US Drone Policy and Its Criticisms

Originally published on November 1, 2013, on Geopolitika.lt (in Lithuanian)

For the past years, US military operations in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa have seen an increasing use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones). While technological innovations in the military can produce a lot of fascination for some, the use of UAVs and the mission associated with them raise a lot of questions. How they operate, where and when they are used and what the outcomes and consequences are of such attacks – these are just some questions that lead to others, like the very legality of using UAVs and the context of US foreign policy. Yet let’s start from the beginning. 

Bush and Obama: Drone Wars

Although some claim that the “ancestors” of drones can be traced back to the zeppelins, the history of modern UAVs is much more recent. A modern drone was used for the first time in 2001 in Afghanistan, whilst the first time it was used in a battle was in Libya in 2011. The range of UAVs has been rapidly expanding: they can now be used both for attack and surveillance. Currently, the largest military drone is a size of a small plane and can operate within a radius of 10,000 miles. The smallest military drone looks like a toy helicopter, it can be carried and lifted off the ground by a single soldier. Drones have made it to the militaries of 11 countries: the UK, France, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Russia, China, India, Israel, and Iran; the US remains the country with the highest number of drones.

Launched under G. W. Bush, US military operations expanded under the Obama administration. Drone attacks against the Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan might not be new to the international community, however, what is much less talked about are the covert operations that Obama has been conducting in Yemen and Somalia, also known as Obama’s secret wars. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, close to 3,000 people were killed between 2004 and 2013 in drone operations in Pakistan. Out of the 3,000 casualties, between 400 and 900 were civilians, up to 200 of them children. Out of the total of 373 attacks, 322 were authorised by Obama. The Bureau has gathered a lot of statistics on these attacks, showing how the majority of them were authorised by the Obama administration.

For a long time, the US government would skew its statistics on drone warfare casualties as every man in Afghanistan and Pakistan that would fall into a certain age category would be automatically deemed a combatant, and not a civilian. This policy disguises the real civilian casualty count, which is something that increases with each costly mistake the US military makes. One of its biggest mistakes happened on December 17, 2009, in Yemen, in a hamlet of Al-Majalah. There, thinking it had an Al Qaeda training camp, US cruise missiles released cluster submunitions, killing 41 civilians, two-thirds of them women and children. Cluster munitions are heavily criticised by the international community for their indiscriminate nature and have been banned by over 100 countries, but not by the US itself. 

Just War Considerations

Any assessment of the US drone policy must take into consideration what could be called a structural critique of these operations. Most importantly, it’s the question of the Just War doctrine and how it’s been applied to drones. Let’s look into several aspects of this doctrine.

First, can they be called a means of self-defence? We’re not here to debate whether the Taliban is terrorising regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, prohibiting girls from attending school and enforcing cruel punishments on local communities. However, the debate is different if the question here is how successfully the US has been convincing the international community that the Taliban is a direct threat to the US national security.

Second, a Just War implies that the military action taken is a response to real or perceived imminent threats. Thus, we need to ask: are the threats that the UAV attacks claim to be reacting to in fact imminent? It looks like the perceived threats are being used as a strong card domestically: according to the US government, if operations are not taking place in faraway regions, soon attacks will happen on the US soil. Therefore, according to the government, these operations should continue. We can’t really look into what an alternative history would hold, but, at the same time, we can question if claiming that this alternative history is a dangerous place is enough to justify military operations that are happening in this very real history.

Finally, we have to inquire if the use of such force is proportionate to the threats defined. It’s easy to see this part of the Just War doctrine as the Achilles heel of these US operations. Do the methods used to allegedly prevent real or perceived threats at home justify bombing villages somewhere across the ocean? Can such attacks be seen as the last resort – as the doctrine dictates – in the fight against Al Qaeda or the Taliban? Targeted killings without a trial (and without any evidence submitted) doesn’t seem like the last resort; it simply seems like a more convenient option.

Some claim that, even if we disagree with drone strikes as a means of warfare, it is not a legal critique in itself. At the same time, one could ask: in terms of questioning certain government policies, should we stop where the law says something is OK? Or should we take our questioning further, debating legal definitions and legal permissions themselves?

The Accountability Question

UAVs and targeting killings raise one more question, and a rather big one: the accountability of military actions. According to Mary Ellen O’Connell, a conflict law expert, drones might have revolutionised warfare in terms of technology, yet not in terms of law. 

A hole in the legal system or a simple disregard to the law we currently have is the reason why it seems impossible to indicate who is accountable for the civilian deaths in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia. How to explain and justify the importance of the missions on the ground to the ones whose relatives have been killed in these strikes, including the residents of the before-mentioned Al-Majalah? If we’re looking for an explanation of a possible increase of anti-American sentiments in the region, we can definitely start with these strikes. 

The Challenges

There are several challenges that military operations including UAVs pose to the world today. First, it’s a new means of warfare that completely eliminates any direct contact with the enemy. It can be traced back to the Vietnam War, where thousands of cluster munitions would be dropped onto the jungles of Vietnam and Laos by a single press of a button by American pilots. The pilots didn’t have to see the civilians looking for shelter in local caves; they didn’t really need to even know they existed. In a way, drones take operations like that to a different level. In theory, they could be more precise than what was happening in Vietnam. In practice, civilian deaths still can’t be avoided. 

Second, it’s the political impunity and the unregulated expansion of state powers. Drone strikes is not the first case where we see the US, instead of investigating its crimes, persecuting the individuals who have made these crimes public. The case of Chelsea Manning passing some of US military secrets to Wikileaks is probably the most (in)famous case in point, yet there are more cases, less well known, like the one of Abdulelah Haider Shaye. This Yemeni journalist was the reporting on the attack in Al-Majalah, disproving the official narrative that the strikes were carried out by the Yemeni government. Shaye was sentenced to five years in prison for having published this information and for his alleged connections to Al Qaeda, the members of which he had interviewed for his investigation. He was released from prison after three years instead of five, yet, interestingly, it could have been a one-year sentence only. The Yemeni government changed its mind after having been approached by Barack Obama himself, after which the sentence was kept to three years. 

The Unidentified Crimes of the Powerful 

To end with, let’s engage in a thought experiment. The Prime Minister of Pakistan is authorising drone attacks in remote communities in the US where we see high civilian casualty rates. These operations are presented as necessary: they protect Pakistan from the threat of American extremists. The Prime Minister can, in fact, send UAVs – and carry out secret operations – in any country, as long as they serve Pakistan’s national security interests. And if these are secret missions, they don’t need to be presented to anyone’s constituents to approve. The power that the president is now exercising is not being questioned by almost anyone; the opposite, it is openly supported by several Western states. The military officials are not elected and their decisions don’t seem to have any legal repercussions. 

This hypothetical scenario might seem silly, strange at best. However, the very point of this thought experiment is to approach drone warfare not from a power perspective. If we distance ourselves from the question of who is doing this, we can focus on how it is being done and what its consequences are. It seems like the answer to the first question oftentimes changes our answers to questions that follow. 

In an interview based on his book Imperial Ambitions, Noam Chomsky, when asked about US military operations, says, “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.” Impunity, unrestrained political power and growing military might make up one chilling combination that is being fortified by drone strikes. Without adequate questioning of drone warfare by the international community, Chomsky’s quote remains alarmingly relevant. 

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