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Drones Have Changed the Moral Calculus for War

Drones Have Changed the Moral Calculus for War

On August 29, as American troops were accelerating their pullout from Afghanistan, the US military ordered its last drone strike in the 20-year war. The missile destroyed a parked car that military officials said was operated by an Islamic State sympathizer and contained explosives for a suicide attack on the Kabul airport, where American forces and civilians had gathered for evacuation. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told a news conference, “We think that the procedures were correctly followed and it was a righteous strike.”

Last week, separate investigations from The New York Times and The Washington Post questioned those assertions, reporting that the driver was Zemari Ahmadi, a longtime engineer for the California-based aid group Nutrition and Education International. The supposed explosives, said the Times, were canisters of water Ahmadi was bringing home to his family because Taliban’s takeover of the city had cut off his neighborhood’s water supply.

The Times also reported that 10 members of the Ahmadi family were killed in the Hellfire missile attack, including seven children.

General Milley told reporters, “We went through the same level of rigor that we’ve done for years. Yes, there are others killed. Who they are, we don’t know. We’ll try to sort through all that.”

The British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has counted that the US military conducted more than 13,000 drone strikes in Afghanistan over the years, with at least 4,126 people killed, including at least 300 civilians and 66 children. Drone policies changed over the years under during different presidencies, as did the way the US counted civilian deaths by drone strikes. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan has a dramatically higher count for civilians killed in Afghanistan by drones: more than 2,000, with more 785 of them children. If accurate, that would mean that about 40 percent of civilians killed by drones in Afghanistan were children.

It appears that drone warfare will continue to play a major role in Afghanistan. Earlier this month, President Joe Biden promised Islamic State—or ISIS-K, “We are not done with you yet. … We will hunt you down to the ends of the Earth, and you will pay the ultimate price.” But without troops in the country, that hunting will almost certainly be done mostly through unmanned aircraft.

Back in 2011, CT ran a story asking “Is It Wrong to Kill by Remote Control?” This week, we want to revisit that question.

Our guest this week is Paul D. Miller, a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He earlier served in the US army, the CIA, and on the National Security Council staff as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

These days, in addition to his post at Georgetown, he is a research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and is author of Just War and Ordered Liberty, published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press. Among that book’s chapters is one one on the ethics of drone warfare. Quick to Listen listeners may also remember Miller from our January episode on Christian Nationalism.

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Music by Sweeps.

Quick to Listen was produced this week by Ted Olsen and Matt Linder

The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu.

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