Under the Obama administration, unmanned aircraft have become a weapon of choice for the United States in its fight against suspected terrorists. Warfare by drone is effective, relatively risk-free, and deadly. But America’s ‘Playstation hegemony’ is controversial. “Oversight is a critical feature.”

By Frank Kuin

Death arrived suddenly and from above for 8 alleged members of Al-Qaeda in Yemen, earlier this month. Traveling in the province of Shabwa, their vehicle was hit by a missile fired from an unmanned American plane, a drone. All occupants of the vehicle were killed instantly in the attack by the remotely controlled device, courtesy of the U.S. intelligence agency, the CIA.

The United States has stepped up the use of armed drones in Yemen, where Al Qaeda is thriving according to Washington. Unmanned aerial vehicles are also deployed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Somalia, in missions to kill suspected terrorists. Although the use of drones as murder weapons has been sharply criticized on legal grounds, they have become a crucial tool in the U.S. war on terrorism.

Under the Obama administration, the number of drone attacks has increased exponentially. The number of precision bombings in Pakistan has risen to more than 250 since 2009 – compared to 42 under George W. Bush between 2004 and 2009. Unmanned aircraft such as the Predator and the Reaper are relatively inexpensive, and help President Barack Obama keep his promise to pull American ground troops out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

“The drone is a way to be there without being there”

“Drones have been a weapon of choice for the Obama administration,” says William Banks, director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism at Syracuse University. “They have learned that regarding Al-Qaeda in particular, it’s probably the single most effective tool. Drones are precise, they combine very effective intelligence gathering with the use of a lethal weapon. It doesn’t require boots on the ground. The drone is a way to be there without being there.”

Still, drones are controversial. Critics say that engaging in war from a safe distance lowers the threshold to attack. Deploying robots to the battlefield could foster a mentality of ‘Playstation warfare’: an American pilot who shoots at targets with a joystick from behind a screen in Nevada – without ever being held accountable.

Especially in Pakistan, there’s opposition to drone attacks. According to estimates by the New America Foundation think tank, anywhere between 1,782 and 2,768 people have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004. An estimated 17 per cent of those were innocent citizens. Anger over deadly attacks on civilians by pilots who are out of reach is fanning anti-American sentiment.

“Drones are counterproductive,” said Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gilani (whose government nevertheless tacitly condones the attacks). “We have very ably isolated militants from the local tribes. When there are drone attacks, that creates sympathy for them again.” According to Dennis C. Blair, former director of national intelligence, the U.S. is imperiling its influence in Pakistan by carrying on with the drone attacks.

Predator in een hangar in North Dakota.

Unarmed Predator at a U.S. base in North Dakota.

Any decision to deploy a drone is taken in secret – a practice that is facilitated by the fact that most actions are not carried out by the Pentagon, but by the CIA. Without any transparency, the intelligence agency is carrying out a bombing campaign in countries with which the U.S. is not formally in conflict. According to the Washington Post, this campaign is led by the chief of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), a man known only as Roger.

According to critics, the secret nature of the drone attacks is at odds with international law. The attacks cannot really be assessed by prevailing norms of warfare, such as a reasonable ratio of the purpose of the military attack to the risk of civilian deaths.

“The use of killer drones is shrouded in secrecy, and the accountability mechanisms that apply to regular warfare are simply absent,” wrote Philip Alston, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, recently in an op-ed article with Hina Shamsi, Director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “Unless governments voluntarily disclose information, human rights monitors and independent journalists are unable to verify claims that there are limited or no civilian casualties, let alone to weigh them against credible reports that hundreds of innocents have died.”

“The use of killer drones is shrouded in secrecy”

The American justification for drone attacks is often considered inadequate. According to Banks, the practice is legally based on the right of self-defense following the attacks of September 11, 2001, along with the view of the U.S. that “the right of self-defense overtakes the sovereign border, at least in situations where the host state – Pakistan, Yemen – has been unable or unwilling to do address the threat themselves.”

That rationale came under fire in the U.S. after the killing in a drone attack of the radical Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September. Al-Awlaki was an American citizen. His father and ACLU argue he was deprived of his right to a fair trial.

Attorney-General Eric Holder responded to the criticism by stating that the U.S. has the right to kill people who are regarded leading figures of Al-Qaeda who are suspected of involvement in plans to attack the United States, and if arrest is not feasible. He resisted calls to make classified legal documents about the attack on Al-Awlaki public.

Onbewapende Predator

Unarmed Predator

In doing so, the Obama administration has fallen short, says Paul Pillar of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. Although no disclosure can be expected of operational details, “we deserve to have something more in the way of the general criteria that are used, including legal criteria, but also the general considerations or guidelines that are used in terms of policy effectiveness and collateral damage whenever one of those decisions is made.”

Pillar, a former deputy director of the Counterterrorism Center at the CIA, calls for a set of guidelines akin to the criteria police must meet to search a property or detain a suspect. Who the person is taking the decision to carry out a drone attack is a formality in his view. “If it’s someone like the CIA director, OK, as long as we know that and we have some sense of what the criteria are by which he’s making the decision.”

Banks thinks Congress has not properly kept up with technological developments; legislation has not yet caught up to the latest applications. That is also true internationally. An estimated 50 countries now have armed drone technology, and it won’t take long before private groups will get their hands on it. “That’s very worrisome,” says Banks. “Oversight is a critical feature, and I think some international regime to control their use would be a big step forward.”

This post is also available in: Dutch

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