Friday, July 09, 2010

The Rise of the Drone

“Predator strikes are the worst kept covert secret in the history of U.S. foreign policy.”
–Micah Zenko, Fellow for Conflict Prevention, Council on Foreign Relations

Although General Stanley McChrystal recently made headlines over his anti-Washington comments in Rolling Stone magazine, he made a similar uproar last Fall when he publically criticized and dismissed Vice President Biden’s suggestion that the U.S. should rely more heavily on electronic surveillance and drone attacks in Afghanistan as opposed to increasing troop numbers. While those comments only led to a mid-air reprimand by President Obama on Air Force One, McChrystal’s comments helped to stir the debate about the best way to move forward in Afghanistan. And while counterinsurgency has been the goal in this almost decade long war, there have been an ever increasing number of drone attacks both in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan.

As of June 10, 2010, there have been 91 drone strikes in Pakistan under Obama’s watch compared to just 45 in Pakistan under the Bush Administration between 2004-2008. Additionally, the number of strikes in Afghanistan increased from 58 in the time period between July and December 2008, to 83 during the same period in 2009. Clearly, President Obama favors the increased use of drones to eliminate his enemies; however, the rules surrounding the use of drones along with the true number of civilian casualties resulting from the strikes remains a mystery.

Those who support the use of drones claim that they have “inflicted severe blows to militant groups” because they allow the U.S. to “get at dangerous terrorists operating in areas otherwise inaccessible to the central government or to conventional military units.” They also argue that drones are “effective, exact and essential" and that precautions are always taken to avoid and lower civilian casualties. Despite this claim, which is difficult to assess, critics argue that it is almost impossible to know the exact number of civilians killed by drone strikes given that Muslim religious doctrine calls Muslims to bury their dead as soon as possible after death. U.S. officials claim that fewer than 50 civilians have died as a result of drone strikes since 2008, but without personnel or contacts on the ground, the U.S. cannot get DNA samples or properly identify the exact number of dead and injured. Without this information, it is difficult to truly understand the full impact of a drone strike. Strikes, depending on their size and location, can affect a great number of people and raze large areas of a village or town.

While there are tighter standards dictating drone usage under President Obama than there were under President Bush, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) still has authority to strike anyone deemed to be a threat to the United States “even when the U.S. does not know their names or has only fragmentary information about their intentions.” In addition, government records show that the “list of approved drone targets has been expanded from terrorists to drug lords.” Critics accuse the U.S. of also targeting terrorist financiers and propagandists, who should have the right to a trial by jury as opposed to an extrajudicial execution by a drone strike. Given this perceived freedom to target almost anyone deemed dangerous anywhere in the world, it is vital that the United States along with the United Nations begin to set clear and transparent guidelines on the use of drone strikes, especially in places, like Pakistan, that are outside of declared warzones, yet receive an average of more than two strikes per week.

Currently, at least 40 countries around the world have drones, and while many of these are surveillance drones, there are quite a few with armed capabilities. In the absence of clear international standards on the use of drones for targeted killings, there is nothing to stop nations from using drones on anyone they declare an enemy. In many places, including China and Russia, state enemies often include journalists, ethnic minorities, or human rights activists among others. Drones, like other previous weapons of war, are once again changing the face of war. It is better to set standards on them now than risk serous problems and abuse in the future.

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