So of course I immediately thought: "I wonder what the consequentialist tactics of drone warfare are".
According to the US government, between 2000 and 3000 people have been killed in the 8-year history of the drone warfare program. A group of independent journalists came up with between 2500 and 3300, so the numbers seem roughly correct. (source: Wikipedia)
It's very controversial what percent of these were real terrorists and what percent were civilians. The government claims an excellent track record of only hitting terrorists, but as Unequally Yoked points out, the government's definition of "terrorist" includes any male of military age in a conflict zone who can't be proven to be a non-terrorist.
Anti-drone organizations claim extremely high civilian casualty rates: for example, two Pakistani groups both claim that most of the 2000 deaths are civilians, Pakistani politicians routinely make claims that "100% of drone related deaths are civilians", and a Stanford study was cited as saying that ninety eight percent of casualties are innocent civilians (!)
However, this seems to be a misreading of the study, which actually says that only 2% of targets are high level militants. The study actually claims that between 474 and 881 deaths were civilians. If we take the average there of 700ish, and the average total of 2500ish, then we get a 72% terrorist to 28% civilian rate.
Other studies give similar numbers. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism guesses "at least 385 civilians", which given our 2500 total speculation means <85% terrorist to >15% civilian. The New America Foundation says 80% terrorists, although their methodology seems to be going off newspaper reports which in turn probably go off the government which in turn goes off the questionable definition mentioned above. On the other hand, the Long War Journal specifies that they go off Pakistani media reports, and they get 94% terrorists.
The most plausible study I've seen comes from a very very brave group of Associated Press reporters who actually went into drone country and interviewed villagers after drone strikes. They estimated that about 70% of the drone casualties they investigated were terrorists, and that the number rises to about 90% if you discount a single disaster in which 40 civilians died.
So the responsible organizations seem to be converging on the 70-90% terrorist range. They also all seem to agree that the drones have been getting better in recent years and that a majority of casualties were in the early years of the program. Let's take the middle of that range and say 80% terrorist, 20% civilian.
This is significantly fewer civilian deaths than conventional warfare. World War II had 33% soldiers to 66% civilians. Vietnam was probably about the same. The coalition side in the Iraq war got 66% soldiers to 33% civilians. The Israel invasion of Gaza (according to Israel) was 75% soldiers, 25% civilians, or (according to peace activist groups) 55% soliders, 45% civilians. So drone warfare's reputation for being "surgical" is an overstatement but it is at least better than the usual invade-and-shoot methods. (source: Wikipedia)
80% terrorist to 20% civilian means the 2500 casualties include 2000 terrorists and 500 civilians. In order to talk about how bad this is, we need to decide whether we care if terrorists die or not. I don't have a good answer, so let's calculate this three ways.
The drone program has been going eight years, but only five of those have been very active.
If we don't care about terrorists, there have been about 100 civilian deaths per year.
If we care about terrorists only 25% as much as civilians, there have been about 200 combined deaths per year.
If we care about terrorists exactly as much as civilians, there have been about 500 deaths per year.
Aside from deaths, there are various other problems - for example one study points out the psychological trauma incurred by people in the areas involved knowing a plane could fly out of the sky and kill you at any moment. I have no idea how to quantify that, but as we'll see later, this isn't as big a problem as it sounds.
So the costs of the drone warfare program are 100 to 500 deaths per year, plus some unquantifiables.
What are the benefits?
Well, one goal is to prevent terrorism. Currently, there are 3000 terrorism-related deaths in Afghanistan per year plus another 2000 in Pakistan.
Another goal is to prevent Afghanistan from sliding into civil war. According to Wikipedia...
...according to Wikipedia, typing in "Afghan Civil War" gets you to a page called "War in Afghanistan: 1978 to Present", which is really depressing, and which doesn't even have the information I'm looking for. But according to a sketchy site with no citations, the period of Afghan civil war from 1988 to 2001 caused 400,000 deaths, working out to about 30,000 per year.
Another way to look at a potential civil war in Afghanistan is to compare it to the worst period of factional violence in Iraq, which took place in 2006 and had almost 20,000 deaths a year. By coincidence Iraq's population is very close to the same as Afghanistan's, so the number translates pretty well. This also order-of-magnitude matches the observed deaths from the civil war in Afghanistan, so let's average them and say a civil war implies 25,000 casualties per year.
That leaves the unquantifiables. But I expect that things like panic, trauma, etc, follow deaths. Drone warfare causes trauma to those left behind, but terrorism also causes trauma to those left behind, and civil war definitely causes trauma. I can't imagine how much trauma, but it should be at least sort of proportional to the number of deaths in each branch.
So taking our third number, where we value terrorists exactly as much as civilians, and throwing away unquantifiables and using deaths as the only metric:
Drone warfare decreases total deaths if it reduces terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan by at least 10%.
Drone warfare decreases total deaths if it cuts the chance of Afghanistan descending into civil war by even 2%.
These seem like potentially low bars. On a very simplistic view, killing 400 terrorists a year including a disproportionate number of major terrorist leaders seems pretty likely to decrease terrorism 10% if not further. And although it's hard to calculate exactly how much drone attacks prevent civil war, it doesn't seem too crazy to think killing a bunch of rebels and rebel leaders would decrease that chance by at least 2%.
(if we don't care about terrorists' lives, then drone warfare is justified if it decreases total terrorist attacks by 2% or risk of civil war by 0.4%)
So in a very simplistic life-for-life calculus, drone warfare seems extremely defensible.
However, there are still some strong arguments that could be made against it:
1. Anger over drone warfare turns enough non-terrorists into terrorists, or lazy terrorists into actively plotting terrorists, that it indirectly increases the number of terrorist attacks or the chance of a civil war.
2. "Status quo plus drone warfare" versus "Status quo minus drone warfare" is a false dichotomy. There is some other more radical solution. For example, just withdraw completely and hope for the best, or even don't hope for the best but assume the civil war that will happen would have been inevitable anyway.
I don't think I like argument 2, although I don't know enough about it to really have a strong opinion. It seems like given how bad a civil war would be, any reasonable chance of averting it is sufficient reason to stay around. Argument 1 is much more potentially convincing, but I don't know how much so.
If I were the president, I would set up prediction markets on likelihood of civil war conditional on drone strikes, no drone strikes, and immediate retreat. I might also set one up on terrorist attacks per year conditional on each of those cases. Then I think I would actually have the information needed to make an almost okay decision. Without that, I'm still agnostic about drone warfare. The most I can say is that I don't think one would have an easy time opposing it solely based on the direct death toll. This is actually not the conclusion I was expecting, so please check my calculations and see if I did anything wrong.
Now I don't think Leah thinks I'm contradicting her article, because she says she's potentially sympathetic to consequentialist calculations. All she wants is to realize the enormity of their decision before acting:
I don’t want to talk consequentialist tactics here or ticking timebomb scenarios. Whether or not you support sanctions, we have a duty to talk about them without euphemisms. Our politicians should face up to the enormity of the violence they plan to inflict on others, not puff themselves up by telling us how strong they are, how able and happy they are to make other people destitute or dead.
...if we don’t label these actions as warped and unnatural when we perform them out of necessity, we might forget the enormity of our transgression. And, if we do faithfully name them as they are, we might find that fewer of them seem all that necessary.
And I am sympathetic to this. We should always consider the importance and human cost of moral decisions. We should always wish that we could save everyone - although I don't know if actual guilt about it is very healthy.
But what I reject is the implicit idea that this should be one-sided. The president who decides to launch a drone attack in order to save people from terrorism later on should have to think long and hard about what he's doing - to really imagine the civilians who might die, and the pain of their families, instead of thinking of them as "collateral damage".
But the equal and opposite president who decides not to launch the drone attack should have to think long and hard about what he's doing too - to really take on board that if that terrorist he decided not to kill blows himself up in a busy marketplace two weeks later killing forty people, all those deaths are now on his conscience.
I think Obama has gone through enough hand-wringing that I'm prepared to give him a pass on this one. I hope his critics understand they need some hand-wringing too.