international analysis and commentary

The US drone program: still the only game in town

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In the Machiavellian world of US national security, the introduction of the drone must have seemed like a dream come true. Sure, they may frequently crash or lose contact with their operators, but such hiccups are easily outweighed by the advantages. Drones suggest the possibility of a War on Terror without boots on the ground, which, ideally, eliminates the risk of drawn-out military entanglement in places that mean little to nothing to the average US taxpayer. Moreover, a national security policy that relies on drones can do without special prisons to hold suspects, and without lengthy trials that could result in embarrassing acquittals.

Recently, however, opposition against drone strikes reached a climax. In Pakistan, the US now stands accused of derailing a peace process after eliminating the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, who had signaled his willingness to make a deal with the government in Islamabad. Also, two UN Special Rapporteurs lambasted the lack of transparency surrounding the use of drones, and called on the US to be more open about the numbers of strikes and of civilian casualties involved. Almost simultaneously, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International each issued a report claiming that the numbers of civilian casualties are much higher than is officially acknowledged, and that drone strikes may amount to war crimes. But as the debate heats up, it remains to be seen whether it will have much impact on the Obama administration’s reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to take out Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists and insurgents.

First of all, if they want to keep up the fight against terrorism, Obama and his team have few other options at their disposal. Under George W. Bush, the War on Terror was fought by large-scale military interventions, but for the Obama administration operations along the lines of those in Iraq and Afghanistan are out of the question. These two highly controversial wars have generated less than impressive results at a huge cost, and the financial burden of another such venture goes far beyond what any government can bear in today’s age of austerity. Even light versions, in which US security forces train their local counterparts to fight terrorists for them, would be problematic. Such missions would be difficult to sell to the electorate, would take lots of time and sustained political will to bear fruit, and would still leave terrorists and insurgents the option of simply moving elsewhere. Special Forces, in theory, represent a valuable tool, but their operations take a long time to prepare and cannot match the firepower of the US drone fleet. Also, as the recent botched raid against a leader of the Somalian Al-Shabaab movement showed, success is by no means guaranteed.

Back in 2009, in reference to the drone strikes, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, then Director of the CIA, said, “Very frankly, it’s the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the Al-Qaeda leadership”. Little has changed in this regard.

In fact, the drone’s position as the weapon of choice has since been cemented by the considerable budgets that have been allocated to develop new kinds of UAVs and to train their operators located at army bases in the US. It is in fact telling that the number of drone operators being trained today is higher than the number of old school pilots that are being groomed to fly fighter planes. Today, partially as a result of pressure from lobbying groups and organizations like the Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus, the budget allocated to the drone campaign amounts to tens of billions of dollars for the coming years. This suggests that Washington’s mind has been made up: drones are the way to go.

Then there is the tacit cooperation of other countries. Opponents hope or speculate that the international community might pressure the US to stop or drastically readjust the drone campaign, but the truth is that several countries are providing active support to the program. The UK and Germany, for instance, have been taken to task for supplying intelligence on drone targets. By far the most remarkable example, however, is Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been quite outspoken in his rejection of the drone campaign, but recently leaked documents show that Islamabad has been fully informed about it, and in some cases even suggested strike targets. In this light, it is interesting that statistics recently released by the Pakistani government largely exonerate the US, putting the number of civilian casualties at a surprisingly low 67, or 3% of the total number of casualties. Responding to protests against the strikes, the Pakistani Information Minister Pervez Rashid was quick to rule out the possibility that the Pakistani government would retaliate by preventing US troops from using Pakistani territory to get to Afghanistan. There is, thus, little to suggest that pressure from other countries will have much of an impact.

A final factor that makes it unlikely that the Obama administration will shift gears is the drone campaign’s undeniable success in at least one respect. One can dispute whether this has been worth the scores of civilian casualties, but it is nevertheless true that “core Al-Qaeda”, the group around Osama bin Laden, has been practically incapacitated by strikes that killed many of its leaders and operatives. The documents found in Bin Laden’s compound after his assassination show that the mastermind of 9/11 was deeply worried about such losses and was arguing with his associates about appropriate countermeasures. This is a huge selling point in the hands of those who want to defend the drone program.

It is true that the numbers of strikes are decreasing, at least in Pakistan, but in the longer run drone warfare will remain the only game in town, until a radical change occurs in at least one of the areas discussed above. Since it will continue to be difficult to tell extremists and terrorists from those who work with them for opportunistic reasons, and even from innocent bystanders, civilian casualties will keep happening. Opponents of the drone campaign are becoming more vocal, but the odds are still heavily stacked against them.