respect and compensation for civilian casualties, it will only further fuel the Islamic radicalism it so badly seeks to defuse.
Drone warfare is expanding. Advocates cite that estimated civilian casualties have fallen from 10 percent to 1 percent per strike, but touted statistical improvements like these downplay the gruesomeness of the drone program. In Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) alone, estimates suggest more than 300 drone strikes and approximately 3,000 deaths. Heartrending reports describe populations psychologically scarred; communities where children are afraid to gather at school out of fear of being targeted by the American-made drones buzzing across their skies. In this isolated region, neither the Pakistani government nor the U.S. military have the leverage to assuage the anger and fear being borne out of frequent drone strikes. Furthermore, the war on terror has also expanded into Yemen, where over 50 drone strikes have occurred. Yemeni citizens are understandably furious, demanding accountability, transparency, and compensation—but denied all by the Yemeni government and their American backers.
This practice contradicts hard-learned lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan. U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan, just hundreds of miles west of the drone strikes in Pakistan, would almost never authorize an aerial strike to kill an insurgent if there was a chance of harming civilians. Such an attack could irrevocably undermine the already tense partnerships between Afghan and American leadership. If an aerial strike were to occur, Afghan leaders would be informed and ready to respond to potential public criticism. Similarly, when a raid is conducted to capture an insurgent, it is conducted in concert with or even by Afghan forces after both nations’ chains of command have granted their approval.
These attempts to legitimize our operations by respecting local victims and their culture went much deeper than rethinking the use of deadly force. Led by General David Petraeus, the Department of Defense shifted strategies from an enemy-centric mentality to a population-centric counterinsurgency strategy. The metrics of success on the battlefield were revised from enemies killed to criteria such as the number of villagers providing intelligence, the number of community leaders openly supporting the government, and telling indicators of new economic activity.
Moreover, just as importantly, in 2005, U.S. forces began paying millions of dollars a year to Afghan and Iraqi civilians to honor lost family members who died due to collateral damage. An American commander and a local Afghan leader present these “condolence payments” to the next of kin at an Afghan government site or the family’s home. This process signifies that both the Afghan government and their partnered U.S. forces acknowledge and respect survivors’ losses.
The U.S. military does this because it knows the death of innocent people creates outrage and resentment, fueling anti-American fervor. Men are pushed by cultural forces of honor and shame to take revenge. The deceased’s widow, often restricted from remarriage or public life, will turn to extended family support or begging to survive. In the aftermath, tribal and familial commitments to support the government are shattered. Yet, these consequences are ignored or seemingly lost on the Central Intelligence Agency. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s response to these attacks is telling—they compensate families of both known militants and innocent civilians. If America continues to do nothing for these victims, every dead civilian represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement.
In President Obama’s State of the Union speech he pledged, “our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances,” declaring that such efforts would be “even more transparent to the American people and to the World.” Legal justifications and commitments to transparency will not be enough.
If drone warfare is truly worth the costs, then the U.S. should act in the framework of international law, accept responsibility for them, and offer payments for innocent casualties from failed strikes. Culturally appropriate condolences should be given to the families of drone strikes at a host government site, with host government representation. An investigation into the failure of the attack should also be launched and presented to the victim’s family for their own closure. Throughout, public information campaigns should be focused on moderate civilians in targeted areas, explaining U.S. government support for the country and rationalizing the need for the attacks.
Still, Americans must do even more if they are to change public opinion in the region. Reforms like those above must be part of a much broader shift from a strategy of enemy-centric targeted killings to one of population-centric physical security, political stability, and economic opportunity. Neither President Obama’s military legacy nor the United States’ future security can be secured while drone strikes continue to fuel such public outrage.