The year is 1984, and James Cameron’s The Terminator is one of the highest grossing box office hits of the year. This film, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator, tells a story of a futuristic mechanized assassin traveling back in time to “terminate” Sarah Connor, the mother of John Connor, the future leader of the resistance against the machines. Throughout the film, the audience watches as the terminator devastates California, killing countless civilians, without ever achieving its mission of eliminating Sarah Connor. Similar themes unraveled in the following Terminator films, with the machine proving time and time again to be extremely efficient at killing everyone that isn’t its target.

In 1984, this film seemed to be purely science fiction. However, in recent decades there has been a boom in weapons development that has made that once distant future seem ever closer.

Since the beginning of the War on Terror, the United States has utilized a revolutionary new tool, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, with increasing frequency and lethality to eliminate hostile militants and Al Qaeda operatives around the world. Their use in warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan have played a large role in saving the lives of American soldiers, offering better real time information about enemy troop movements, as well as significant levels of air support. However, in the past few years, the U.S. has been using these new weapons to strike enemy targets in countries where the U.S. Congress has not declared war or approved any military actions – most notably in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia – giving rise to serious controversy.

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the US drone arsenal has increased from 60 UAVs to roughly 6,000, according to PBS, with President Obama using them at an unprecedented rate. According to the Administration, the increased use of these weapon platforms is justified because they allow the military to conduct “surgical” attacks against high value targets, with minimal civilian and no American casualties. The administration also argues that the use of these weapons allows the U.S. to pursue its enemies with a “light footprint,”  alluding to the idea that these weapon systems are cheap (compared to putting boots on the ground), and supposedly cause minimal physical and psychological damage to the civilians living in the areas in which these drones operate.

However, according to a report conducted by the New American Foundation, cited in the PBS article, roughly 17% of those killed by drone strikes since 2004 have been civilians – between 293 and 471 people in total. A similar study conducted by the UK based Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggested that at least 175 of these deaths had been children. But the Obama administration has adamantly denied these numbers, arguing that these weapons are precise and cause virtually no civilian casualties.

To date, the drone program has been kept highly classified, with the government still refusing to formally acknowledge its existence. Currently, there are no laws regulating the use of these drones to conduct targeted killings of enemy combatants, and even American citizens at home and abroad. However, Scott Shane reported for the New York Times, on November 24th, that the Obama administration had begun to attempt to codify, into law, the use of drones to conduct targeted killings. Prompted by the uncertainty of a November victory over presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, the President decided that it would be important to ensure that any future president would inherit clear standards and procedures for carrying out attacks of this nature. Though this process is now being pursued at a more leisurely pace, due to the President’s reelection, it has been cause for great debate within the Administration – leading officials from the Pentagon and the CIA continue to push for greater latitude to carry out these attacks, while officials in the Departments of State and Justice have called for greater restraint.

Many in the Department of Defense (DoD) and CIA have argued that the use of drones is necessary in order to decapitate the Al Qaeda and Taliban presence in Pakistan, and around the world, that threatens both U.S. forces and local military and government installations. Their argument is that because there are regions in these countries that are beyond their respective governments control that have become proven safe havens for these terrorist organizations, and because previous attempts to reclaim control of these areas by the local government forces have been both futile and deadly, it is the U.S.’s responsibility to conduct these attacks to ensure regional stability and the safety of the U.S.

According to the Long War Journal, “The U.S. air campaign highlights the Pakistani government’s inability to control its own territory and prevent it from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda, the Taliban, and a host of South Asian jihadi terror groups. The U.S. is forced [emphasis added] to conduct airstrikes in territories claimed by a nuclear power [Pakistan] that is touted as an ally in the Long War [War on Terror].”

The Long War Journal also reports of relatively low civilian casualties in these attacks, claiming that their sources reveal that only 94 Pakistani civilians were killed in drone strikes between 2006 and 2009. According to them, roughly 985 people total have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, leaving the civilian death toll standing at a meager 8.5%, conflicting with the results found in the NAF study mentioned above. This argument has been used by the government to support their claim that attacks of this nature are significantly “safer” for civilians than conventional military interventions have been in the past – the 2008 Pakistani offensive in the Swat valley and FATA resulted in a combined 3 million internally displaced persons.

All in all, over the past few years, the administration has demonstrated its willingness to use drones for targeted strikes, arguing that this is the most effective, and cost efficient way of eliminating known terrorists that persist to threaten America and its allies. It sees the use of these weapons as instrumental in keeping the pressure on militants, supporting “allies” in the War on Terror, while causing limited civilian casualties in the process.

But many arguing for more restricted use of these drones suggest that the information being presented by the government to justify their willingness to use such weapons is questionable, at best.

One main problem has been the lack of clarity regarding the number of civilian casualties. Studies, such as those conducted by the NAF and Long War Journal, paint two entirely different pictures of the issue. The NAF suggested that civilian casualties due to drone strikes rested somewhere around 17%, while the Long War Journal suggested that the number was half of that at 8.5%. Naturally, the administration has embraced the studies yielding the lowest number of civilian casualties, but, as the New York Times’ Jo Becker and Scott Shane pointed out in an article written in May, the administration has adopted a highly problematic system for calculating civilian versus militant casualties. According to several administration officials, the President has embraced a system that counts all military aged men in a combat zone to be militants unless it can be proven without a doubt that they are not. The problems with this policy are obvious: it is virtually impossible to prove without a doubt that someone is not a militant through a camera lens flying at 15,000 feet – clearly this policy makes it easy to claim virtually no civilian casualties. According to another senior official, there was a running joke in the CIA that if they saw three men doing jumping jacks they simply assumed it was a training camp. If a drone were to witness several men loading barrels of fertilizer into a truck, it might be assumed that they are loading bomb making materials – but it could be just as likely that they are farmers simply loading fertilizer into their truck.

On top of the policy to automatically categorize all able bodied men as enemy militants, the CIA and DoD have begun to carry out what they call “signature strikes.” Traditionally, the CIA and DoD have targeted known terrorists, on a “kill or capture” list (the “capture” part being mostly theoretical). However, signature strikes were used to target unknowns when any kind of suspicious behavior was noticed by a drone. For example, if a drone witnessed a large group of men gathering in one building, it might assume that what it is witnessing is a meeting of top ranking Taliban/Al Qaeda officials, and bomb the meeting. However, what the drone could just as easily be witnessing is a council of local elders called to resolve community issues. Time and time again, the latter has been mistaken for the former, resulting in significant loss of innocent life.

The misleading figures and extreme degrees of government secrecy on the matter of drone strikes have caused many to argue that the program should be significantly restricted, if not eliminated altogether. For many, the human cost of this program has been too high. But what about its strategic effect? Has it really helped to make America and our allies safer?

A recent study conducted by the National Bureau of Economic Research found, that people living in places where the US military is active don’t like it when civilians are killed. The study found that attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan were likely to increase by one a month for every ten civilians killed. The study also claimed that “while some recent academic research suggests that across the border in Pakistan, the CIA’s drone strikes may not kill as many civilians as commonly believed — a very difficult thing to verify in any case — it’s not as if the U.S. has much margin for error.” At his sentencing, Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani born man who tried to detonate a van filled with explosives in Times Square, suggested that he intended to avenge the victims of the U.S.’s drone program: “I am part of the answer to the U.S. terrorizing the Muslim nations and the Muslim people, and on behalf of that, I’m avenging the attacks, because only — like living in U.S., the Americans only care about their people, but they don’t care about the people elsewhere in the world when they die.” There is serious concern that the continued use of these drones has actually served to fuel Al Qaeda and Taliban recruiting, mainly through frustrated friends and family of innocent victims of these attacks.

Drone strikes have also had a political cost. Not only have they served to infuriate the populations of “allies,” or severely strain our relations with such states, but they have set a very dangerous precedent for the global community on the use of drones for targeted killings. According to Nathan Freed Wessler, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),
“I think there is certainly a concern that the United States is setting a precedent in its use of drones that it would not be happy with other countries using in the same way… The United States now claims the ability to use these drones to kill people all over the world. I suspect that the United States will not be so happy if a country like Russia or China or Iran claims the same authority, and starts going after United States citizens or others. It’s really a dangerous precedent.”

Wessler’s concern has been one of the central arguments against the drone program. The way in which it has been conducted, despite the administration’s claim of legality, has been widely considered illegal by the international community. And it is in response to this very issue that, according to the New York Times, the UN has planned to establish a unit in Geneva next year to investigate US drone strikes.

Considering the administration’s determination to keep all official information regarding the drone program highly classified, it is difficult to merely accept their claims that no civilians are being harmed in these attacks. It cannot be denied that drone strikes have dealt significant blows to the central leadership of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But it is also clear that these weapons cause significant harm to innocent civilians and push people close to victims of these strikes to join forces with enemies of the U.S. Drones, though valuable assets in possible future wars like the War on Terror, must be used in moderation in order to maximize their positive effects.

Transparency and regulations are needed. There are several steps the U.S. government could take to reduce the human and political costs of the drone program, and to restore trust in the U.S. as a country that respects human rights and principles. First, the government could ensure that no one that is not actively planning or participating in direct attacks against the U.S. will be targeted by drones. Those that criticize the U.S. policies, vocally promote violence, or even serve as fundraisers should not be targeted. Along the lines of a proposal for the appropriate use of drones illustrated in a New York Times editorial, “Killing should be a last resort, when it can be demonstrated that capture is impossible. Standards for preventing the killing of innocents who might be nearby should be detailed and thorough.” Second, the government needs to issue statements following these strikes, detailing the target, the motivation for the strike, the damage caused by the strike, and apologizing and offering compensation to those close to any innocent victims. Lastly, the U.S. must set up a procedure for using these kinds of attacks against U.S. citizens that respects the citizens’ constitutional rights.

Armed drones are a new weapon that changes the face of war. If used appropriately and responsibly, they can be a highly effective weapon in the War on Terror. However, the ways in which these weapons have been utilized in the past only serve to address short term problems, while exacerbating long term issues. The continuation of the Administrations current drone policy will only serve to bolster Al Qaeda and Taliban ranks, diminish the global perception of the U.S. as a state that respects international law and human rights, and further strain its relationships with states whose cooperation with the U.S. is essential in the War on Terror. As a nation that believes in democratic principles, the U.S. has a special responsibility to use them in a way that is consistent with values that the American people can support.