It’s Time to Ban Killer Drones

Everyone who followed the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan was horrified by the drone attack, called a “tragic mistake” by the Pentagon, which killed 10 members of a single family, including 7 children.

Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for Nutrition and Education International, a U.S.-based aid organization, became the target because he drove a white Toyota, went to his office, and stopped to pick up containers of clean water for his extended family.

Those actions, deemed suspicious by the drone surveillance program and its human handlers, were enough to identify Ahmadi falsely as an ISIS-K terrorist and place him on the kill list for that day.

It would be comforting to think that the Ahmadi killing was one of those one-in-a-thousand tragic affairs, but that would be a mistake. In fact, as many as one-third of people killed by drone strikes have been found to be civilians.

While it is difficult to get an accurate count of deaths resulting from drone strikes, there are many documented reports of civilians being mistakenly targeted and killed.

Human Rights Watch found that the 12 men killed and 15 injured by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2013 were members of a wedding party and not militants, as U.S. officials told journalists they were.

In another example, a 2019 U.S. drone strike targeting an alleged ISIS hideout in Afghanistan mistakenly targeted 200 pine nut farmers resting after a day’s work, killing at least 30 and injuring 40 more.

U.S. drone attacks, initiated in 2001 when George W. Bush was president, have increased dramatically — from approximately 50 total during the Bush years to 12,832 confirmed strikes in Afghanistan alone during Trump’s presidency.

The escalation paralleled the transition of the war in Afghanistan from maintaining large numbers of U.S. ground troops to a reliance on airpower and drone attacks.

A primary rationale for the change in strategy was reducing the threat of U.S. casualties. But no attempt to reduce the deaths of American soldiers should also cause more innocent parents, children, farmers, or other civilians to die.

The use of certain weapons determined to be grossly inhumane, or that fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets, has already been banned under international law. Poison gas, chemical and biological weapons, cluster bombs, and landmines have all been banned over the last century. While not all countries are parties to treaties banning these weapons, most countries honor them, which has saved many lives.

Killer drones should be added to this list. That includes both fully autonomous weapons, which use a computer algorithm to determine who lives or dies, as well as those operated by humans who are safely ensconced in a military base thousands of miles away.

The killing of the Ahmadi family demonstrates that weaponized drones must be banned. There are far too many examples of innocent civilians who were killed erroneously.

Prohibiting the use of drones as weapons is required by international law. It also is the right thing to do.


Peter Weiss is a retired international lawyer, former board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, and president emeritus of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy. Judy Weiss is president of the Samuel Rubin Foundation.