The perils of America’s drone wars

Drone is a sanitized word for a remote-controlled assassination weapon.  As the focus of the drone wars shifts from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa ( Africom steps up drone war in Africa ), it behooves Ethiopians and other Africans to pay attention to this new form of warfare about to engulf the continent.

Drones: Undeclared and undiscussed

By Geoff Dyer | Financial Times

October 21, 2012

Whoever wins the White House will face pressure to be transparent about America’s use of secret military tools

If there is such as a thing as an “Obama doctrine”, it was prob­ably first suggested by the advice of Robert Gates, defence secretary for the first two and a half years of the administration.

“Any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa,” he said shortly before leaving office, “should have his head examined.”

Given President Barack Obama’s political and economic aversion to launching new wars with lots of ground troops, it is perhaps no surprise that he has latched on so powerfully to the use of armed drones to go after suspected terrorists. US officials claim al-Qaeda’s leadership has been “decimated” over the past few years.

The surprise is that the subject has hardly come up in the course of a long election campaign – even one dominated by a sluggish economy – because it ignores one of the more remarkable and controversial aspects of the Obama administration. The president has made such extensive use of secret military tools that he would have provided himself with years of seminar material were he still a constitutional law professor.

“It is arguable that, through covert wars, this administration has violated the sovereignty of more countries, more times, than any other administration,” says David Rothkopf, chief executive of Foreign Policy magazine and a former Clinton administration official.

Mr Obama, a Nobel Peace laureate, did not invent the new approach but he has dramatically expanded it. The use of targeted killings was authorised one week after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, and in the next seven years the administration of George W. Bush ordered about 50 operations. Mr Obama has signed off on more than 350.

And while the Bush administration began the planning for what later became known as the Stuxnet computer virus, it was Mr Obama who ordered for the first time a cyber attack on the infrastructure of another nation – in this case, Iran’s nuclear programme.

These ventures in modern warfare have been conducted in almost complete secrecy, with little congressional oversight and almost no discussion with the public.

The political logic of the campaign explains much of the silence about Mr Obama’s covert wars. Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, has used every opportunity to accuse Mr Obama of being weak: high-tech bombings of alleged al-Qaeda ringleaders do not fit very well into this attack line.

Yet the administration’s widespread use of drones is starting to come under the sort of sustained criticism that the next president will find it hard to ignore.

A flurry of legal challenges is calling into question the ethics of using unmanned combat aircraft to kill terrorist suspects. There are also growing questions about their long-term effectiveness in targeting terrorism. Whatever the outcome of the November 6 vote, the next president is likely to find himself under intense pressure to discuss the subject more openly.

Under Mr Obama, drones have killed targets in at least six countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and Libya. Their use has become so extensive in Somalia that there have been reports of commercial air traffic being disrupted.

In the absence of official disclosure, researchers have used local news to try to put together a picture of the programme. According to the New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank, CIA drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 1,907 to 3,220 people since 2004, of whom between 1,618 and 2,765 were reported to be militants. It calculates that 15-16 per cent of those killed are “non-militants”.

When drone strikes were an occasional option, questions about their legality were easier to set aside. But the dramatic increase in their use has pushed those questions centre stage.

Legal critics, including legal campaigners, constitutional law academics and libertarians such as former presidential candidate Ron Paul, argue that the only place where the US is officially at war is Afghanistan – and that the use of drones in countries such as Yemen or Somalia is therefore illegal under US law. They also question whether the secret decisions about who to place on the “kill list” prepared by White House lawyers and officials meet the legal standard of due process.

For several years, the American Civil Liberties Union has been trying to use lawsuits to push the administration into greater disclosure. In its latest action, launched last month, the ACLU is accusing it of abandoning legal due process in the killing last October in Yemen of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16-year-old son of an alleged al-Qaeda leader, and believed to be the third US citizen to have died in targeted killings.

In the face of mounting pressure, John Brennan, Mr Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser, has given two speeches this year on the policy. His April speech was the administration’s first public acknowledgment of its drone strikes. He has countered legal criticism by saying the US is in an “armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces”. The White House believes that defining the enemy in such broad terms – similar to those of the Bush-era “war on terror” – provides the legal basis for pursuing terrorists in other countries.

Mr Brennan also insists that the administration adopts “rigorous standards and process of review” when deciding who to target “outside of the ‘hot’ battlefield of Afghanistan”. The New York Times has reported that Mr Obama personally approves the names on the “kill list”.

Even if these arguments prevail in court, they have left a lot of observers deeply uncomfortable with the way the “war on terror” can be used to blur the terms of where and when the US is at war. As Georgetown University legal scholar Rosa Brooks put it recently: “That amounts, in practice, to a claim that the executive branch has the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely anonymous individuals.”

. . .

While Mr Brennan has attempted to address the strikes against alleged terrorists, he has largely avoided the issue of “signature strikes”, where the targets are individuals whose identities may be unknown in an area where terrorist activity is believed to be taking place. According to critics, the large number of recent strikes means not all the targets can have represented an imminent threat to the US.

The White House has not spoken about allegations that the US, in the belief that any rescuers are likely to be connected to the alleged terrorist has, conducted follow-up strikes after bombings. Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, said this year that if it was true that “there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping [the injured] after an initial drone attack, those further attacks are a war crime”.

The legal waves are being felt in the UK, where a High Court case brought on behalf of the relatives of a Pakistani man killed in a drone strike alleges that British security services provided intelligence information used in US drone strikes, which could be deemed illegal under UK law.

Amid the legal questioning, there is also growing unease in Washington foreign policy circles about the long-term effectiveness of drone strikes. Even some observers who have worked in the counter-terrorism field who support their deployment against terrorist groups believe they are being overused.

“In lots of ways, drones have taken the place of US strategic decision-making,” says Joshua Foust, a former intelligence official now at the American Security Project think-tank. “People think if there is a problem and it is difficult to get to, then let’s use drones to solve the problem.”

Mr Romney has said little about how he might use drones but in a speech two weeks ago he echoed some of this criticism, saying they were “no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East”.

In recent months international opposition has become harder to ignore. In April the Pakistani parliament unanimously called for an end to drone strikes within its borders. In Yemen, a series of witness accounts suggests that the increased pace of US drone attacks has contributed to a rise in anti-Americanism and could be encouraging recruitment to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the local affiliate of the terrorist network. “Drone policy at its current tempo does put the US at the very top of the bad-guys list,” says Will McCants, a former counter-terrorism official at the state department.

However, in an August speech about Yemen, Mr Brennan dismissed such suggestions. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, we see little evidence that these actions are generating widespread anti-American sentiment or recruits for AQAP,” he said.

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There are growing calls, particularly among Democrat-leaning foreign policy experts, for the next administration to establish clearer rules about exactly how drones can be used. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who was head of policy planning at the state department in the first two years of the Obama administration, compares the situation to the early years of nuclear weapons, when the US was first to develop the system but other countries soon caught up. “We do not want a world where we are saying that we can decide who a drone can take out,” she says. “We will suffer enormously for setting this precedent. I do not want to be in a world where China can decide who to target.”

Supporters of drones say that whatever the moral and legal problems of targeted strikes, the alternative policies are much worse. When Pakistani authorities launched an offensive in 2009 against insurgents in the Swat valley, the UN estimated that as many as 1.4m people were displaced in the violence and instability that ensued.

In an era of tighter defence budgets, drones are also cheaper than fighter jets. A new-generation F35 fighter jet is expected to cost about $130m, for example, whereas a new Reaper armed drone costs about $53m. Given the large number of highly trained people needed to operate them, however, the cost advantage is less than the price tags suggest.

Those who back drones also say the administration could address many of the criticisms about the identity of targets and the number of casualties if officials provided much more information about their activities. Only more disclosure, they say, will fend off mounting criticism of targeted strikes.

“Even drone-supporters like me will benefit from [ACLU] lawsuits, because evidence is what we are all looking for,” says Christine Fair, a Pakistan expert at Georgetown University. “Without doing this, the drone programme will simply not be sustainable.”