Document Type

Conference Proceeding

Publication Date



Political Science


Many states justify their use of technology and tactics as consistent with international law. These appeals to legitimacy suggest that legal norms serve some role in limiting the use of force, particularly in promoting discrimination between combatants and civilians. The United States justifies drone attacks as more efficient means than the use of troops to attack suspected terrorists. Many civilian and military leaders argue that these attacks are more moral than alternative tactics because they target the individuals directly responsible for attacks on the United States and its allies. However, these justifications assume that the military has accurate intelligence. However, in Afghanistan, the military has killed many civilians in misdirected attacks. Why do civilian and military leaders contend that they have accurate intelligence when the empirical record shows that often information is erroneous and leads to unnecessary destruction and civilian casualties?

To answer this question, I will focus on the U.S. use of drone attacks in Afghanistan. I will first evaluate civilian and military leaders’ justification of the use of targeted killings. What are their public justifications? I hypothesize that arguments based on efficiency and morality presume that civilian and government authorities have good intelligence about their targets and their participation in terrorist acts. Then, I examine this assumption and test the reliability of this evidence. I suspect, as Richard Betts has long argued, that intelligence failures are inevitable, and that intelligence is always going to have a margin of error. Finally, I ask how states have calculated the benefits of a policy of drone attacks in light of the costs of seemingly indiscriminate damage and non-combatant deaths. Is the policy of drone attacks really as moral and efficient as its proponents argue? I suspect that this tactic does lead to a short-term decrease in violence, but in the long run increases antagonism and anti-American violence.