Holbrooke’s Hypocrisy on Drones


"It’s such a precise weapon, the Predator, that if they were aiming at your producers over there,” Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administrations special representative to Afganistan and Pakistan intoned to a skeptical Rachel Maddow on Monday, “you and I could continue our conversation. It’s very very small; does that not appeal to you, that idea?” Holbrooke’s excitement about the drone program is just the most recent public example of how drones are viewed privately by current Washington policy makers.

Our policy elites considers drones to be politically positive; as they reduce the number of troop casualties, fiscally responsible; being many times cheaper to purchase than manned fighter jets, and militarily effective; allowing the military to push deeper and deeper into sovereign states such as Pakistan without needing a declaration of war. Because of all these seemingly positive factors, the drone program has not engendered very much serious critical discourse amongst our elected officials. Holbrooke was correct to assert the accuracy of unmanned drones, notwithstanding the bizarre quip that he and Rachel could continue their conversation unimpeded even if a hellfire missile were to be fired at their producer several feet away, though this admission does require some examination. Drones are the most accurate weapon on the field of battle today, unquestionably, but what does require questioning is Holbrooke’s logic when faced with the reality of the drone program.

On January 23rd, 2009 newly sworn in President Barack Obama on only his third day in office gave the authorization for his second drone strike of the day in Pakistan. The first bombing of the day seemed to be a success with 20 suspected militants incinerated in a house near the town of Mirali in North Waziristan,[1] a long suspected bastion of Al-Qaeda affiliated militants. The second bombing President Obama authorized targeted the incorrect house, killing a South-Waziristan pro-government tribal leader and his entire family, including his three children, one of whom was only five years old.[2] This sort of pattern is entirely typical of the drone program, a program which is characterized above all else by its incredibly high rate of civilian casualties. According to a study by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann for the New America Foundation, about one in three persons killed by drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004 to 2010 has been a civilian. The authors of the study further tell us that of the 114 reported drone strikes in the northwest part of Pakistan from 2004 to 2010 somewhere between 830 and 1,210 people were killed, only 550 to 850 of whom were militants. Shocking as this is, Bergen and Tiedemann conclude that the true civilian fatality rate of the drone program from 2004 to the present has been has been approximately 32 percent.[3] While the knowledge that 32 percent of all people killed in drone strikes in Pakistan have been civilians is disturbing, the figure grows even more disturbing when it becomes clear that this data is indicative of a larger general trend. The majority of the data from the study actually comes from the Obama administrations reported drone operations in Pakistan from 2009, which numbered 51 strikes in total.[4] The rest of the data is culled from operations spanning the entire tenure of George W. Bush whose strikes numbered 45 in total, making clear that in the year 2009 alone the Obama administration carried out more drone operations than George W. Bush did during his entire presidency.[5]

Legally, ethically, and structurally, the more you see, the more you are responsible for. Drones, in allowing unprecedented levels of visual accuracy should also significantly raise the burden of responsibility on their operators for their actions; the problem is this hasn’t happened. Civilian casualties continue to mount at unacceptable levels and legal and political accountability has not kept pace. Human Rights Watch in a report on Israel’s use of drones in its Gaza offensive note that “drones, much like sniper rifles, are only as good at sparing civilians as the care taken by the people who operate them. The accuracy and concentrated blast radius of the missile can reduce civilian casualties, but in Gaza, Israel’s targeting choices led to the loss of many civilian lives.”[6] The incredible technological capabilities that allow drones to target and kill with such precision is precisely that which serves to reify the onus of responsibility on their operators and commanding officers for a mistake made. When Richard Holbrooke speaks of the devastating accuracy of the drone, he should be held to account for exactly that. If the drone system is so accurate why are so many civilians being eviscerated, almost daily by drone missiles in Pakistan? What does it tell us about our political and military leadership when they can go on a popular news hour and boast of only a 32 percent civilian casualty rate?

Someone should ask Richard Holbrooke, why such a staggering percentage of civilian casualties is morally acceptable to him. Holbrooke continued his justification of the drone program by saying that “[manned] planes flying low having to make judgment calls in an instant, close-air support, that’s where mistakes can happen, that horrible thing in Kunduz where they blew up the tanks and 140 people got killed in the German area, none of that happens with this vehicle.” What Holbrooke is saying here is just factually incorrect. Drones may be much more accurate than a manned bomber plane or fighter jet, but it does not mean that mistakes such as Kunduz bombing, where 142 civilians were killed, become more infrequent. Distressingly, quite the opposite has occurred as civilian casualties have been increasing, just as political and moral accountability for the drone program has been on the wane.

Both in the main stream media and in political discourse, the use of drones is used as a sort of public-relations shield or guard measure against a public that is growing increasingly war weary. Our political leaders believe that the public will be able to stomach the war for a longer period of time if their family members are not dying all around them; and perhaps they are right. But it is important for us to not yield unthinkingly to theoretical arguments about technological perfection such as Holbrooke’s, when the reality is so different. In doing this, we cut through the political spin and lies and move ourselves away from sanguine theory and into a disturbing but necessary reality.

*The Interview with Richard Holbrooke is from The Rachel Maddow Show on 9/27/10, the transcript is not yet available online but the interview is streaming on MSNBC’s website.

BRIAN EHRENPREIS is a graduate of the Bard College Human Rights Program. He recently finished a manuscript on drone warfare in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is a freelance journalist currently living in New York City.


[1] Deadly Missiles strike Pakistan

[2] Mayer, Jane. "The Predator War." The New Yorker. Web. 24 Feb. 2010.

[3] Bergen, Peter. "The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004-2010."

[4] These numbers do not reflect the covert CIA drone strikes, only the reported military program.

[5] "The Drone War." NewAmerica.net. Web. 10 Mar. 2010.

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