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"


4 Answers 4


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.


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?

  • 1
    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. May 5, 2016 at 18:46

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.

  • 5
    He's talking about the Soviet Union and the international communist conspiracy to overthrow western society. Apr 29, 2016 at 18:49
  • 2
    And comes true for US.
    – user 1
    Apr 30, 2016 at 5:44


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)
  • 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. May 5, 2016 at 14:21

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