PRINCETON – Last month, Faisal bin Ali Jaber traveled from his home in Yemen to Washington, DC, to ask why a United States drone had fired missiles at, and killed, his brother-in-law, a cleric who had spoken out against Al Qaeda. Also killed in the attack was Jaber’s nephew, a policeman who had come to offer protection to his uncle. Congressional representatives and government officials met Jaber and expressed their condolences, but provided no explanations. Nor has the US admitted that it made a mistake.
A week later, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, did apologize for a drone attack that killed a child and seriously wounded two women in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The incident’s timing was particularly unfortunate, as it coincided with efforts to reach an agreement to keep a residual deployment of US troops in Afghanistan beyond the planned 2014 departure of foreign combat forces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had referred to civilian casualties caused by US forces as a reason for not signing the agreement. “For years,” Karzai said in a statement issued after the strike, “our people are being killed and their houses are being destroyed under the pretext of the war on terror.”
The war on terror is real enough, and not just a pretext, but so are the civilian casualties that have been occurring for years. In 2006, I wrote about a US missile attack on a house in Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border, in which 18 people were killed, including five children. Then-President George W. Bush did not apologize for the attack, nor did he reprimand those who ordered it. This was, I pointed out, difficult to reconcile with his assertion (concerning the ethics of destroying human embryos to create stem cells) that America’s president has “an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.”
Before Barack Obama became President, he argued that, because the US did not have enough troops on the ground in Afghanistan, it was “air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous problems there.” As Karzai’s statement shows, the problems have not gone away.
Nor have they been limited to Afghanistan. Civilian casualties caused by the US have been a major source of difficulties in US-Pakistan relations as well. In September, Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, reported that the US had caused at least 400 civilian deaths in Pakistan, with another 200 of those killed being “probable noncombatants.” (Apart from the problem of knowing who was killed, there is the separate question of how, in a war with no armies, one defines a combatant. Does cooking for militants warrant being killed?)
Emmerson’s report drew on figures supplied by Pakistan’s foreign ministry, but it was promptly undercut by the country’s defense ministry, which issued its own figures indicating that only 67 of the 2,227 people killed by drone attacks since 2008 were civilians. That low number surprised many observers.
Last May, in a speech at the National Defense University, Obama defended America’s use of drones. The US, he said, was attacked on September 11, 2001, so the war it is waging against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces is a just one. Referring to the key criteria set out in many discussions of traditional “just war” doctrine, he called it “a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.”
That may be true of the war against Al Qaeda; it is less obviously correct with regard to the Taliban. Obnoxious as their rule over Afghanistan was, the Taliban did not attack America, and Bush’s war against it was not a war of last resort.
Obama acknowledged that innocent people had been killed in US drone attacks, but defended the strikes on the grounds that by eliminating Al Qaeda operatives, they have disrupted terrorist plots and saved lives. He pointed out that the number of Muslims killed by Al Qaeda’s terrorist attacks “dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes.”
Doing nothing, Obama added, “is not an option.” Nor – and here he has reversed himself since 2007 – is “putting boots on the ground” likely to cause fewer civilian casualties than drone strikes. Doing so would only lead to the US being seen as an occupying army – a perception that would yield “a torrent of unintended consequences.”
Obama did, however, promise a change of policy, indicating that before any strike was undertaken, he would require “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.”
Since that speech, the frequency of strikes in Yemen and Pakistan has declined, but civilian casualties have continued, albeit at a lower rate. The “near-certainty” standard appears not to have been met.
As long as Al Qaeda continues to plan terrorist attacks, the US cannot reasonably be required to forego opportunities to kill its leaders and others carrying out these attacks. But Obama did promise greater transparency, which is essential to any sound debate over the rights and wrongs of drone attacks, and to democratic control over how the US is waging its war against terrorism. The administration’s refusal to apologize to Jaber, or even to explain what went wrong, indicates that this promise has yet to be fulfilled.
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, One World, and The Life You Can Save. He should not be confused with Peter W. Singer, of the Brookings Institution, the author of Wired for War.