Drones and data

Awkward days for anti-drone protesters who have staked their position on the numbers of civilian casualties. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has unveiled its 2013 assessment, revealing there were no confirmed deaths of Pakistani civilians last year in CIA drone strikes. A maximum of four may have been killed. May have been.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Air Force has been giving a demonstration of an alternative means of tackling the terrorist threat, flattening homes in North Waziristan and sending residents fleeing.

The problem for the opponents of drone strikes is the way they have focused on civilian casualties, often with unreliable figures. The bombs fall in remote, insecure areas. Information is hard to come by. Those supplying it – those few with access to places like Miranshah – have an axe to grind, one way or the other.

Their position has been simply that the drones don’t work. Their missiles are not providing security. And as well as killing civilians they are pushing young men into the arms of militant recruiting agents.

Such empirical arguments demand data, data which remain difficult to obtain. And, as 2013 has shown, data which when uncovered do not necessarily support their position.

The real ethical issue with drones is not whether or not they work (they do work – and n a very effective manner) but whether the use of Hellfire missiles to kill militants suspected of plotting to commit a future crime, or who is believed to have committed one, is just.

That broadens the debate beyond the technology of drones to other covert actions which we now take for granted in the post-9/11 world. How much more powerful for the opponents of Predators and Reapers to head down that road.

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