Drones, otherwise known as Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs), have caused no shortage of controversy. Their usage by the U.S. military in countries such as Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia (to name a few), in conventional wars such as the Libya NATO intervention, and their covert usage by the CIA in Pakistan, is fast becoming the U.S. government’s new method of choice in combating non-state actors in the Muslim world.
In describing their use, administration officials use terms such as “targeted strikes,” ”precise precision strikes,” “pinpoint-strike,” “personality strikes” (against named ‘terrorists’), and “signature strikes” (for strikes against groups of suspected, unknown militants). Even the list of those targeted—termed the “kill list”—was changed to “disposition matrix,” which is described as an effort to develop standard procedures for the ‘disposal’ of terrorism suspects. Such Orwellian re-branding is reminiscent of the shift from using the phrase “War on Terror,” to describe unconventional military operations against non-state actors, to “Overseas Contingency Operations.” Others, such as former Representative Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), take issue with the sanitized language and describe the administration’s use of drones in stark terms like extrajudicial assassination campaigns.
It is nearly impossible to know the extent of the U.S.’s drone campaign, which currently seems to be limited to the Muslim world. For a variety of reasons, it’s unfeasible to identify or verify the extent of individual casualties, much less determine whether they were ‘militants’ or civilians. Intended targets are not usually revealed, and in the case of ‘signature strikes,’ people are killed based on patterns of behavior, not knowledge of their identities. The Obama Administration counts all military-age males in a strike zone as ‘combatants,’ assuming a kind of guilt-by-association when determining who is and isn’t a militant.
The strikes carried out by the U.S. military (such as in Yemen) can be publicly acknowledged, but the strikes carried out by the CIA in Pakistan are so secret that the U.S. government does not even acknowledge their existence. Therefore, each U.S. government organization that carries out strikes has different reporting requirements, different target selection criteria, and different accountability mechanisms. Some organizations, such as the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (BIJ) the New America Foundation, and the Long War Journal attempt to piece together a picture of casualties based on media reports. However, differences in terminology, conflicting media reports, unreported strikes, and an under (or over) accounting of casualties have led to a wide variability in accounting for individual deaths, much less civilians. That being said, here is a graph from the BIJ of 5 Years of Drone Strikes, illustrating the numbers of strikes, the responsible party, and the location from 2008 - 2012:
In an unsettling report by CNN, a study by Stanford Law School and New York University's School of Law finds that the administration likely underreports civilian casualties, and that the CIA even engages in striking a given target twice, not only killing the target but any first responders to the initial strike. Termed “double tap” or “double-striking,” such behavior contradicts the portrayal that strikes are a precise method of last resort in eliminating terrorist threats. Beyond actual physical injury, drone strikes are reported to cause mental illness and psychological trauma in entire regions of countries where their use is widespread, such as Pakistan.
The use of drones in military operations is not exclusive to the United States. Drones are already being developed, considered, and even utilized in countries such as Israel, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Armenia, and China, and by non-state actors such as Hezbollah, to name a few. The dangerous legal and ethical precedent already set by the U.S. is likely to be imitated and expanded upon if international control and accountability mechanisms are not developed.
The differences between airstrikes from ‘manned’ versus ‘unmanned’ aerial vehicles, especially in terms of international law, are not immediately apparent. International law has yet to catch up, as there is little legal precedent for targeted strikes by the U.S. against both U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, legal specialists say that this makes the question of ‘consent’ from countries in which drones are used even more important. The Obama Administration claims that such strikes against ‘militants’ are legal, but until recently has been unwilling to make public the legal memo justifying the strikes.
However, the chief architect of this clandestine war, John. O. Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, faced a confirmation hearing on Thursday for the position of CIA director. The hearing has already drawn increased scrutiny of the White House’s rationale for the targeted killing of American citizens overseas, as it comes on the heels of a leaked Justice Department “white paper” summarizing the legal reasoning behind such actions. President Obama only agreed on Wednesday to share the actual legal opinion with a small group of lawmakers in the hours before the hearing to help clear the way for Brennan’s approval. The hearing will continue next week in a closed session to discuss classified material.
The secrecy behind such operations is further underscored by the admission of a previously undisclosed U.S. drone base in Saudi Arabia, which media outlets had been aware of but agreed not to reveal until the New York Times did so this week.
To shed light on this issue, the U.N. at the request of several nations (including Pakistan) has begun a special investigation into the matter. As reported in the Guardian, Ben Emmerson QC, a UN special rapporteur, will examine between 20 and 30 representative examples of strikes that occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and even Israeli drone strikes against the Palestinians. The inquiry will look at factors that separate drone strikes from conventional methods of conflict, including the extent of civilian casualties, the identity of individuals targeted, the legality of strikes in countries that have yet to be declared a conflict zone by the UN, “double tap” strikes that target first responders (potentially a war crime), and whether it’s appropriate to use aerial attacks to strike individuals imbedded in local communities, risking high numbers of civilian casualties. In an unlikely endorsement, Mr. Emmerson has given his qualified backing to John Brennan for the position of C.I.A. director.
Other concerns about the strikes have been raised by Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, summary or arbitrary executions. As reported by the Guardian, he stated at a conference in Geneva that covert strikes by intelligence agencies degrade international respect for human rights standards, as they operate in secret and fall outside the scope of accountability. Since military personnel are not put in harm’s way by the country deploying drones and considering the relatively low cost of their deployment, they are in danger of becoming a method of first choice for military actions inside countries that are not able to prevent or resist the attacks.
The ironic implications that drone warfare actually increases the risk of terrorism and strengthens al-Qaeda are not lost on some writers. David Hooks notes that that their use is almost entirely concentrated in poverty-stricken areas of the world. Glenn Greenwald, one of the few writers who acknowledge that drone strikes are perpetrated by powerful Western countries against poor Muslim-majority countries, reveals what should be obvious to policy-makers: drone strikes increase hatred of American actions and cause greater instability and potential for future terrorist attacks. Jefferson Morely contends that while drone strikes make short-term strategic sense for the U.S., they do more long-term damage by creating sympathy for actors who would oppose U.S. military actions in their countries, including Al-Qaeda. Even the increased scrutiny of the legal rationale for killing Americans overseas leaves out the critical question as to why the loss of non-American lives is not up for debate as well. As George Monbiot eloquently argues in the Guardian, Muslim lives are not even framed by the Obama Administration in human terms, but rather equated with mowing the grass, bug splats, and cancerous tissue. It raises the uncomfortable and almost entirely avoided question of why Muslim children—their deaths, and the pain of their parents and relatives—are unworthy of the same consideration shown to American children. It is perhaps unsurprising that many Muslims living ‘under drones’ would not believe the statement, “The United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam,” and would take up arms to fight back, if for nothing less than to seek revenge for their pain and grief.