War from a distance Droning on
The president is weighing how extensively to use drones. More civilian casualties abroad seem the likeliest outcome
DRONES HAVE BEEN a common sight in the skies above Afghanistan, but rarely had one trained its gaze on the capital, Kabul.
On August 29th, as America was hastily withdrawing its remaining soldiers and Afghan refugees through the city’s airport, a drone struck a white Toyota Corolla.
After the strike, General Mark Milley, America’s top military official, called it a “righteous” strike, and the Pentagon claimed it had thwarted an imminent attack on American forces.
In fact no terrorists had been killed and seven of the ten victims were children.
President Joe Biden broke with his former boss, Barack Obama, in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
Like Mr Obama, he now faces a choice on how extensively to use drones to replace soldiers and pilots.
Mr Biden has pledged to conduct “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism operations, chiefly using armed drones, in Afghanistan, to pursue terrorists while reducing the toll of the war on terror on Americans.
Yet as the experience of Mr Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, suggests, drone strikes have hardly proved a strategic success.
As Samuel Moyn of Yale University argues in his recently published book “Humane,” such attempts to make the war less lethal may have made it harder to end.
Mr Biden’s strategy appears to be just the formula for a more sustainable, but no less brutal, war on terror.
As troop casualties mounted and the public opinion turned under President George W. Bush, drones emerged as a means of long-distance fighting.
First deployed just weeks after September 11th, it was Mr Obama who greatly expanded their use.
The rationale was clear. America would no longer rely on vulnerable ground forces.
Drones could strike as far afield as Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia—places where America was not, officially, at war.
Killing terrorists, rather than seizing them in battle, could also solve the Guantánamo problem. “If no one was captured, no one could be mistreated,” writes Mr Moyn.
Keen to withdraw troops from Iraq and, eventually, Afghanistan, Mr Obama directed more drone strikes in his first year than Mr Bush had in his entire presidency.
A brief prepared in March of 2009 by the Department of Justice laid out the administration’s contorted legal justification.
It declared that the war on terror operated on a global battlefields. Nor would it be limited to al-Qaeda and “associated forces”: even those with tenuous ties like al-Shabab in Somalia, were fair game.
Mr Moyn argues this gave permission to strike targets that did not pose an “imminent” threat, as international law demands.
At the height of Mr Obama’s drone campaign in 2010, America’s armed forces launched 128 strikes in Pakistan alone.