Are terrorists regaining the advantage over our killing machines?

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 30 2008 9:55 AM

Drones vs. Terrorists

Are terrorists regaining the advantage over our killing machines?

The evolutionary struggle between terrorists and drones has taken a new turn.

Here's a quick sketch of where the fight stands. In attacks that escalated from the 1970s through Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists exploited and demonstrated a huge advantage over life-valuing societies: They're willing to target our civilians and use their own civilians as suicidal mass killers. We're unwilling to reciprocate. In broader terms, they're more willing to kill and die than we are.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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In the last few years, however, we've developed a countermeasure: drones. By sending mechanical proxies to do our spying and killing, we avoid risking our lives. Recently, Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Pakistan have gone into Afghanistan and killed our troops. Instead of sending our troops into Pakistan, we've sent drones. Since August, the drones have fired at least 19 missiles at targets in Pakistan. Since the drones fly overhead and aren't human, we can send them many miles into Pakistan and get them out without fear. Unlike ground troops, they can take their time identifying targets, thereby minimizing civilian casualties. The New York Times reports, for example, that last Friday's drone strike on a religious school killed eight people, "all of them militant fighters, according to local residents."

In theory, fewer civilian casualties and the absence of ground troops should make drones relatively palatable to local governments. On Monday, I cited a Times story that suggested this effect was working in Pakistan. Here's the key passage:

A senior administration official said Sunday that no tacit agreement had been reached between the sides to allow increased Predator strikes in exchange for a backing off from additional American ground raids, an option the officials said remained on the table. But Pakistani officials have made clear in public statements that they regard the Predator attacks as a less objectionable violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

That posture of comparative tolerance may be ending. Yesterday, Pakistan summoned the U.S. ambassador and presented a statement conveying a "strong protest" against "the continued missile attacks by U.S. drones inside Pakistani territory." The statement added: "It was emphasized that such attacks were a violation of Pakistan's sovereignty and should be stopped immediately."

Pakistani leaders have long played a double game with their people, publicly denouncing American military activity while privately tolerating or facilitating it. So, it's not clear whether this statement is sincere or just for show. Either way, it demonstrates that drone attacks aren't immune to the political problems commonly associated with manned air or ground attacks. And the Times report suggests a more ominous possibility: "Many Pakistanis, including representatives of political parties in the government coalition, say they believe the increase in [recent] suicide attacks, including the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad on Sept. 20, is in retaliation for the American strikes."

In other words, the terrorists may have found a trump card over the drones. The terrorists can't kill the pilots who operate the drones from the United States. But the terrorists can kill local civilians, thereby generating political pressure on the local government to pressure the United States to call off the drones. And because the drones are operated by humans who answer to other humans who are susceptible to pressure over the loss of life, the terrorists win. The drone controllers are more sensitive to death than the terrorists are.

Part of me finds this turn in the struggle infuriating and dismaying. To compensate for its aversion to bloodshed, civilization needs a military advantage over terrorism. Drones look like a good way to achieve that. The border conflict in Pakistan has become a test case for this struggle—the world's first robot proxy war. But the drones aren't really robots, and that's the problem. We're their masters, and we can be intimidated. All you have to do is take the local population hostage through suicide bombing, and the local government will turn on us.

Another part of me realizes that this susceptibility is the only thing standing between us and an apocalypse. If human control and human susceptibility are the problem, then the simplest way to re-establish the drones' supremacy is to release them from our command, turning them into real robots. No more vulnerability to blackmail. No more fretting and cringing over the shedding of blood. Then we can finally stop worrying about the terrorists ... and start worrying about the drones.