Am I Arguing a Strawman about Drones and Civilian Casualties?

In comments to my post below about the strange new respect for drones (cross-posted at Opinio Juris, and in the comments there), my OJ colleague Kevin Jon Heller says that I’m arguing a strawman.  The “circles” that he and I both move in – academics, NGO activists, and so one – he suggests, have never seriously questioned that drones are more discriminating.

I don’t suppose that this is one of those arguments that goes anywhere, so I don’t have much more to add than this.  Since I first published on this back in 2008, I’ve done upwards of fifty conferences, panel discussions, debates, presentations, etc., in which I was the defender of drones and targeted killing.  I flipped back through the notebooks I use for making notes on my comments at these meetings; the central issue was civilian casualties at nearly every discussion.  I just don’t think it’s accurate to say otherwise.

That’s so even when it was run through as being a violation of law for this or that reason.  One reason I’m so aware of civilian casualties and lack of discrimination as being a big issue is just how little information was available over the last several years, putting me and others defending drones in the uncomfortable position – even today – of asserting greater discrimination with little back it up.  The levels of suspicion about how many people were actually being killed by hellfire missiles – that discussion went on for years.  For a long time, the assertions by local Pakistan press on casualties, despite questions about local Taliban manipulation of figures; likewise figures given by the Pakistani army.  Then the New America Foundation and Long War Journal started attempting to do casualty counts, and there was much discussion about how many people were getting killed on those counts, although each of those sources was properly cautious about the lack of corroboration and independent reporting.

It was a big deal – and much derided – when the CIA decided to start leaking claims from Panetta and others that the civilian casualties from their strikes were down in the “dozens.” I was openly laughed at on at least one occasion for quoting Panetta on lowering civilian casualties (Panetta? Director of the CIA?  On drones being discriminating?  Sparing of risk to US forces, sure, but discriminating?).

Even now, there is very little to go on in order to say what the casualty levels are.  It’s just that there seems to be a general agreement that it is no longer the important discussion.  Starting a year ago, I started arguing that the real issue for drones was not civilian casualties and proportionality, but instead necessity and the determination of targets.  But up until a month ago, the pushback on that was both sharp and relentless – necessity was an issue, but I was merely wishing away the civilian casualties issue, because I had no defensible data, just leaked quotes from self-serving officials.

Moreover, there was “blowback,” blowback was driven by the civilian casualties and how they were seen by broader Muslim publics.  Blowback – resentment among Muslim population against drone technology – started out as a follow-on to civilian casualties from drones.  Now, all of a sudden, to judge by David Ignatius’s latest column, blowback is an independent problem even if civilian casualties are lower.  The weapon might be objectively more discriminating and civilian casualties objectively lower, but still shouldn’t be used.  That is the implication of Ignatius’s latest column, and that is a big shift in the framing of the blowback claim.  Meanwhile, writers relatively new to the discussion, such as Slate’s William Saletan, have trouble even getting their minds around civilian casualties or discrimination as being the leading issue before they joined the debate.

I’ve done somewhere around, what, fifty of these discussions in the last couple of years, and I’ve got a pretty good idea of the arguments I was facing and what general assumptions have driven the debates within the academic, policy, advocacy, and related communities.  Possibly I misunderstood what all those people on the other sides of those debates were saying, and I needn’t have worried so much that, without any official government statements, reports, figures, etc., especially from the CIA, I was merely repeating a leaked statement from Panetta or some unknown DOD person in saying that the civilian casualty counts were not as high as tossed around.

The skepticism about collateral damage in all those public discussions seemeed to be exactly that, however.  For a long time, all that was published on the other side of the NAF study was a comment in NYT, WaPo, and WSJ stories, a brief leaked comment, from a CIA official, saying that the civilian casualties from CIA strikes was in the “dozens” and not hundreds, let alone thousands.  Any idea what it is like sitting on a podium at a large public conference and quoting that as your reason for saying that civilian casualties are not really the big issue and let’s talk about identification of targets?  A handful of people in the last year or so were struck by my focus on target identification and necessity – thought it was right, but also thought that unless I had much better factual sources on casualties, I had no basis for wanting to unilaterally shift away from civilians collateral damage to who was being targeted.

So, whether Libya is the driving force or not, I’m in a pretty good position to say that in a remarkably short time, this “community” seems to be accepting that the technology is discriminating and civilian casualties not the big issue. As someone who has been on that side of the debate for years, it is a remarkable shift, and is not occurring now for any obvious reason such as a change in official public data on civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  There is, however, a sudden shift in where and for what kind of war drones are now being deployed.  That shift in perception has happened faster than nearly any issue like this that I’ve debated publicly.   In mere weeks, and oddly since the beginning of the Libya war – fast enough and far enough so that I have to rewrite some paper sections to take account of the fact that readers of those papers are likely to say that some of these discrimination issues as no longer issues.