How does the US justify its drone attacks?


How does the US justify ethically and legally its drone attacks in the Greater Middle East ( especially in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan)?

For instance killing their own citizens in some of the attacks. Source

Or killing other people who are there unfortunately at the wrong time in the wrong place. Yemenis seek justice in wedding drone strike

But also in general. Do they have a UN mandate for this kind of warfare?


US drone strikes – the facts on the ground :

  • "A new analysis of the data available to the public about drone strikes, conducted by the human-rights group Reprieve, indicates that even when operators target specific individuals[...] they kill vastly more people than their targets, often needing to strike multiple times. Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of 24 November."
  • " Some 24 men specifically targeted in Pakistan resulted in the death of 874 people"
  • "An analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations tally assesses that 500 drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3,674 people."

Drone strikes in Pakistan

  • "There is a debate regarding the number of civilian and militant casualties. An estimated 286 to 890 civilians have been killed, including 168 to 197 children. Amnesty International found that a number of victims were unarmed and that some strikes could amount to war crimes"
  • "Some US politicians and academics have condemned the drone strikes. US Congressman Dennis Kucinich asserted that the United States was violating international law by carrying out strikes against a country that never attacked the United States. Georgetown University professor Gary D. Solis asserts that since the drone operators at the CIA are civilians directly engaged in armed conflict, this makes them "unlawful combatants" and possibly subject to prosecution."

Terrorism in Yemen -> read the topic " US air attacks"

Sir Sy

Posted 2015-07-07T06:56:35.707

Reputation: 673

Question was closed 2016-05-05T18:43:32.677


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– PointlessSpike – 2015-07-07T07:07:48.960

2Justify ethically, or legally? – user4012 – 2015-07-07T15:36:46.003

Also, what specifically are you looking for as far as justification? Attack on specific target? The fact of attack? The fact that the attack is made by unmanned drone (as opposed to a personal hit)? – user4012 – 2015-07-07T15:48:13.353

Maybe it's more clear now – Sir Sy – 2015-07-07T17:01:14.007


Civilian deaths are usually justified as collateral damage:

– None – 2015-07-07T17:40:02.327

Mostly through silence, no? I mean, unlike say the Iraq war, there wasn't any campaign to justify drone attacks or in fact much communication about the topic. Obama did apologise about Weinstein's death but beyond that I have the impression that his administration mostly refrains from offering any comment about the campaign. – Relaxed – 2015-07-07T18:32:15.117

sigh. Article title: "keeps killing Americans in drone strikes, mostly by accident". Article content: "ONE example of an American hostage, killed in a drone strike by accident; ~10 killed on purpose". Who needs Al Quaeda propagandist arm when US liberal media do their job swellingly, since 1970s? – user4012 – 2015-07-07T20:20:14.620

2Your question seems to be confusing 2 completely unrelated situations (killing people on purpose, and killing innocent bystanders as collateral damage). Pick one, so it's answerable, since the justifications are obviously 100% different. – user4012 – 2015-07-07T20:22:30.143

Worth noting that the number of civilians that die due to drone strikes is astoundingly low. But this question needs clarification before it can really be answered. What specific, single thing are you asking @SirSy – Publius – 2015-07-07T22:41:50.947


The Justification from the White House is a countries right to self-defense. The best way to protect your Yemen wedding from drones, don't invite terrorists with automatic weapons and mid-level al-Quida

– user1873 – 2015-07-08T03:54:55.827

@DVK - I added some other articles above. Ttying to use different sources and I would say it is more than collatetal damage – Sir Sy – 2015-07-08T08:57:42.943

@ avi - do you thin these numbers are low? I would rather say they are astoundingly high! – Sir Sy – 2015-07-08T09:00:34.247

(Sorry for the spelling mistakes in the two comments above, can not edit them any more) – Sir Sy – 2015-07-08T10:07:23.530

1@SirSy - they are low if you don't measure by some BS artificial standard (e.g. comparing to zero). For scale comparison: Yemen Civil War (2015) casualty #s are 3,083 killed (1,400 civilians) as per UN estimate on Wiki. Compared to that, low double-digit #s from US strikes are, indeed, astonishingly low. – user4012 – 2015-07-08T13:02:30.310

@SirSy - another problem with these stats - I don't know about Pakistan, but in PA, there's a very proven pattern of labeling terrorists/militants killed as "civilians", because it plays well with people in Guardian and others like them, who tend to believe the most terrorist-friendly spin possible with no verifications. – user4012 – 2015-07-08T13:10:39.457

1@ DVK, I can't find anything about the Guardian beeing terrorist-friendly. (besides I used different sources, which all show more or less the same picture), but maybe this topic is not much talked or bothered about in the western public, so there is no need for an explanation for this kind of warfare. so it is difficult to answer my question. (like RELAXED mentioned above). – Sir Sy – 2015-07-08T16:57:03.743

Your update doesn't seem to add anything to the question. This feels like it's entering rant territory. – None – 2015-07-09T05:03:59.987

1Because our leader is black and the symbol of hope and change so he cant do anything wrong... if there is something wrong its Bush;s fault. – SoylentGray – 2015-07-29T18:47:02.373

If I understand your question correctly, it is an issue of "Just War Theory." A, perhaps better, way to ask this question is "What moral justification does the U.S. use to justify its drone war in Afghanistan?" You include additional complications you wish taken into account, including collateral civilian damage, and U.S. casualties. You confuse the question by proposing a 'organizational-legalist' answer (U.N. resolution) but it is similarly possible that you are actually asking for resolutions which are related to the use of force including with drones. Is this accurate? – The Pompitous of Love – 2016-05-05T14:15:27.087

Ethically and Legally are different questions – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica – 2016-05-05T18:43:54.273



I don't know the law but logically the idea is like piracy. You see a pirate on the high seas you can shoot him. Even if he is your citizen. Piracy was an asymmetrical-war like crime that was very hard to eradicate, was more organized than most criminals but not a sovereign state where you could ambush their troops on sight if you had declared war. So they decided any country could shoot them. Piracy is just like terrorism in those regards. At least they don't assassinate terrorists inside the US, we like to not be like Somalia.


Posted 2015-07-07T06:56:35.707

Reputation: 41

This may or may not be the case, but some quotes and links would certainly improve this answer. – bytebuster – 2015-07-09T08:26:43.857


Usually I don't agree with anything Republicans say but I agree with this: It's self defense allowed under international law.

– user5862 – 2015-07-09T14:24:35.753

We do exact same thing to Somali pirates.

– user5862 – 2015-07-09T14:26:48.663


It makes no sense to call killing people halfway across the world "self-defense". Imagine a guy shooting someone with a sniper rifle from a mile away, and calling that self-defense. "I had to kill him to defend myself because he MIGHT have attacked me after getting close!"

They have plenty of excuses whenever needed, of course.

We all know that killing innocent people is not justified.

Suppose Sweden perceived America as a threat of sorts, sent their drones to destroy military targets, and ended up killing lots of innocent civilians while at it. Would you find that acceptable?

Could Sweden convince you that it was justified somehow? They just had to kill some people to gift you with the blessings of Social Democracy or something? Shit happens, but at least your civilians died for a good cause, right?

Kikka Kutonen

Posted 2015-07-07T06:56:35.707

Reputation: 161

I think that the question is more about how does the us try to justify the drone strikes. Even if you don't think those attempts at justification are valid, in order to satisfy the question, you really should tell us what they are. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica – 2016-05-05T18:46:14.770


Ethically: the US is superpower not only in military, economic,.. power, but it is a superpower in the scope of media. US can do almost everything and justify it. The US can drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima and then another on Nagasaki and say it was for peace! :)

A quote of John F. Kennedy comes true for US:

It is a system which has conscripted vast human and material resources into the building of a tightly knit, highly efficient machine that combines military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic, scientific and political operations.
Its preparations are concealed, not published. Its mistakes are buried, not headlined. Its dissenters are silenced, not praised. No expenditure is questioned, no rumor is printed, no secret is revealed. It conducts the Cold War...

Legally, as cpast says here:

It is entirely possible the US drone program involved war crimes. However, it is impossible to make the evaluation without knowing (highly classified) details about US intelligence and military capabilities, and the knowledge commanders had when they made their decisions.

Surely, after a year of bombardments, if they kill innocent people, they don't tell the world they have killed 100 civilians 100 times.

user 1

Posted 2015-07-07T06:56:35.707

Reputation: 5 928

5He's talking about the Soviet Union and the international communist conspiracy to overthrow western society. – hownowbrowncow – 2016-04-29T18:49:06.850

2And comes true for US. – user 1 – 2016-04-30T05:44:40.250



I believe it has to do with imminent threat and the practicality of capture.

The justification is that there are terrorists that are planning attacks on the US or others and by a very stretched definition of imminent threat they pose an imminent threat. Normally the US would contact local authorities to arrest or kill the terrorists, like we would if they were in France or Israel. But in Yemen or Somalia the central government is too weak or corrupt to arrest militants reliably. There believed to be strong clan ties between Pakistani militants and the military there, so it is feared that alerting the authorities would just tip off the militants, allowing them to escape.

So because there is no force of law to reliably arrest them and they pose a threat the US feels they can attack them. This same logic would not apply in stable nations with functional police forces, who could simply arrest terrorists.


One famous definition of a government is the "sole wielder of legitimate force". The government controls or is actively working to stop all the force / violence in a country. But what do you do when a government allows violence in their country and also it to spill out into others. This is often called a failed state. If a nation cant enforce its own laws is it okay for someone else to?

Its also a bit delicate because you don't want to formally declare "that country is so weak its a failed state" because its a bit insulting, but the problem is there whether or not you say it.

As alternatives

A foreign power could

  • allow any failed state to be a safe haven to terrorists
  • Tell the local authorities and hope they can and will go after the terrorists
  • Launch large operations in the country to try to arrest terrorists and bring them to justice. But this could require inserting a few hundred troops taking lost of casualties on both sides, and still a massive violation of national sovereignty.
  • Attempt to assassinate terrorists (morally equivalent to drones)


Posted 2015-07-07T06:56:35.707

Reputation: 139

Strictly speaking your "Practical" section is theoretical. The quote you are looking for on "sole wielder..." is from Max Weber Politics as Vocation. I'm not certain that the sovereignty of the U.S. is used by the U.S. to justify its intervention in the sovereignty of other countries, which would seem to counter-act the justification. I do believe that part of the justification for use of drones is the failure of the Afghan and Pakistani governments to establish sovereignty over certain areas of their country, though. – The Pompitous of Love – 2016-05-05T14:21:35.680