The question of the legitimacy of drone strikes has occasionally bubbled up in media over the years. As with most international news, the media and the public have a short attention span for the issue. On September 30, the BBC published a survey on whether drone strikes “work.” Answering were a professor “who advised the government on counter-terrorism policy”, a linguist named Brian Glyn Williams who was with the CIA, a senior fellow at a research institute, and a Pakistani journalist named Ahmed Rashid.
Most of the answers are semi-critical, but not enough so. Williams writes that Osama Bin Laden was observed by a drone that was unarmed, which makes even a staunch antiwarrior blanch. But it is intended to. No matter that that’s a pity Bin Laden was seen, but couldn’t be killed, two wars before Bin Laden was taken out were unnecessary and immoral. And the fact that Bin Laden could have been killed then if only we’d armed American drones earlier does not say anything positive about today’s policy.
Rashid correctly notes, “There’s no doubt that drones, even if they just kill one civilian, are very easy to use as a propaganda tool to recruit young people, impressionable people.” And he writes that there was never any concerted attempt to change minds in the Tribal Region of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Drones were the only option. And they alienate.
Even a fairly sensible responder like Rashid is responding to what can only be described as a dubious question. Do drone strikes “work”? Well, is that the point? What is their goal? If it is to occasionally kill bad men, then they work. If they are a sustainable policy that America will not regret later is another question. Unasked and unanswered by the BBC is the question of whether America has the right to kill people in its uneasy hybrid of warfare and covert assassination. Especially given what we know about how it’s been done so far.
Lethal drone strikes have been going on since 2004, though the majority have happened under President Obama. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, strikes have resulted in (on the high end of estimates) nearly 4000 dead in Pakistan, 700 dead in Afghanistan, more than 1000 in Yemen, and up to 250 in Somalia. (Check the link for exact numbers.) It’s always a small percentage of these people who were civilians, (423-965 in Pakistan, for example) but it is nearly impossible to tell who truly constitutes a nonmilitary target because of the geographical considerations, but also due to policy ones.
After all, “signature strikes” hit unknown people. They are based on the premise that is okay to kill people you think are militants, sans proof. This controversial (but not enough) policy has gone on and even moved to Syria,though the Obama administration said they would cease signature strikes previously.
Furthermore, the US qualifies men of military age as militants if they were unlucky enough to be in the killzone of a Hellfire missile-baring Predator or Reaper drone. Yes, such men are possible militants, but what a convenient way of cataloging for the United States, eh?
Now other countries have joined the US in their brave, new robot war. Britain has began targeting militants, most notably with the strike in Syria that killed suspected ISIS members who were British citizens. This made headlines, but wasn’t quite the controversy that the 2011 killing of American Anwar Al-Awlaki was. Perhaps it’s just the Atlantic ocean getting in the way, but it feels like western countries targeting their own citizens who have joined up with foreign groups has become a bit less controversial already.
In terms of dangerous precedents, however, Pakistan could leading the pack with their domestic strikes which began in early September. Pakistan’s bipolar domestic situation is not new, and the Tribal areas are remote and in some ways aren’t really under the rule of Islamabad (not the least because part of Waziristan also include Afghanistan). All the same, we may look back on these domestic strikes as a Rubicon crossing that we – not just potential terrorists and insurgents in the Middle East – live to regret.
As I have said in this space time and again, though there are real reasons to be skittish about even unarmed drones, they are not going to be uinvented. Therefore, the solution is to be cautious about them, and also be particularly cautious about laws when are intended to drum up public support for their banning, but will invariably include loopholes for law enforcement and federal surveillance.
Not only will drones flourish, but they will get cheaper and more accessible to exactly the sorts of nasty nations and groups that the US fears and goes to war against. The precedent the US has set since 2004 may come back to bite us in the form of drone-propelled blowback. In fact, there is very little reason to think it won’t sooner or later. Maybe it won’t be ISIS or the bigger baddies who will come after, but it could happen.
The parallel to that is Pakistan’s domestic use of lethal drones. There are legal restrictions for that kind of action in the US. Certainly, though law enforcement accepts casualties in its actions, there might be some outcry if they added missiles to their arsenal. But in the event of some future domestic upheaval, it’s hard not to picture drones being used against Americans within our own borders.
We needn’t try to invent a future dystopia, unless we’re writing speculative fiction, however. The present is worrisome enough. War has been made even more affordable, meaning even a bloated empire living past its means such as the US can keep it going longer.
Drones may also cause stress for their pilots, but at least they don’t endanger their bodies. Thanks to them, a constant presence in countries with which the US isn’t even at war legally has been made a breeze.
Well, it’s legal if you consider legitimate the abuse to which the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force has been subjected in order to justify the strikes. And if you consider that legitimate, you’re probably satisfied with endless war without the slightest tangible objective. In short, you think drone strikes “work” just fine.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.