Counterterror roundup: Americans worry about drones but support lethal actions

Counterterror roundup: Americans worry about drones but support lethal actions

By Matthew Irvine

Best Defense department of counterrorism

A few recent articles that mark evolutions in the U.S. counterterrorism debate.

The first is a fascinating article by Amy Zegart about how the U.S. public now supports more aggressive policies and actions to counter terrorism than in the past. Highlights or the poll include 69 percent of Americans supporting the use of "assassinations" in counterterrorism (vs. 65 percent in 2005) ; 25 percent of Americans supporting the use of water-boarding techniques (vs. 16 percent in 2005); and 25 percent are willing to use nuclear weapons in counterterrorism operations. The article postulates that the controversies have faded from the public eye, a Democratic administration can get away with more aggressive tactics (Nixon can go to China), and media/pop-culture have changed public attitudes.

The second is a study by researchers at Stanford’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and NYU’s Global Justice Clinic titled, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan. The study argues that administration estimates of civilian casualties caused by targeted strikes in Pakistan are significantly undervalued compared to reality on the ground. Additionally, the study cites increasing Pakistani public opposition to drone strikes and calls for greater transparency in targeting processes and program oversight. The study deserves a good scrub since it is getting a lot of attention and its findings are being used as authoritative. For example, Andrew Sullivan cited the report in saying, "But those numbers, in so far as we can judge them, go over the ‘just war’ line for me."

The third, a very worthwhile review and critique of the Stanford/NYU study by Joshua Foust in the Atlantic. Foust highlights sourcing and data problems within the Living Under Drones report and contends that regardless, civilian casualties remain very low even with the new unscientific data. Secondly, he wisely points out that the report does not evaluate the efficacy of the use of drones in Pakistan relative to U.S. security concerns or available alternatives. The use of UAV’s to conduct strikes in Pakistan fills a security vacuum in Pakistan’s border areas, Foust argues, and represent the lightest footprint and most precise counterterrorism option available. Imagine the alternatives as doing nothing, conducting U.S. military operations on the ground in FATA, somehow coaxing the Pakistanis to launch a major offensive like they did in South Waziristan in 2009, or working with local groups to secure U.S. interests.

Lastly, Rosa Brooks has been charting new waters in touching some counterterrorism third rails for former DOD officials in her Foreign Policy columns. Specifically, she looks at the challenges posed by drone strikes precedents proliferating to non-allied countries like Russia or China as well as some myth-busting on what drones/UAV’s/RPA’s actually are. She also takes a crack at the blurred lines between CIA operations and Special Forces missions in some parts of the world.

It appears that we are seeing quite an odd paradox: while the American public increasingly supports the use of "assassination" in counterterrorism, the topic of drones is increasingly controversial. As the U.S. turns toward a broader CT strategy in South Asia and our Middle East/North Africa counterterrorism operations are likely to increase, it’s helpful to see where the policy debate is going and how the public is reacting.

Matthew Irvine is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security.