It’s a hot 22°C June day in Miranshah – a town in the tribal region of Waziristan in northwest Pakistan – and, for two young lovers, its the day of their marriage. The day is set to be one of the happiest day of their lives; close to the whole village, 80 people and counting, has turned up to witness the reunion. With the Nikah and Henna ceremonies complete, the newly-married couple and the guests are just beginning to dance the Attan; a traditional circular dance among the Pashtuns to the beat of the dhol drum.
At the same time, a man is sitting at a desk in a CIA trailer in the middle of the Nevada desert. He is staring at a computer screen, joystick in hand, watching images of mountains flying below in a blur of speed. After relaying information to his mission co-ordinator, he presses the trigger and watches a Hellfire missile soar down towards the earth below. He takes a sip of a cup of tea as he watches it on the screen.
Boom! The missile hits and the wedding party disappears in a fireball of high explosives, shrapnel and hot air, leaving behind only ashy fragments of what went on before.
The story above is both grim and a work of fiction; yet, one extremely close to the the truth. In fact, it could easily be taken as a template for any number of recent drone attacks in the northwest region of Pakistan over the last few years.
The culprit is that known as combat drones – or to refer to their more official names Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). Fast, cheap and deadly military tools, drones are missle-carrying aerial vehicles – with a number of sensors, cameras and laser targeting – that can be piloted from behind a computer (or pre-programmed) when a manned flight is considered as either too risky or dangerous. Whilst normal UAVs are there for surveillance and reconnaissance, combat drones are exactly what they say on the tin; high-tech killing machines.
Since 2001, drone attacks have became a major component of the “War on Terror’; figures show that they have been as many as 350 attacks in Pakistan since 2004. It is the new – and increasingly more frequent – nature of war; not war as we know it, but one computerised, impersonal, distant and safe. It is a far cry from the massive counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Indeed, it is for this very reason that drone-usage has amplified. The counterinsurgency efforts of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – where the hope was to win over the citizens of such nations through the hearts-and-minds policy of discourse and rebuilding of infrastructure – has long been deserted; slow, expensive and ultimately fruitless in these two cases, the use of drones offer clear advantages to conventional warfare.
They are far cheaper for one; they also carry no risk to US troops with no boots on the ground needed. They are often claimed to be far more precise, reducing the chances of civilian casualties and other damages that is somewhat unavoidable with aerial bombing and ground assault.
Over 800 civilians have died with the killing of nearly 200 children.
It is this last point that requires critical scrutiny. Drone attacks are far from precise; in the aforementioned 350 attacks in Pakistan, over 800 civilians have died with the killing of nearly 200 children.
These figures are estimates at best; the programme remains so secretive that it is difficult to asses the true extent of the programme and thus avoid accountability. Indeed, there are figures from only one country; Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan have also been the targeted.
What is clear though is that these killings are morally unacceptable and unlawful; the death of many innocent people is not a proportional trade-off for the death of one terrorist. It stands solely against the UN’s declaration of human rights. The US administration is somewhat aware of this themselves, often denying and hiding the deaths of civilians in botched operations.
The fact that the US launch these attacks without remorse or thought makes it far worse; rumours of ‘double-tap’ attacks where a drone returns and targets those rescuing the injured from the original attack shows the extent to which the US is willing to accept civilian deaths.
Indeed, many times, civilians death are expected. The targeting of funerals and wedding has been an actual doctrine in the drone programme with the idea that it takes out many targets at once; to the CIA, any male past a certain age is considered a combatant.
To the CIA, any male past a certain age is considered a combatant.
What about Obama then? The liberal-king, the anti-Bush and the Nobel Prize winner; he not only allows such happenings, but has sextupled Bush’s drone use and personally presides over a ‘kill-list’ which requires his approval of which specific people should be targeted for elimination.
By doing this, Obama is choosing to play god; assassinating anyone he deems to be a threat to the US. Even US citizens are not spared; last year, Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted, and whilst a radical cleric, there were no definite links to terrorism. Without any incitement of a crime, it was nothing more than extrajudicial murder. Why did the US not try to arrest him first? Considering that many men were wrongfully detained at Guantánamo, it is likely that many ‘terrorists’ will be tenuous at best. After all, what criteria is needed for someone to be classed as a terrorist?
The drone programme is thus being abused as a way to kill suspected terrorists as it is an easier option than to try and capture them; or give them a fair trial. Moreover, many are not legitimate killings in the face of an imminent threat, but purely the surgical removal of another person of a anti-US sentiment; this is a flagrant abuse of the laws of war.
Despite this, figures indicate that over eighty percent of the American public support the use of drones. Many media sources too have been complementary; after the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaeda’s number two, this year, the Wall Street Journal declared Obama’s expansion of the drone programme into Yemen and Pakistan as “one of his finest accomplishments”
Of course, it could be argued that this is due to the desire to protect US troops, as they offer a ‘risk-free’ alternative; the lives of those from Pakistan, Afghanistan,Yemen and countless other nations are therefore clearly deemed as acceptable losses with no meaning or worth to US citizens. Collateral if you will.
Yet, away from the ethics of war, the continual use of drones pose two fundamental miscalculations; a double-edged sword of hidden costs.
Firstly, the idea that a terrorist group can be killed merely be the elimination of its leader poses many flaws. Indeed, international bogey-man Osama Bin Laden may be dead, but al-Qaeda poses as much threat as it did in the post-9/11 years before his death. You cannot change a fundamental belief and idea purely by the surgical removing of its head; there is always another ready to take a fallen leader’s place.
You cannot change a fundamental belief and idea purely by the surgical removing of its head
The bigger problem, however, is the potential of blowback. Drones may take out a few terrorists, but they alienate local populations, pushing many towards radicalization and support for terrorist groups. Figures indeed show that al-Qaeda has been particularly successful at this, tripling in size in the Arabian Peninsula due to drone attacks. Imagine, after all, if your family were decimated in a US drone attack; the decision to become radicalized against the superpower in order to exact revenge would be perfectly reasonable.
The continual use of drones remains fundamentally flawed and a challenge to peace; the US, seeking to destroy terrorism, is merely aiding it. More important, the use of drones is a moral aberration; it is nothing more than the remorseless murder of thousands of innocent people. It must end now.
This article is an extended version of one that appeared in Issue Three.