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Taking a Pragmatic & Intellectually Cowardly Position on US Drone Strikes in Pakistan

Joshua Foust, American Security Project fellow, on PBS' "Need to Know" in May

(update below)

Clinics at the law schools of Stanford and New York University released a ground-breaking report on September 25 that challenged the “dominant narrative” that United States drones in Pakistan are a “surgically precise and effective tool,” which “makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.” The report, which included firsthand accounts from Pakistanis to bolster the study’s conclusions, called this narrative “false” and stated civilian casualties are “rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.” And it stated publicly available evidence that strikes make the US safer is “ambiguous at best” and considers the legality of the strikes to be “doubtful.”

But, for some commentators and pundits the findings of the report, “Living Under Drones,” were frustrating. They interpreted the report as one aimed at halting the United States’ use of drones altogether. Moreover, they viewed the report as a kind of missed opportunity to win members of the establishment over—to convince them that drones really are making Pakistanis lives’ hell in many cases and that is something policymakers should care about—because those involved in the study were “biased.”

Joshua Foust of The Atlantic is one commentator who had this reaction. Foust took particular issue with the fact that the report had been put together by organizations, which are biased when it comes to drones. He also did not like the fact that the clinics had produced a study that presented conclusions and no “better alternatives” to drones. And his view was widely consumed as reasonable and valid.

First, before I plainly point out that Foust is as biased as the organizations that were involved in the study and make the point that talk of bias is a distraction from the content of the report, let me make clear that I am biased and not objective.

I have regularly written about drones for the past eight months, and in covering the use of drones by the United States, I have concluded: (1) the US is using drone warfare because it values American lives over the lives of foreigners and drones limit the human and political costs of war; (2) drone strikes radically undermine international law; (3) drones are being used to get around declaring war in countries where the US would like to wage conflict in the “war on terrorism”; and (4) President Barack Obama has—as other commentators have pointed out—claimed an extreme power that has no judicial oversight: the power to act as judge, jury and executioner and decide who is a “terrorist” that must be executed and who is not and is willing to even use this power against US citizens.

Returning to Foust, he has written a good amount about drones. But the most concise presentation of his views might appear in a Council on Foreign Relations blog post from September 24, 2012, one day before the report was released:

The U.S. record, though far from perfect, shows that they can kill senior terrorist and insurgent leaders with surprising precision and accuracy. Over the last decade, much of the intelligence community has been reoriented around collecting and analyzing intelligence for the purpose of developing targeting “packages.” Targeted killings carry other benefits as well: they require far less commitment of troops and materiel, which limits risk and cost; they also result in far less collateral damage than an equivalent raid by conventional troops.

As for whether they achieve the long term goals of U.S. policy, that’s another matter. In Afghanistan, the long-term goals are not well defined so it’s difficult to say conclusively whether they are working or not. In Pakistan, targeted killings have seriously degraded al-Qaeda groups. However, they have also resulted in anti-Americanism and resentment. In Yemen, a limited campaign has killed several important figures in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in support of the real progress through a massive campaign by the Yemeni Army.

So it’s not as simple as “yes or no.” In some cases, targeted killings are an effective tool; in others, they are not. The issue requires nuance, not absolutism.

Foust has a pragmatic position on drone use. He also is someone who believes “senior terrorist and insurgent leaders” are killed “with surprising precision and accuracy” by drones, which means Foust has a stake in discrediting the report because the conclusions of the study directly conflict with his position.

There’s also the fact that Foust is a fellow for the American Security Project, a Washington, DC, think tank, whose Board of Directors include former US Senator Gary Hart, who is the Chairman; Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney, USMC (Ret.), Brigadier General Cheney, Lieutenant General Daniel Christman, USA (Ret.); Lieutenant General Christman, Nelson W. Cunningham, Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, USN (Ret.), former Senator Chuck Hagel, Lieutenant General Claudia Kennedy, USA (Ret.), Senator John Kerry, General Lester L. Lyles, USAF (Ret.), former Senator Warren B. Rudman, Christine Todd Whitman, Admiral William Fallon, USN (Ret.), Norman R. Augustine, Ed Reilly, Raj Fernando and Lt. Gen. John Castellaw USMC (Ret.). All of these people have some connection to a government that is allowing drone warfare to become more entrenched in US policy each and every day and are not likely to question the continuation of the “war on terror,” which provides the paradigm which Beltway characters cite to justify drone strikes.

But just as I don’t think it would be fair for Foust to discredit this post by simply attempting to discredit Firedoglake, I don’t think it is fair to simply discredit Foust’s views by tying him to the American Security Project. In the same vein, this is why I do not think it is fair to suggest the report is flawed because it involved players that have certain interests. That doesn’t make the report poor. So, let’s examine Foust’s thoughts and views on the report.

Foust argues:

…The authors did not conduct interviews in the [Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)], but Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Peshawar. The direct victims they interviewed were contacted initially by the non-profit advocacy group Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which is not a neutral observer (their explicit mission is to end the use of drones in Pakistan). The report relies on a database compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which relies on media accounts for most of its data. The authors discount the utility of relying on media accounts, since media in Pakistan rely on the Pakistani government for information (reporters are not allowed independent access to the FATA). Even accepting their description of the BIJ data as the most “reliable,” these data are highly suspect…

What data does Foust reference in his writing about drones? Does he prefer the data presented by The Long War Journal or the New American Foundation over TBIJ’s data, which the report explores? It is hard to tell. Let’s just note that the researchers involved in this study painstakingly laid out in their report how TBIJ’s data is better than The Long War Journal or the New American Foundation’s data because TBIJ updates their “strike information frequently to reflect new information as it comes to light” and they are “highly transparent,” making data available in a “strike-by-strike format.”

How about Foust’s issue with the Foundation for Fundamental Rights? The organization, as it states on its website, is an “organization of attorneys and socially active individuals working towards the advancement, protection and enforcement of fundamental human rights” in Pakistan. Moreover, it has an initiative that aims to provide legal aid to Waziristan residents because they are in the FATA region, a region where the organization claims the Pakistani legislature “has failed to provide the tribal people with a system of governance ensuring rights of individuals in the Constitution.”

The Jurisdiction of Supreme Court and High Court of Pakistan does not extend directly to FATA and Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (PATA), according to Article 247 and Article 248, of existing 1973 Constitution of Pakistan. The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly has no power in FATA, and can only exercise its powers in PATA that are part of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. The assembly cannot implement the law directly as it can do in other parts of the province or Settled Areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This has created a political vacuum in FATA, Frontier Regions and PATA. Such lawless conditions are said to serve the interests of terrorists, as there is absence of various government departments like police, judiciary, local governments, and civic amenities. There are no civil, sessions, High and/or Supreme Courts of Pakistan in Tribal Areas.

The two clinics specifically aimed to go do their study by collecting reports from people who live in FATA, because they are most affectetd by drone strikes. Does Foust seriously believe two law clinics should not have connected and cooperated with a legal human rights organization composed of lawyers, who defend the rights of Pakistanis in Waziristan? As those who worked on the study write in the report, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights is a “legal nonprofit based in Islamabad that has become the most prominent legal advocate for drone victims in Pakistan.”

Another key issue for Foust is the fact that only 130 people were the “sample size of the study.”

…In a country of 175 million, that is just not representative. 130 respondents isn’t representative even of the 800,000 or so people in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the region of Pakistan where most drone strikes occur. Moreover, according to the report’s methodology section, there is no indication of how many respondents were actual victims of drone strikes, since among those 130 they also interviewed “current and former Pakistani government officials, representatives from five major Pakistani political parties, subject matter experts, lawyers, medical professionals, development and humanitarian workers, members of civil society, academics, and journalists.”…

It is not true that “there is no indication of how many respondents were actual victims of drone strikes.” As noted, the “investigations included interviews with 69 individuals (‘experiential victims’), who were witnesses to drone strikes or surveillance, victims of strikes, or family members of victims from North Waziristan.” Foust may dispute whether surveillance constitutes being a victim of a drone strike or not, but to read firsthand testimony from people who experience terror because they cannot differentiate between drones in the sky for surveillance and drones in the sky to kill, one must admit both surveillance and strikes can turn Pakistanis into victims.

Also, it really does not matter how many people the clinics spoke to for the study. From the executive summary of the report, one can surmise the researchers went into the FATA region to confirm whether drones were “a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.” They only needed a small sample to call into question the conventional wisdom that civilian impact is minimal or non-existent.

Finally, Foust argues the report fails to provide “better alternatives.” As a report directed at US policymakers, the offering of “better alternatives” could be considered outside the scope of the study because researchers could on good faith presume policymakers would take the findings and use them to formulate “alternatives” after seeing how current policy was not working. Nonetheless, it is not true that there are no alternatives suggested. Solutions were put forward and, most importantly, it is not true, as Foust seems to believe, that the researchers aimed to write this report so the US would stop using drones.

Recommendations the report made include: release the US Department of Justice memorandum outlining the legal basis for US targeted killing in Pakistan; make public critical information concerning US drone strike policies; ensure independent investigations into drone strike deaths; establish compensation programs for civilians harmed by US strikes in Pakistan; fulfill international humanitarian and human rights law obligations with respect to the use of force, and for those in the press, cease the practice of referring simply to “militant” deaths without further explanation.

None of the recommendations were to stop or pause drone strikes in Pakistan. So to suggest that the researchers had some obligation to come up with a “better alternative” to drones is preposterous, since they never really took drones off the table.

Furthermore, Foust’s position is incredibly puzzling given his prior critiques of drones. He wrote on June 8, 2012, “The problem with drones is not the drones themselves, but the trend of killing first and asking questions later.” And he actually suggested a “better alternative” to flying killer robots:

A broader approach could, for example, place more emphasis on affecting social and political currents that presently support the terrorist movements and ideologies. One interesting project is the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, an inter-agency shop created last September and run out of the State Department. The group recently posted, to a jihadi forum, Photoshopped images meant to reverse al-Qaeda’s online propaganda — and, in the process, created a lot of nervous responses from al-Qaeda posters about the unreliability of the internet.

Foust also suggested in a post on July 12, 2012 titled, “US Drones Make Peace With Pakistan Less Likely”:

One way to think about stemming American unpopularity is to change the terms on which the U.S. relates to Pakistan. Despite last week’s apology and reopening of supply lines, relations between the two countries remain tense.The prospects for a close alliance don’t seem likely, but the U.S. could help deescalate tensions in part by doing more to consider Pakistan’s national pride. Including Pakistani officials in the targeting process more often could be one way of building trust — though U.S. officials often warn that this can make plans for a drone strike more likely to leak, allowing the target to get away. So it’s not clear that a mutually beneficial balance could really be struck.

Another way to deescalate tensions might be to focus down the drone program to only high value targets such as al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, ending strikes against low level (or unidentified) targets, likely allaying some Pakistani objections to the program while still preserving freedom of action against really important threats.

Does Foust no longer believe any of the content he wrote in June or July? He basically suggested that drones were a primary source of tension in his July post. Yet in his latest post, he asserts the  “Living Under Drones” report did not “definitively build a case against drones in general.”

As shown, Foust has written multiple posts that are critical of drones and could be cited in any argument against the US government’s use of drones. So how should one weigh Foust’s criticism?

One is left to conclude that Foust read this report and reacted in a manner typical of Beltway pragmatists, those who view opposition to policies that have bipartisan support to often be “purist” or “sanctimonious” because they themselves to do not have the intellectual or political imagination to fathom alternatives.

Drones are to people like Foust the lesser of two evils. Either the US uses drones and ravages communities impacting civilians and inspiring militias and youth affected to engage in terrorism, or the drones are grounded and terrorists are allowed to overrun societies and threats against the US proliferate. It sets up a false choice, as if other actions that could be taken which do not require answering violence with violence, do not exist.

Foust is unwilling to support conclusions or recommendations, including suspending US drone strikes, which might match up with his prior analyses. And in the end, it is hard to know what someone like Foust really thinks about the US government’s use of drones other than the fact that his views are colored by intellectual cowardice motivated by a perceived reality that the powerful like drones and so opposing them is unrealistic because they are not going away anytime soon.


The kind of smug and glib reaction you’d expect:

Update 2

Now debating me:

Also he tweeted this gem:

Essentially, Saeed Yayha, who was injured by “flying shrapnel” in a major drone strike on March 17, 2011 and must rely on charity to survive is childish to think himself a victim. When he told researchers:

I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there . . . I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can’t sleep. When I hear the drones making that drone sound, I just turn on the light and sit there looking at the light.

He was being childish. 

The Pakistanis, who do not eat when drones are flying overhead, childish. Ajmal Bashir, “an elderly man who has lost both relatives and friends to strikes, who told researchers, “Every person—women, children, elders—they are all frightened and afraid of the drones…[W]hen [drones] are flying, they don’t like to eat anything”—He’s childish. And another man who told researchers, “We don’t eat properly on those days [when strikes occur] because we know an innocent Muslim was killed. We are all unhappy and afraid.”—Well, he’s, you guessed it, childish.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."