Tag Archives: drones

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.


On my wedding day, my wife and I hired a couple of shuttle vans to ferry guests between a San Clemente hotel and the nearby site where we held our ceremony and reception. I thought of our friends and family … Continue reading

Obama on drones

So President Obama has made his drones speech (full text of speech here) and the analysis and reaction has begun. Much of it is pretty predictable and makes some of the usual mistakes.
First up, UAVs may be pretty new but the questions they raise are not. Our focus should not be on the technology but the way in which it is being used. My concern would be the same if it were a piloted F-16 launching missiles to kill unknown, suspected militants outside a war zone and in secret.
I always love how critics of drone strikes suggest George W Bush launched them with a swagger while Obama anguishes over every decision. The statistics suggest Obama doesn’t anguish for long.
And, at least in Pakistan, the number of civilians killed is pretty small. It’s difficult to know for certain, but people who tell you that hundreds of civilians are dying are rather exaggerating.
I’m no fan of drones, and I’m not sure Obama’s speech reassures me much, but I think the opponents are making some of the wrong arguments.
Here are some of the pieces I’ve been reading this morning:

Obama’s Speech on Drones and Guantanamo: A Challenge to an Endless War : The New Yorker

A young Yemeni writer on the impact and morality of drone-bombing his country | Glenn Greenwald

Finally, Obama Breaks His Silence on Drones | Brookings Institution

Drones: Myths And Reality In Pakistan – International Crisis Group

China Has Drones. Now What? | Foreign Affairs

Phantom Drone Strikes

The New York Times has an interesting story today about drone strikes in Pakistan, specifically about two drone strikes carried out in February, one in North Waziristan and one in South Waziristan, which according to my own reporting killed 10 suspected militants….

Yet there was one problem, according to three American officials with knowledge of the program: The United States did not carry out those attacks.

“They were not ours,” said one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the drone program’s secrecy. “We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.”

The American position is that the two attacks may well have been carried out by Pakistan, which has then conveniently laid the blame on the CIA’s covert programme.

I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of using drones. There’s plenty of that stuff around. For me, what this story shows is the difficulty journalists have of covering – and confirming – drone strikes. Here are a few points:

  1. They happen in areas that are remote and inaccessible
  2. Witnesses may actually have witnessed nothing but a house or car exploding – cause may not always be clear
  3. Reaper drones operate at something like 25,000 feet. At that height can anyone be sure what it is?
  4. Pakistan is a country where rumour is frequently presented as fact
  5. A recent drone strike I was looking into turned out actually to be an IED
  6. Locals – or security officials – may have their own reasons for obscuring the facts
  7. They happen in areas that are remote and inaccessible (did I say that?)

The idea that two reported drone strikes turned out to be nothing of the sort just highlights how difficult it is for anyone to nail down the facts. Whether or not the Pakistani military is using the idea of drone strikes as cover for its own efforts, I suspect that there are many, many more phantom strikes buried in the stats.

Recent reading on drones

Drones – not just for assassinating Jihadi suspects when you really don’t want to have to go to the trouble of detaining them and sending them to Gitmo, because you once promised to shut it down… Here’s what I’ve been reading on the subject (organised more prettily here – and fleshed out into a sort of argument here):

Drone Wars

Francis Fukuyama has been building his own surveillance drone. His post makes for a rather interesting read full of techy details, before he goes on to make a rather important point:

I want to have my drone before the government makes them illegal.  The US has been fighting such low-tech enemies lately that we haven’t thought through the nature of a world in which lots of people have sophisticated drones, not just other countries but private individuals.  One somewhat worrying thing is that virtually all of this equipment comes from China or Taiwan.

Let’s leave aside the China paranoia for now. You don’t need to be a futurist or to be living in Pakistan to know that drones are big business – and getting bigger. The UK govt has already pumped £40m into BAE’s attack drone development programme.

But so far we have barely begun to think about the ethical and legal issues surrounding their use. Even anti-genocide campaigners have so far failed to make much of a case for their use preventing human rights abuses.

The Drones Club

Could drones – currently used by the CIA for targeted assassinations (just don’t call them that, especially as they often seem untargeted) – be used for good? Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis, co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network, seem to think so…

Imagine if we could watch in high definition with a bird’s-eye view. A drone would let us count demonstrators, gun barrels and pools of blood. And the evidence could be broadcast for a global audience, including diplomats at the United Nations and prosecutors at the International Criminal Court.

In some ways it is not so very different to what George Clooney is already doing with his Satellite Sentinel Project. And it is not the first time it has been tried with drones. Sam Bell once tried to buy a drone in his hols to fly over Darfur…

The executives offered an old, low-end, limited- range UAV for $5 million. That was still, as Bell puts it, “a bit out of our price range,” but he thought it might be worth splurging–until he and fellow anti-genocide crusader Mark Hanis ran their potential purchase by an expert.

Oh, so Hanis has form. And has already been told once it was bonkers.

Anyway, this time he reckons he has the arguments licked with an interesting mix of good intentions and an appeal to everyone’s favourite freedom fighter…

This sounds a lot like surveillance, and it would be. It would violate Syrian airspace, and perhaps a number of Syrian and international laws. It isn’t the kind of thing nongovernmental organizations usually do. But it is very different from what governments and armies do. Yes, we (like them) have an agenda, but ours is transparent: human rights. We have a duty, recognized internationally, to monitor governments that massacre their own people in large numbers. Human rights organizations have always done this. Why not get drones to assist the good work?

Well, here’s one reason. A black and white, name em and shame em approach to human rights isn’t the only show in town. Lots of organisations have taken a different stand to ensure they retain access to people hurt or imprisoned. You might want to check with the Red Cross and see how they feel about this. But if your aim is to escalate a conflict and ensure aid agencies are prevented from entering, then this is exactly the right course to follow. And then what about the legal status of invading a country’s airspace?

It may be illegal in the Syrian government’s eyes, but supporting Nelson Mandela in South Africa was deemed illegal during the apartheid era. To fly over Syria’s territory may violate official norms of international relations, but governments do this when they support opposition groups with weapons, money or intelligence, as NATO countries did recently in Libya. In any event, violations of Syrian sovereignty would be the direct consequence of the Syrian state’s brutality, not the imperialism of outsiders.

Of course in Libya there was also the small matter of UN resolution. But anyway, what’s the harm when you mean well?