international analysis and commentary

The “Drone War”: an asset or a curse for US defense?

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Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, are radically transforming military affairs, and in particular America’s approach to security. Drones are remotely controlled airborne systems operating through visual sensors. Initially employed for surveillance and reconnaissance missions, they have been armed for the “targeted killings” of al Qaeda members and affiliates.

The mantra of Pentagon and CIA officials is that drones are smarter and safer weapons. They are efficient tools for intelligence-gathering as they can patrol wide, and often inaccessible, areas. Given their laser-guided technology, drones are highly precise in locating and shooting at enemies while minimizing collateral damages. Above all, they allow conducting high-intensity surgical operations with practically “no boots on the ground”. In the last decade the number of drones has increased exponentially – Washington currently has nearly 8,000 vehicles – and it will keep growing in the near future. Aerial robotics has become the icon of the new, smarter American power.

Drones have recently been leading counter-terrorist actions in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen. In response to the proliferation of extremist groups in Somalia and the Sahel region, the US is expanding its base network for drones in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, and lately Niger. In addition, US surveillance aircraft run over the Arabian Peninsula and the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway to the Persian Gulf where Iranian warships and warplanes also operate.

The use of drones has peaked under President Obama. Compelled by the necessity to both wind down the long-standing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and stimulate domestic economic recovery while dealing with China and Iran, the administration has adopted drones as a more effective and acceptable “tool of choice” in the fight against terrorist organizations. Simultaneously, and this is not a coincidence, the new counter-insurgency doctrine of American armed forces started to systematically rely  on intelligence agencies and the use of more covert and less openly intrusive tools.

A turning point in this military revolution was the year 2011 when drones killed, or took part in the killings of, Osama bin Laden in Pakistan (May), the American-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen (September), and Colonel Gheddafi in Libya (October). It was at that time when the international community discovered the provocative potential of UAVs, and the US penchant for sending drones basically everywhere to eliminate terrorists, its own citizens included.

Yet, the growing reliance on drones for “targeted killings” over borders could backfire. A rising number of controversial issues have begun to emerge, and many critics now blame the US for this excessively hazardous, if not illegal, behavior. This might eventually endanger Obama’s efforts to restore America’s credibility and stir up a new wave of anti-American resentment. An international legal question, a Constitutional matter, and an overall political problem stand before the administration.

Drone strikes are accused of violating other states’ sovereignty if their governments do not authorize the US to operate in their territory. This is, in particular, the case of Pakistan, a crucial yet controversial US ally. Their already troubled relations worsened with the mission in Abbottabad that killed bin Laden, but eventually froze a few months later when a NATO air (and drone) strike accidentally killed 26 Pakistani soldiers in the northwestern tribal border with Afghanistan. In retaliation, Islamabad broke diplomatic ties with Washington, although they resumed in March 2012. The latest chapter in the recent story of  Pakistani-US friction is the declaration (March 25, 2013) by Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights. He confirmed that no consent by Pakistan had been given for drone strikes on its territory, thereby warning the US to stop air attacks which are considered a breach of customary international law.

Unofficial estimates reveal that since 2004 the US has launched around 360 drone strikes in Pakistan killing more than 3,000 individuals, while in Yemen nearly 100 strikes are supposed to have killed 900 persons or more. According to independent organizations, like the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, around 20% of those casualties were not militants, but innocent civilians, and only 2% were high-level targets. Likewise, a study by Stanford and NYU law schools (“Living under drones”, September 2012) argues that UAVs are all but precise, have killed far more people than officially acknowledged, and psychologically harmed the daily lives of ordinary civilians.

Administration officials justify current policy by claiming that drone strikes are lawful under the AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force) Act passed by Congress after 9/11, as well as legitimated by the general principle of self-defense. At the same time, pressed by mounting criticisms for the al-Awlaki case, Attorney General Eric Holder argued that the killing of US citizens shall also be considered a legal action if the targeted individuals are deemed to be “senior operational leaders of al Qaeda” and capturing them alive proves to be unfeasible. This is a fragile and contentious statement, human rights activists and lawyers say, as it still gives US officials a highly discretional power. Above all, it contradicts the American constitutional framework which grants all US citizens the right not to be deprived of life without due process.

This is a very sensitive issue indeed for a president like Barack Obama: during the last presidential campaign, the administration began working on a set of “very tight and very strict standards” for targeted killings, but with Pentagon and CIA pressing to maintain substantial space for maneuver, and Justice and State Departments to introduce more self-restraint. More recently, US officials have revealed a plan to move drone control from the CIA to the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) of the Defense Department. Yet it remains unclear how an equally secretive agency of the Pentagon could provide more transparency and accountability.

Drones also raise a wider political concern for the US. If not properly regulated, their use could prove counter-productive by further radicalizing (more than a decade after 9/11) the Muslim world, thereby perpetuating extremist propaganda and terrorist networks. This might be the case of Northern Africa and the Sahel region, which has been hit by a growing array of warlord rebellions and state failures in which the emergence of radical Islamist groups is ever stronger – not to speak of the Syrian conflict. There are also serious dangers in the case of Pakistan, a nuclear power and still one of the bedrocks of al Qaeda. Next May, Pakistan will hold key parliamentary elections with the campaign already inflamed by the drone-issue (and the comeback of General Musharraf, widely perceived as a former close ally of the US).

In the long-run perspective, the US is setting a perilous international precedent: Washington sends drones overseas to kill (suspected) enemies, but no longer enjoys a monopoly on such weapons. Surveys estimate that approximately 80 countries are already using UAVs for military purposes, with nearly 700 drone development programs worldwide – China and Iran among them. The dilemma is stark: to what extent can countries go over borders to protect their national, or even international, security? Will the US be able to maintain its technological supremacy vis-à-vis other emerging powers, and avoid a spiraling drone race? Whatever the answer, regulating and restraining the use of drones will now be extremely difficult, both in terms of drafting rules and agreements and in terms of enforcing any agreed limitation.