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Georgetown Professor Discusses Consequences Of Drone Warfare In Afghanistan


The last U.S. soldier has left Afghanistan, but a war in Afghanistan goes on. President Biden says the U.S. military will hunt down terrorists who plot attacks like the one last week at Kabul's airport using what's called over-the-horizon capability. What does that mean? What does it really accomplish? Rosa Brooks is a professor of law and policy at Georgetown University. She also served as counselor to undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy from 2009 to 2011. Professor Brooks, thanks so much for being with us.

ROSA BROOKS: Thanks very much for having me.

SIMON: Is over the horizon mostly a euphemism for drone strikes?

BROOKS: No, not necessarily. It refers to being able to use force from a significant distance. So it has more to do with distance and spatial terms than with a particular technology. So an over-the-horizon capability could be anything from drone strikes that are launched from thousands of miles away to a special operations raid where people are snuck in across borders to even advise and assist and training that is done remotely or at a distance.

SIMON: You have studied and have been particularly outspoken about drone strikes. There was a drone strike, for example, last weekend in Kabul that reportedly killed 10 civilians from one family. What are some of the consequences for drone strikes, even if an intended target is destroyed?

BROOKS: Well, you know, this is war. It kills people, and sometimes it kills the wrong people as well as the right people. And I think the fantasy that drone strikes somehow are clearer and more precise really is a fantasy. The technology is only as good as the intelligence on the ground and the targeting information. And if we have poor intelligence and we target the wrong person by accident or if we mistakenly think that an area is going to be completely clear with no civilians present, and then, you know, a car drives up full of a family of civilians at the last minute, no technology is going to protect you from inflicting real harm on the wrong people at times.

SIMON: And what is the effect of that on the ground? How can it affect the sympathy with which U.S. policies are received?

BROOKS: So this is one of the many reasons that these strikes have been so controversial, that when you accidentally hit civilian targets, it's not very comforting to the family members and the friends and compatriots of the people who died to say, oops, sorry. They're just as dead. And it can lead to tremendous resentment. It can make people on the ground much less willing to cooperate, to share information that in turn might be crucial to our own intelligence gathering and targeting decisions in the most extreme version. And I think we saw this at various points during the endless war on terror. Drone strikes can actually probably create more terrorists than they kill by causing so much anger and resentment at the United States.

SIMON: Aren't administrations in many ways willing, sometimes even eager to use drone strikes because they don't risk American lives? And, in fact, the U.S. public often doesn't hear about them.

BROOKS: I think the thing that people lose sight of is it's really not about the technology - you know, that the ethical and legal issues really aren't about the technology. They're about the process. The issue has to do with the murkiness about what counts as a war, who counts as an enemy combatant versus who counts as a civilian. And just to put it in really stark terms, if we decide that we are in an armed conflict with targets we choose on the ground, whether they were in Afghanistan or anywhere else, and we target someone who we think is an enemy combatant in that armed conflict, that's a lawful thing to do under international law and the laws of war. On the other hand, if we're not in an armed conflict and we target people on the ground in a country with which we're not at war and where we are not at war, then the U.S. is just going around murdering people with no judicial process. And that's not a good place to be.

SIMON: Reporters have interviewed people on the ground in zones of conflict who report their lives are chilled by the existence of drones and what they assume is U.S. surveillance technology even if they never fire a weapon. Explain that to us, if you could.

BROOKS: Well, you know, in a sense, it's just - think about going about your daily life and imagining that at any moment you could be killed, and you would not know why. You and your loved ones would not know who was responsible. There would be nothing that you could do in advance to say, oh, wait a minute, no, I'm not the guy you want, or I'm not really that bad. Or think of the fear that the American public - so many members of the public have felt about COVID, the sense of we're all vulnerable all the time, and we really can do very, very little to control it. I think that's the precise feeling that people in places where there have been significant numbers of U.S. drone strikes feel all the time, except they're not worried about a disease. They're worried about a missile fired at them from out of the sky.

SIMON: Rosa Brooks, a professor of law and policy at Georgetown, thanks so much for being with us.

BROOKS: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.