HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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“Did we just kill a kid?” — Drones in the Middle East


Map of drone strikes in Pakistan

The proliferation of drones has become a hot topic in discussions on foreign policy. The Guardian mapped drone strikes in Pakistan, writing that they had been used “over 330 times with up to 3,247 casualties – including up to 852 civilians.”

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, are defined as aircrafts without a human pilot on board, controlled by pilots on the ground. They can be used for many purposes, such as surveillance or for military purposes, in which they are outfitted with weapons such as Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. The United States has around 8,000 drones, and they have been used extensively in Pakistan since 2004 and since 2002 in Yemen, as well as in Somalia to target terrorist groups.


Drones are extremely controversial, in part because of their civilian casualties. The United States has been evasive on the exact number of civilian casualties, and also downright denied any: “Fortunately, for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq, and we will continue to do our best to keep it that way,” former counterterrorism advisor, and now, CIA director John Brennan said in 2011.

But zero collateral deaths is quite implausible. Drone pilot Brandon Bryant and another pilot were following orders when they pressed the trigger on a joystick and launched a missile at a house in Afghanistan. The countdown began, and at 3 seconds left a child walked into the corner. The explosion happened and he asked the pilot next to him if they had just killed a kid. “Yeah, I guess that was a kid,” the man responded. And in January, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, in southeastern Yemen a drone mistakenly hit a house and killed 2 children.


Protestors against drones in Pakistan

The percentage of civilian victims in drone deaths have been estimated anywhere from between 4 percent to 20 percent. However, in more traditional military settings, civilian deaths often range from between 33 percent to more than 80 percent of all deaths. Drones are not as accurate as they are often portrayed, yet still more precise than a lot of traditional military operations. But drone strikes also have also understandably increased anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. These sentiments may end up increasing terrorist attacks rather than decreasing them. Using drones in other countries also amounts to undeclared warfare and a complete disregard for sovereignty, and I know I for one would not want foreign countries flying drones above my home to attack terrorist groups, while putting me at risk. I think the main issue, however, is that without the risk to American lives with drones we will get too sloppy. What actions merit a justified killing will become more lax when we have zero risk to the lives of our people. The rules for drones have not been established, although the UN is in the middle of an investigation on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. We must figure out where drones fit into the rules of warfare or risk living in a world policed by drones, both foreign and domestic.




  1. mjuren3 says:

    Great article! This is undoubtedly one of the most hot button issues in the United States’ interaction with the Middle East. However recently the topic has been being debated not only about the appropriateness of drone strikes in places like Pakistan, but the issue of drone regulation and use is now becoming an issue in the U.S. as well, highlighted by Rand Paul’s recent stand against the Obama Administration’s policy that using a drone strike to kill American citizens would be permissible provided they had enough intelligence to believe they were a terrorist and posed an imminent threat to the country. This has actually happened before with the killing of American born al-Qaeda affiliate Anwar al-Awlaki who was denied due process and blown up by a drone. What is truly scary about this is that it gives the government, in particular the president, the right to decide who is or is not a terrorist and whether or not they should be killed at any given moment. It will be interesting to see how the issue of drone regulation and use both foreign and domestic unfolds as time goes on.

    Here is the link to a very well written article about Rand Paul and the issue of drones by Al-Jazeera.

  2. akranc3 says:

    No matter what, there will always be civilian deaths in war, or in any situation where armed conflict occurs in the presence of civilians. Drones are much more efficient than bombers or reconnaissance vehicles because they carry less munition and have no pilot.

  3. tnatoli3 says:

    The show Homeland deals with this very issue. I am not going to provide spoilers in case someone watches the show… but there is a fundamental shift in mentality when it was discovered that there was a bombing with school children in it performed by a drone. The show is fictional, but it takes a realistic interpretation on the subject that is quite interesting.

  4. John Girata says:

    You touched on this a bit at the end, but it’s important to point out that the ethical issues here mainly surround the fact that the drone pilots face no imminent danger (as opposed to traditional pilots). But the main controversy is the media is not about the ethical issue, nor any issue related to drones. The issue is the fact that we have military bombing campaigns ongoing throughout the world. I don’t think anyone really cares whether a missile was fired by a drone or a manned fighter when the missile hits a school (hypothetical situation – I don’t know if this actually happened).

    Also, I think the sovereignty issue is a bit overstated when it comes to Pakistan and Yemen. In both cases, the states are our allies (for certain definitions of “allies”) and we are conducting these operations with them (for certain definitions of “with”). If the host state doesn’t object, what grounds does the U.N. have to get involved (short of war crimes, crimes against humanity, etc.)?

  5. kolson223 says:

    It is an eerie thought, having drones flying around bombing certain targets near homes, but potentially causing collateral damage. Granted the same scenario could happen with a jet, but the precision and stealth of drones makes them kind of scary. I also think drones kind of dehumanize the whole warfare thing and collateral damage. You probably feel different attacking from miles away using a screen and joystick than you do inside the cockpit of a plane. As you said, we could become to relaxed because you’re not putting a pilot into the are you’re using an unmanned aircraft.

  6. mitch7991 says:

    It seems to me that such a dramatic difference in civilian casualty rates between drones and traditional military warfare would justify the drone’s use. Plus there’s a lot more potential to make the drones more and more accurate that there is to reduce human error in combat. I feel like I might be misunderstanding this issue because of its current prevalence among debates, but it seems to me that drones are coming under fire because of the manner in which they make their mistakes. True, it’s a lot more nonchalant and less risky, considering the lives of U.S. soldiers, when using drones. Civilian casualties in traditional combat are more understandable because of the mental and psychological states of soldiers involved in these situations. But that’s not a good reason to criticize the drones for being too chancy.

  7. I’m glad to hear that people still support drones (UAVs) even though they are very controversial. I would bet that the reason we see so many civilian casualties with them, is because the number of drone strikes have increased exponentially compared to the regular manned aircraft strikes. Although drones don’t have as good of reliability as manned aircraft (flying-wise) does not mean that they are not more accurate than manned aircraft. The same, if not better technology is being used in drones than the military’s fighter jets.

    On another note, maybe all this civilian casualties would make an incentive for the innocent people living near terrorists groups to turn them in? Heck if this was happening here in the US, I would definitely raise concerns if my neighbor was a terrorist.

  8. flambert3 says:

    Agreed while this is tragic but civilian deaths are always a product of any kind of war. It has always been like that

  9. kledbetter6 says:

    I didn’t know the comparative percentages of civilian deaths; thank you for bringing that detail to light.

    The idea that the U.N. might punish the U.S. is intriguing. I don’t think it would happen, and I don’t know if it’s deserved, but I can’t see the U.N. punishing the U.S. for anything short of genocide, because the U.S. just holds so much influence in the world. I wonder what the U.S. reaction would be if the U.N. ruled that they had to stop drone usage, pay restitution, etc.

    I agree with John that drones are not exactly the issue. Similar to how veils are a target when they are a symbol of oppression, drones are debated because they symbolize our military campaigns in various countries and the methods by which we conduct these campaigns.

    I was wondering how many other countries have drone technologies, and I found the following interesting article, which includes a great visual answer to my question:

  10. Jeffrey Lester says:

    I think that using drones is better than putting U.S. soldiers in danger. It’s also good to know that they are more effective than conventional warfare and kill less civilians. I do agree that I would not be comfortable with drones of another country flying over my head. I also wonder how we openly attack some of these countries with the intention of killing terrorists, but are not openly at war with them.

  11. nathenj65 says:

    This a great article about something that has been a much conflicted argument for some time now. I agree that drones can be not as accurate but it is important to remember that these essentially function just as they would for any other form of military air vehicle. I do not really see the argument that the enemy drones would be flying over our country being anything different than what would currently happen. I do not see drones as really that much change minus that they are much more portable and that they do not endanger there human pilot. I think that these drones are a great improvement than conventional war.

  12. jkipp3 says:

    Terrible….this was a huge topic in the ethics class I took at Tech last summer. Apparently Tech researchers play a big role in the AI development for these things.

  13. nholdaway3 says:

    I agree that drones are better than endangering soldiers. John made several good points that the central issue is the missiles being fired and not what was firing the missiles

  14. mnicholas6 says:

    I wonder how often civilians see drones. I can’t imagine walking to school knowing that death hovers overhead. It’s interesting to see the civilian death rates compared to more traditional warfare, it definitely puts things in perspective.

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