by Alex Scott
UNMANNED Aerial Combat Vehicles, also known as drones, have quickly become the weapon of choice for the Obama administration in its fight against terrorism. The Bush administration carried out a total of 52 drone strikes in Pakistan during the eight years it was in office.
In comparison, the Obama administration has carried over 300 such strikes in Pakistan to date, while also expanding the drone war into Somalia and Yemen. It is possible that it will further expand into Mali.
It is obvious why the U.S. has come to rely on so heavily on these attacks. Not only are drones a cheaper alternative to conventional fighter jets, but they can also monitor targets for much longer than such aircraft, and go places too dangerous for American troops to operate.
Above all, they insulate U.S. troops from danger by being piloted remotely, cloistering pilots and operators in bases in the U.S., miles away from any battlefield.
Last October, the Washington Post revealed that the Obama administration had plans to expand and add more names to its kill list, now referred to as the “disposition matrix,” and that there is a consensus among senior Obama administration officials that such attacks would continue for “at least another decade.” The implications are clear: the war on terror, and with it the U.S. reliance on drone strikes, are here to stay.
There is an immense shroud of secrecy over the drone program, and a startling lack of government oversight. Even though drone strikes have drawn much public scrutiny, there is still much about the program that the administration refuges to divulge.
It is still unclear how exactly targets are chosen, nor has the administration given out detailed descriptions of the results of such strikes. They have also refused to release the Justice Department memos authorizing the attacks, although administration officials have given us some idea of what the justification is.
Further The administration also refuses to even officially acknowledge the use of drone strikes in Pakistan, despite it being the region most heavily targeted by such strikes.
The lack of oversight and transparency over the way the U.S. carries out drone strikes has allowed the U.S. to act without impunity. It is impossible to get a consensus over the number of civilians killed, due to widely conflicting reports.
Furthermore, the Obama administration’s deceitful practice of labeling all fighting aged males in a strike zone as militants also contributes to this confusion, because it downplays the number of civilians killed.
This means that many civilian casualties could have wrongly been listed as militants, throwing all official casualty estimates released by the U.S. government into doubt.
But what we do know about the drone war shows that the administration has adopted several heinous practices that show a callous disregard for civilian casualties.
The Obama administration and other proponents of the drone war have long claimed that drone strikes are carried out with the utmost care towards minimizing civilian casualties. But, an article published by The Bureau for Investigative Journalism last February revealed that the U.S. has repeatedly targeted mourners at funerals for victims of previous drone strikes, despite the fact that such practices lead to a high number of civilian casualties.
The U.S. uses the initial drone strike as a lure for more important targets, who will presumably be drawn out of hiding to attend the funeral. For example, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism article cites an example where, in June of 2009, the CIA bombed the funeral of a mid-level Taliban commander in Pakistan.
He had been killed in a previous drone strike earlier in the day, and nearly 5,000 people attended his funeral, including Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistan Taliban at the time. The drone strike killed up to 83 people, as many as 45 of which were civilians. Baitullah Mehsud escaped from the attack unharmed, only to be killed in another drone attack six months later.
The U.S. has also started to employ a tactic known as the “double tap”, in which a target is bombed multiple times within a short period of time.
The reason behind such attacks is to kill any Taliban or Al Qaeda members who may arrive at the scene of the bombing to retrieve the bodies of their comrades. This kind of attack leads to many indiscriminate civilian deaths, because the second explosion kills many civilians who are also attempting to rescue those wounded and retrieve the remains of the dead.
“Double Tap” bombings have often been used by terrorist organizations because of how effective they are at killing civilians, and the amount of panic and terror they create. A 2007 report by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that the double tap is “a favorite tactic of Hamas”. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism article claimed that “at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims.”
That the U.S. is now regularly employing such tactics in its drone war is immoral, and flies against any assertion that the U.S. is working to limit civilian casualties. It is also highly likely that such actions would be considered war crimes.
Much like in the debates over the use of torture during the Bush administration, there will be many people that claim that such measures are necessary to win war the against Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations.
But drone strikes enrage the populace of targeted countries, driving people towards terrorism. Polls show that Obama is highly unpopular in Muslim countries, with an approval rate of just 7% in Pakistan. Protests over drone strikes are extremely common in the Muslim world, especially in regions where U.S. drone strikes occur.
Terrorist organizations thrive on exactly the sort of anti-American hostility that these drone strikes create.
Ibrahim Mothana, a Yemeni activist and writer, published an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times last June entitled “How Drones Help Al Qaeda,” saying that Yemenis join Al Qaeda “not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair.”
Retired general Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said that drone strikes are “hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
In 2010, a drone strike built on faulty intelligence killed Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of the Maarib province in Yemen. According to Al-Jazeera, he was reportedly travelling to meet with local members of Al Qaeda, to try and convince them to turn themselves over to local authorities. In retaliation for his killing, his tribe attacked an important oil pipeline.
Every civilian we kill undermines our efforts to stop the spread of terrorism. Last year, Robert Grenier, former head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, warned that drone strikes could turn Yemen into an “Arabian equivalent of Waziristan,” referring to a region of Pakistan that has long been a safe-haven for Al Qaeda. Mothana’s Op-Ed piece seems to back up Grenier’s claim, as it claims that A.Q.A.P, an offshoot of Al Qaeda situated in the Arabian Peninsula, has increased in strength in recent years, going from “only a few hundred members and [controlling] no territory in 2009 to “at least 1,000 members and … substantial amounts of territory“ today.
We cannot defeat Al Qaeda through bombs alone; we need the populace of the countries where Al Qaeda has taken hold to reject extremism and terrorism. We lose the fight against terror when drone strikes kill civilians indiscriminately, and when they kill people who are trying to oppose terrorists. We lose when people are so terrorized and enraged by our actions that they take up arms against the U.S.
Above all, we lose when we allow our need to combat threats overwhelm our need to respect the lives of innocent people. Drone strikes are immoral, illegal, and above they create conditions that allow terrorist organizations to flourish.