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War Games: While Expedient, Drones Present Their Own Set Of Problems

In Joe Raimondi on February 19, 2012 at 11:16 am

Drone technology has come a long way since 1995, the year the first Predator drone entered service. That unmanned aircraft hardly resembles those in use today – given that it lacked GPS and was unarmed. Even on September 11, 2001, the U.S. Air Force possessed exactly one MQ-1 Predator drone. Today, there are “57 Predators up, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, looking at different target points around the world,” according to Air Force Major General James Poss. Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institute, notes “the United States military has more than 7,000 unmanned aerial systems, popularly called drones. There are 12,000 more on the ground.”

As the number of drones increases, so too do debates and speculation about their present and projected roles in conflicts, usually oriented around questions of accountability, proliferation, international law, and morality. How does the public feel? Some opinion polls indicate that only a minute percentage of U.S. voters oppose the program (9%), while approximately three-quarters of likely voters support the use of unmanned aircraft to kill terrorists. Perhaps augmenting a more pronounced role for drones going forward is the notion, advanced by Andrew Bacevich recently, of an “endless war.” In this scenario, drones are a useful, if not necessary technological component, because unlike conventional military strategies that require large-scale mobilization of human and material resources, they “insulate the people from war’s effects.” The American public’s support for the use of drones combined with new Department of Defense policies suggest that there will continue to be a variety of roles for robotic technology in warfare.

Political expediency is a huge factor in the decision to make these attacks more widespread in the war on terror under the Obama administration, in marked contrast to the Bush-era emphasis on interrogation and detention (and torture) of suspects. “The strongest appeal of unmanned systems is that we don’t have to send someone’s son or daughter into harm’s way. But when politicians can avoid the political consequences of the condolence letter – and the impact that military casualties have on voters and the news media – they no longer treat the previously weighty matters of war and peace the same way” (“Do Drones Undermine Democracy?”). Singer remarks upon one of the primary reasons drones have become increasingly utilized as components to warfare: they carry virtually no risk when weighed against putting human lives on the line. As the security situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan have deteriorated and the domestic political costs of both the Iraq (until recently) and Afghanistan wars have increased considerably, employing Predator drones rather than soldiers (on the ground) for both intelligence-gathering and lethal operations, where feasible, is at the very least politically smart.

While public support for the use of drones in the war on terror remains high, there has not been a lack of debate about the issue of accountability. Joshua Foust writes, “Obama is asserting a unique, new authority to use drones to kill people. However, the president is asserting the right to summarily execute people around the world in part because Congress authorized him to do so.” He is referring to the Authorized Use of Military Force, passed September 18, 2001, and suggesting that Congress is, to a large degree, accountable, insofar as it was Congress’s “ceding all authority on lethal operations to the president” that is to blame for creating broadly-worded and easily manipulated executive powers over the past ten years. Foust is correct to hold the legislature accountable, but perhaps pays too little attention to the context in which the AUMF was passed. Both the House and the Senate votes on this joint resolution illustrate the incredible mandate Bush was given to conduct counterterrorist operations, driven in part by the climate of fear, rage, and uncertainty. In this sense, while both branches of government are accountable for the capacity to employ unmanned aircraft in lethal operations, the bigger issue is the expansive set of executive powers that have been granted over the past ten years.

Since their inception, drones have existed in nebulous moral and legal space for the general public and for politicians, as one would expect when we arrive at a point in time when it’s technologically possible to patrol the skies of Pakistan from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, 7,000 miles away. The dilemma that immediately comes to mind, for many, is the dangerous precedent being set by utilizing unmanned aircraft to target and kill people, to say nothing of the fact that “the vast majority of suspected militants targeted are not members of al-Qaeda, nor are they involved in plots against the U.S. homeland.” This signifies both the collateral damage that is incurred in a drone strike and the incapacity for anyone to really have access to much factual information about these attacks, given their covert nature. The precedents that are being set by increasingly and continually utilizing drones are manifold. On one hand we have technology that not only enables but potentially facilitates a misunderstanding of the costs and dangers of warfare. On the other this technology simultaneously allows us to skirt international law and state sovereignty – via cross-border strikes in places that the U.S. doesn’t have hostile relations with – and has thus far been shrouded in secrecy and non-transparency.

Between 2004 – 2011, under the auspices of the CIA – the lead executive authority – the U.S. carried out approximately 300 drone attacks in Pakistan alone, classified as “covert actions.” The vast majority have occurred in North and South Waziristan, border regions in Pakistan that are often described as safe havens for terrorists. It is well known that under the Obama administration, these attacks increased and have been utilized in a prominent tactical role in the global war on terror, via both intelligence gathering and more (in)famously, the targeting of alleged terrorist leaders, militants, suspects, and affiliates. Between 2009 – 2011 (as of November 15), there were an estimated 241 drone attacks just in Pakistan, compared to 42 total over the preceding four year period. More than one-third of these attacks came in 2010. While technically covert, the usage of drones in the war on terror has in fact been a “poorly kept secret,” an elephant in the room whose presence is obvious to those around it and yet never officially remarked upon – because as a covert program it didn’t need to be. Perhaps Obama’s decision to acknowledge these attacks on-the-record was more a function of coming clean about an open secret, noting during a Google+ “hangout” that “obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] going after al-Qaeda suspects.”

These attacks have been employed in no less than six states, famously in Yemen in September 2011 when a drone attack was responsible for the killing of al-Qaeda operative – and American citizen – Anwar al-Awlaki. The case of Yemen is indicative of one of the more troubling long-term effects of a growing drone program: blowback. Jeremy Scahill writes:

“The October drone strike that killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, a US citizen, and his teenage cousin shocked and enraged Yemenis of all political stripes. ‘I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for al-Qaeda, because those operations gave al-Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,’ says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes ‘have recruited thousands’ Yemeni tribesmen, he says, [and] share one common goal with al-Qaeda, ‘which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.’ Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. ‘People certainly resent these [US] interventions,’ Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.'”

In the same manner that al-Qaeda’s popularity has plummeted among Muslim communities across the world as a consequence of indiscriminate targeting, local communities’ perceptions of U.S. interventions have similarly fallen and are here intertwined with both revenge and radicalization. Going forward, utilizing drones as a low-risk tactic to target militants without simultaneously taking into account the fact that collateral damage may lead to radicalization is incredibly reckless. Stephen Walt remarks on the danger of blowback in a recent blog post: “Are we going to understand that such hostility didn’t emerge solely because these people ‘hate our values,’ but rather because a cousin, brother, or fellow countryman was targeted by an American drone, and maybe in error?”

What have the human costs been? Data from the Counterterrorism Strategy Initiative (CSI) at the New America Foundation (not yet provided for 2012) gives high and low estimates for the number of total deaths and the number of militant deaths. The low figure for 2010, for example, puts the total number of deaths at 607, of which 581 were alleged militants. The ratio of militants-civilians/noncombatants killed via drone attacks is similar for the high number, which estimates the total dead at 993, of which 939 were militants. The CSI’s low figure for total deaths between 2004 – 2011 is 1,717, while its high figure is 2,680. The level of uncertainty in gauging the human cost of these attacks is astounding, in terms of accurately gauging the number killed and even delineating those killed between noncombatants and “militants.” We are thus neither able to measure how many people are being killed nor who these people are. In fairness, our notion of collateral damage has over time become increasingly narrower as a function of the changing nature of conflict and the technology of warfare. “During the Second World War, it took an average of 108 bomber missions to get one bomb to hit the intended target. As a result, we accepted a broader notion of collateral damage and civilian casualties than we would now. These days, one Predator can hit multiple targets with laser precision. Thus, when just a couple of people are killed accidentally, we consider it a tragedy. If the same number of casualties had been lost during the Second World War, we would have considered it an unimaginable success” (“When RoboCop Replaces Private Jackson”). Historical perspective is useful to some extent, but ultimately is limited in what it can tell us about the long-term effects, like blowback, of an extensive transnational drone campaign.

If Andrew Bacevich is correct in his assertion about the U.S.’s embroilment in a kind of “endless war” going forward, it will only enhance the role for drones (as well as special forces) given that this type of war would be “small” in nature and unlike the over-ambitious and expensive statebuilding projects of the past. The scenario is Orwellian, but given what we have seen the past ten years in terms of enhanced executive power, characterizations of the war on terror, and general public support for it, it’s a scenario that isn’t inconceivable. Perhaps just as dangerous as the legal and moral issues surrounding drones per se is political and public insulation from the effects of these small, shadow wars.


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