The increasing dependence of the US counterterrorism strategy on the use of drones as a means of modern warfare has led to an emergence of many conventional debates around the issue of targeted killings and airstrikes conducted in other sovereign states. For the purpose of this discussion, I will analyze the use of Predator drones, in particular, as a fairly new technique of warfare, giving rise to many questions regarding the future of drones and whether they are here to stay. To discuss the scope and scale of drones as a method of modern warfare, I will highlight what I think the important debates surrounding the issue are; is the use of drones a problem in the post 9/11 world or is it an effective means of counterterrorism? Is the US in fact setting a precedent for the future use of drones?
The Obama administration has increased the number of drone strikes more than 5 times than the previous Bush Administration. After more than a decade at war since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US relies increasingly on drones to kill ‘enemy combatants’ away from the battlefield in countries it is not formally at war with. According to the New America Foundation, looking at drone strikes in just Pakistan, the number has increased from 52 during the Bush Administration to 298 airstrikes under the Obama Administration till 2012. (For more information visit the link: http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/07/politics/drones-cnn-explains ). Counterterrorism efforts in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, have depended heavily on targeted killings through airstrikes conducted by the US. After these three major focuses, the list spreads out to Somalia, Libya and even Mali in the next few years. (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/view_from_chicago/2012/10/drones_attacks_in_libya_an_unprecedented_expansion_of_presidential_power.html).
These drone strikes, even though targeted precisely at terrorists and militants belonging to organizations such as the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, often lead to high collateral damage in the form of civilian lives. Many innocent men, women and children are injured or killed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the 363 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed around 2,634 to 3,468 people out of which 473 to 893 were non-militant civilians. In Yemen, with around 100 drone strikes conducted by the US, the number of civilian deaths ranges from 72 to 178 from a total of between 374 and 1,112 people killed. Highlighting the significant number of innocent lives lost, a study by Stanford and NYU suggests that these airstrikes are ‘largely ineffective’ and kill and traumatize more innocent people than the US acknowledges (http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/07/politics/drones-cnn-explains).
Moving into the analysis of how broad the issue of drones and its spread is, it can be argued that even though at the present time the use of drones is highly monopolized by the US, it may set a precedent for other countries to develop their drone programs as well. The US, Israel and Britain currently have the upper hand on the global market of drones, however, China’s research in the field of drones is becoming increasingly ‘worrisome and alarming’. Scott Shane in an article believes that this globalization of warfare led by the US is setting an ‘international norm’.
“If China, for instance, sends killer drones into Kazakhstan to hunt minority Uighur Muslims it accuses of plotting terrorism, what will the United States say? What if India uses remotely controlled craft to hit terrorism suspects in Kashmir, or Russia sends drones after militants in the Caucasus? American officials who protest will likely find their own example thrown back at them.” – Scott Shane. (http://rendezvous.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/27/growth-in-chinas-drone-program-called-alarming/)
To further analyze the predicted future of drones, our group thought it was essential to categorize the debate into three broad categories; the human rights debate, the legality debate and the debate regarding tactics of Western war.
The human rights debate around drones regards the issue of collateral damage and the injury and death of civilians. Drone strikes are said to have destroyed entire families like that of Gul Nawaz, who lost eleven members of his family in a single airstrike in North Waziristan, including his two daughters, two sons and wife ( http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=9d86301f-6bb0-4387-9ddc-f8b58655e859%40sessionmgr4&vid=4&hid=10). This sparks an important debate on whether or not such a means of counterterrorism is worth the lives lost and whether America, through such tactics, may in fact create more enemies than kill. It also highlights the debate of whether Non-US citizens have fewer rights than US citizens and whether such collateral damage can be seen as a war crime difficult to justify ethically.
The legal debate, discussed in much further detail by James in his post, indicates the important discussions around whether or not the use of drones can be justified under domestic and International law. Article 51 of the UN Charter permits the US “to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security”. (http://www.cfr.org/counterterrorism/targeted-killings/p9627?cid=otr-partner_site-pbs_newshour) It approves the use of drones as an inherent right to self-defense the US has in order to retaliate to the 9/11 attacks on its people. Domestic law, under the Bush administration also approved the use of drones, as an agreement to all required measures to be taken for self defense and to ensure national security by eradicating terrorism and decentralizing the Al-Qaeda, Taliban and the Haqqani network (http://www.criticalthreats.org/pakistan/frederick-kagan-house-testimony-the-threat-to-the-us-homeland-emanating-from-pakistan-may-3-2011). This leads to several legal controversies regarding executive power and the political legitimacy of drone warfare.
Lastly, the third category is the Western war debate which surrounds the concept of ‘casualty aversion’. This refers to the US strategy of minimizing the risk of retaliation from the enemy and therefore completely reducing the risk of American casualties. It creates a huge disparity between the two players of the game, the ‘firer’ and the ‘target’. The use of unmanned vehicles as US combatants damages the capability of the enemy to wage war and leaves absolutely no risk of direct retaliation from the terrorists. Drones are also able to perform the combat tasks better than humans, due to the ability of effective maneuvering and performing surveillance duties for much longer hours. This leads to the practicality vs. legality debate that may arise from the use of drones in foreign territories.
“The ever-increasing use of drones in the pursuit of the ‘war on terror’ has given rise to concerns over the emergence of a global battlefield whereby the entire planet is subject to the application of the laws of armed conflict.” – Noam Lubell