There are strong arguments for a change in the U.S. program of drone attacks, and they are made in two reports released this week by human-rights groups. Both reports, however, fail to emphasize a salient point: The program has already been modified.
The reports, by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, document cases of what appear to be disproportionate use of force and the needless killing of civilians. But the examples they cite predate President Barack Obama's May 22 order to "heavily constrain" the U.S.'s use of drones, and act only against those who pose an imminent threat to the U.S. and when there is near certainty no civilians would be harmed.
It's hard to say for sure whether these reforms have reduced the excesses of the drone program. Yet early indications are encouraging.
According to figures compiled by the Long War Journal, in the last five months there have been 12 drone attacks in Yemen causing two civilian deaths, compared with 15 attacks causing 13 civilian deaths in the same period last year. In Pakistan, attacks have fallen to 10 from 25, with no civilian casualties in either period.
These figures are rough, because the Long War Journal relies on news reports. Amnesty International's report covered two drone attacks in Pakistan after May 22. In both cases, it concluded that all 22 of those killed were or appeared to be members of armed groups. More such investigations are needed to find out how well the U.S. is sticking to its current policies.
That is not to say that the groups' examination of past practices are of no value. On the contrary, the reports should be mandatory reading for future war-planners.
Speaking to current and former soldiers this week, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that technological advances had led too many policymakers and members of the public to regard war as a "kind of video game," forgetting that it is in fact "inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain."
The reports convey how drone attacks can tear at the fabric of communities, discouraging people from meeting for fear of attracting a strike, or from aiding victims of a missile attack for fear of a secondary assault. The cases show, with specifics, how attacks generate hostility toward the U.S. and undermine confidence in host governments, creating conditions for extremism to grow.
Amnesty International's contention that some U.S. drone attacks "may constitute war crimes" has attracted a lot of media attention in the last few days. Arguments over that claim shouldn't detract from the reports' vivid accounting of a policy whose costs the Obama administration took too long to recognize.