• My Thoughts About a Drone Debate

    On February 27, 2013 a debate took place titled America’s Drone Campaign is Both Moral and Effective. Arguing the affirmative case were David Aaronovitch and Douglas Murray. Arguing against the premise were Professor Noel Sharkey and Clive Stafford-Smith. This debate was featured in a fellow SIN blogger’s posting regarding his thoughts about the drone wars. I’ve responded to the main thrust of his argument in my extensive post about the drone wars (specifically his “This is War!” argument).

    The panel of experts (I dispute calling some of these individuals “experts”) who joined the debate through the platform Google+ were Professor Michael Boyle, the counter-terrorism adviser on the Obama 2008 presidential campaign and assistant professor of political science at La Salle University, Philadelphia; Professor Christine Fair, Assistant professor in the Center for Peace and Security Studies (CPASS), Georgetown University; Ibrahim Mothana, a 24-year-old writer, activist and a co-founder of Yemen’s Watan Party; and Dr Mohammad Taqi, a Physician and columnist at the Daily Times, Pakistan.

    Here is the video of the debate. My comments will begin below it.

    My general thoughts about this debate overall is that in the beginning I felt that the group who advocated for the use of drones made a strong impression, more so than the opposition. I felt that the pro-drone side made their case in a very well-presented manner and were much better organized than their opponents. However, as the debate wore on, those advocating the drone war began to hurl insults and made claims that, when I looked into them, were flat out wrong.

    After doing my own research into the drones and laying out my own case against their use I can safely say that about 98% of all of the arguments the pro-drone side presented I have addressed (and refuted) in my extensive post on the subject. The focus on this post will be to tackle a few claims that I found false or misleading by some of the pro-drone debaters.

    Some of the arguments that Christine Fair made in particular stick out in my mind. At the beginning of the debate she seemed like a fairly impartial observer, but as the debate wore on, she greatly wore on my patience with her constant snipes at the anti-drone side and I found that several of her claims were outright false. For example, she claimed late in the debate that there were no drone strikes in South Waziristan, Pakistan. I looked up this assertion and it is completely false. I found several examples of drone strikes in South Waziristan in 2011, two years before this debate even took place. Other strikes also occurred in 2012, as reported by the BBC. I also found other occurrences a few weeks prior to this debate!

    Another one of her claims was that the majority of Pakistanis are advocates of the drones and welcome them. I believe a June 2012 Pew Research study is very telling. It reports that “[r]oughly three-in-four Pakistanis (74%) consider the U.S. an enemy, up from 69% last year and 64% three years ago.” The report also found that “roughly four-in-ten believe that American economic and military aid is actually having a negative impact on their country, while only about one-in-ten think the impact is positive.” Another study, this one done in 2010 by The New America Foundation, questioned 1,000 individuals in the FATA region. One of the main findings was that “[m]ore than three-quarters of FATA residents oppose American drone strikes. Indeed, only 16 percent think these strikes accurately target militants; 48 percent think they largely kill civilians and another 33 percent feel they kill both civilians and militants.” It further found that “[f]or many FATA residents, opposition to the U.S. is based on current American military policy, not any intractably held anti-American beliefs.” It does not appear that Christine Fair’s claim about the majority of Pakistanis approving of the drone strikes stands up to the facts.

    Another argument made by Christine Fair and other drone advocates is that drones are correlated with a decrease in violence. After doing some searching there is an oft-cited study by Patrick B. Johnston and Anoop K. Sarbahi titled The Impact of U.S. Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    I believe that the authors resort to a strawman at the outset when they write,

    Some theories suggest that drone strikes anger Muslim populations, and that consequent blowback incites Islamist terrorism. […] We use detailed data on U.S. drone strikes and terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan from 2004-2011 to test each theory’s implications. We find that drone strikes are associated with decreases in the incidence and lethality of terrorist attacks, as well as decreases in particularly intimidating and deadly terrorist tactics, including suicide and IED attacks. These results lend credence to the argument that drone strikes, while unpopular, have bolstered U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan – and cast doubt on claims that drone strikes are militarily ineffective. (Abstract)

    Opponents of the drone war often cite anti-American feelings and attacks upon American citizens abroad or against the U.S. itself. These feelings are most often the result of drone attacks (among other imperialistic, immoral, illegal and careless actions) that kill innocents. This objection isn’t referring to what happens only in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but resulting violence that also occurs around the world. I cited several examples of these reprisal attacks in my extensive post about why I do not support the drone wars. The authors lay out their argument:

    A systematic analysis of the data reveals that drone strikes have succeeded in curbing deadly terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Specifically, the key findings of our study show that drone strikes are associated with substantial reductions in terrorist violence along four key dimensions. First, drone strikes are generally associated with a reduction in the rate of terrorist attacks. Second, drone strikes are also associated with a reduction in the number of people killed as a result of terrorist attacks. Third, drone strikes tend to be linked to decreases in the use of particularly lethal and intimidating tactics, including suicide and IED attacks. Fourth, the study finds that this reduction in terrorism is not the result of militants leaving unsafe areas and conducting attacks elsewhere in the region; on the contrary, there is some evidence to suggest that drone strikes have a small violence-reducing effect in areas near those struck by drones. Taken together, these findings strongly suggest that despite drone strikes’ unpopularity, official claims that drones have aided U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan appear to be credible and should not be dismissed out of hand. (3)

    After reading their report, despite its very limited scope, it appears that drones do have some minimal affect on the amount of violence in the areas where drone strikes occur. On page 3 the authors admit this when they write that “drone strikes have a small violence-reducing effect in areas near those struck by drones.” This conclusion is backed by other studies as well. A 2011 study titled Are Drone Strikes Effective in Afghanistan and Pakistan? On the Dynamics of Violence between the United States and the Taliban, by David A. Jaeger and Zahra Siddique came to roughly the same conclusion, but their conclusions were not nearly as supportive of the drone program as the other researchers. They wrote,

    We find that there is little significant impact of drone strikes on Taliban attacks in Afghanistan but that there is a significant impact of drone strikes on Taliban attacks in Pakistan. This impact varies from a positive vengeance effect in the first week following a drone strike to a negative deterrent/incapacitation effect in the second week following a drone strike, when we examine the incidence of terrorist attacks by the Taliban. The impact is negative in both the first and second week following a drone strike, when we examine the number of terrorist attacks by the Taliban. (13)

    This study’s findings demonstrate that the drone strikes do not always have an effect upon “militant” violence. In some regions, such as Afghanistan, there is none. The study also found “some vengeance effects of drone strikes on violence by the Haqqani faction but also deterrent/incapacitation effects of drone strikes on violence by both the Haqqani and Mehsud factions of the Taliban.” (13) When looking at the conclusions of these studies together, there does appear to be a small reduction in violence. This study also confirmed the existence of “vengeance” attacks as critics have alleged. However, it does not appear that drone strikes are the highly effective counter-terrorism tool as drone advocates argue.

    I do not believe a “small” gain in the reduction of violence is proportional to the large amount of ill will that has developed against the U.S. due to drone strikes killing innocents, not to mention the unfortunate loss of life of those same innocents. Furthermore, proponents of the drone attacks who use this small advantage to argue that drone attacks are effective ignore what I said in an earlier post about the role of tactics and counter-tactics in combat.

    Another argument put forward by Christine Fair was that the study Living Under Drones suffered from horrible methodology and was biased towards the critics of the drone war. She accused the University that conducted the study, NYU, as providing misleading results because Reprieve, the organization that approached NYU about conducting the study, is against the use of drones.

    I disagree with this conclusion. While I do acknowledge that many of the interviews with drone victims were set up by Reprieve and could have possibly created a slight selection bias, it does appear that NYU’s conclusions are consistent with other studies I mentioned earlier that demonstrate a high level of dislike for drones, and the findings in this study are a likely reason for that dislike. I do believe the study’s conclusions are overly reliable. In addition, something Fair left out was that the study stated explicitly that their goal was to “undertake independent fact-finding and analysis” about the effects drones have upon the civilian population, among other moral and legal questions surrounding the drone wars. Unlike what Ms. Fair lead viewers to believe, Reprieve did not influence the study’s conclusions. They go on to write how “[t]he Stanford and NYU Clinics designed the research project, analyzed information, and drafted and edited the report independently from Reprieve and FFR.” Finally, Christine Fair provided no evidence that any of the study’s conclusions or facts were incorrect.

    Fair made an odd allegation about the lack of medical expertise brought in to verify that pictures of dead children actually died from drone strikes and not from terrorist-related violence. Fair claims that many Pakistanis have lied about how their children died, but provided no evidence of this. The Living Under Drones study does not say explicitly that doctors examined photos, but in the section on methodology they do cite getting the opinions of medical professionals and verifying their facts through multiple, independent sources. They write, “The research team has made extensive efforts to check information provided by interviewees against that provided in other interviews, known general background information, other reports and investigations, media reports, and physical evidence wherever possible. Many of the interviewees provided victims’ identification cards and some shared photographs of victims and strike sites, or medical records documenting their injuries. We also reviewed pieces of missile shrapnel.” (5)

    Another “expert” consulted during the debate was Dr Mohammad Taqi. I did not care for him either. His argument was mostly made up of appeals to emotion, justifying his support for drones by recounting the friends he has lost because of extremist violence, citing very little – if any – evidence. I feel sorrow for his losses, but I’d like to ask him if he believes it’s worth destroying many innocent lives just to kill a few terrorists? Wouldn’t a method that was less risky be much better?

    Near the end of the debate Clive Stafford-Smith asked David Aaronovitch if we should treat the drug war like the war against terrorism and ignore the rule of law and go into Columbia and kill leaders of drug cartels with drones. Aaronovitch responded by stating yes, if the democratically-elected government gave the U.S. permission to conduct drone strikes. I found this response astounding because it’s incredibly hypocritical. Earlier Aaronovitch had argued that this isn’t a war against states, but with specific groups that reside within certain states, which requires different tactics (violating the sovereignty of other nations for instance). Why the discrepancy? It’s OK in his mind to violate international law when it comes to the “war on terror” but the “war on drugs” requires the U.S. to gain permission to enter another state’s territory? This makes no sense.

    During the audience Q&A Aaronovitch was discussing the legality of U.S. actions, mentioning the war in Iraq, Kosovo, and I’m assuming drone strikes as well, and he seemed to argue that, if these actions were truly illegal, why hasn’t the U.S. been brought to the International Criminal Court to face up to their crimes? This argument is completely absurd. The reasons ought to be clear. The U.S. simply refuses to own up to its crimes and refuses to hold those accountable who were responsible for those crimes. It happened when in 1986 the World Court condemned the United States for its actions in Nicaragua regarding the Iran-Contra affair and declared the United States’ actions “unlawful” because of its “use of force.” The World Court then passed a resolution arguing that the U.S. was “in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to use force against another state” and ordered it to pay reparations. Another example is when President Obama refused to prosecute George W. Bush and Dick Cheney for war crimes as well as the banks which created the financial meltdown. There are many other examples, but I think my point has been made.

    During the audience Q&A I was appalled by Christine Fair’s attitude when an audience member addressed her as “the lady on the screen” and she responded by very rudely saying, “First of all, ‘the lady’ is Dr. Fair and you can save that sexist crap for someone else.” She goes on to ignore the young man’s question, which was a very good point about the U.S. government being very tight-lipped about the drone program and how this seems to count against the pro-drone side that there isn’t enough precise information about the drone program to make the claims about drone deaths that critics often make, because even drone supporters don’t all of the facts either. Fair further says how she does conduct research and continues to criticize the report Living Under Drones as being an example of poor research, again without really providing any evidence. And given the few errors I’ve pointed out, I think her “research” should be tightly scrutinized because she apparently can’t get her facts straight even on the little issues she brought up. A minute prior to this exchange Fair wrote on a white board, “Clive is Wrong,” and held it up to her screen, another display of unprofessional behavior by this “Professor.” Given her immature demeanor throughout the debate I can’t blame the audience member for forgetting her name. She was rude, unprofessional, and most importantly, wrong.

    These were my thoughts and the results of my findings when I looked into many of the claims by the drone advocates. I do not believe the opposition made their case: most of their facts were wrong, their arguments have been thoroughly refuted in another post I’ve written, and their behavior during the debate could have been more professional.

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    Article by: Arizona Atheist