Drone kills should continue
Last week's U.S. drone strike, which killed al-Qaida's No. 2 leader at a house in northern Pakistan, was by any measure a step forward in the war on terrorism. One of the organization's most charismatic leaders, Abu Yahya al-Libi, was eliminated. But the attack also added a bit more fuel to the debate over the morality and effectiveness of such remote-control warfare.
Pakistan registered its ritual disapproval, inevitable given the incursion on its territory. And the ACLU renewed its argument that drone attacks create more enemies than they kill. What's missing from those arguments, though, is a viable alternative.
Strikes from combat aircraft? Well, no. Just last week, a NATO air attack in Afghanistan killed 18 civilians attending a wedding. Drones are more precise. Commando operations? Vastly more difficult, more dangerous and less likely to succeed. Doing nothing? Not an option, given the overwhelming evidence of al-Qaida's continuing plots to attack the U.S.
That leaves the drones, which have been a remarkably effective way to hunt down terrorist leaders and keep others cowering. Al-Libi was the latest of six top al-Qaida leaders killed in Pakistan and Yemen in the past year. That success has generated bipartisan support and 83 percent public approval in the U.S. for the program.
Strikes that are aimed at terrorists but also kill non-combatants, including children, are enormously damaging to the United States. They turn local populations against the U.S. and put enormous pressure on governments such as Pakistan's and Yemen's to stop cooperating with U.S. forces.
Accurate counts of civilian casualties are virtually impossible to get, but the U.S. appears to be making progress toward reducing what's euphemistically called "collateral damage." The New America Foundation estimates that civilian deaths have fallen from half of all drone deaths in 2008 to fewer than 10 percent last year, a total of somewhere between 16 and 36 people.
The anti-American backlash stoked by these deaths argues strongly for concentrating attacks on dangerous and high-ranking leaders who can't realistically be captured or killed any other way.
President Obama and administration officials have begun speaking openly about the once supposedly secret drone attacks, claiming authority for them under the same post-9/11 law that the Bush administration frequently invoked to justify its actions against suspected terrorists. The number of drone strikes rose from 52 during the Bush presidency to 278 under Obama, peaking in 2010, according to a Bureau of Investigative Journalism analysis.
A recent story in The New York Times revealed that the administration keeps a detailed "kill list" of suspected militants, and that Obama personally approves the addition of every new name and also vets many of the individual drone attacks. Although it's reassuring that Obama recognizes the sensitivities and stakes involved, his hands-on approach raises questions about the appropriate level of direct involvement by a U.S. president in a program of targeted killings.
Some of the military drones are operated by "pilots" in Nevada, who go home to dinner with their families when their shifts are over. When war starts to resemble a video game, will there be an irresistible urge to overuse the remote-control weapons? And will the same temptation apply to the 50 other nations said to have drones or plans to get them?
These are all valid concerns. For the time being, though, the U.S. continues to confront a non-state enemy bent on plotting terror attacks inside America. Unless someone comes up with a better way to protect the nation, the drone strikes should continue, at least until Osama bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, is eliminated and al-Qaida is out of business.
This article was published and distributed by USA Today.