It’s the 21st century and desktop computers have been replaced by faster laptops and gadgets like the iPad, outdated landline phones have given way to sleek mobiles and now even warfare seems like it has graduated. Where F16s were once considered hi-tech, war is now a whole new ballgame owing largely to an increased reliance on aircrafts like “predator drones”. Specifically programmed to carry out target killings these unmanned aerial vehicles have been routinely used by the US in the Iraq war and operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in Pakistan along its porous Afghan borders. However, a recent report by UN official Philip Alston calling these drone attacks illegal and extrajudicial has now sparked a retaliatory debate in the US Congress as to whether or not such measures are justified and legal. Regardless of the arguments and counter-arguments made though, the more important question on everyone’s mind should be, “will the US give in to the UN findings or will the Congress be able to get it legal cover and hence continue the drone attacks?” The answer will indeed affect us all.
Under the Obama administration, the CIA has been authorized to carry out 90 drone strikes in Pakistan to root out Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives; a sharp increase from the 45 that were carried out during the Bush tenure, killing a total of 976 people since 2004. A disturbing figure considering the fact that these attacks are carried out by unpiloted vehicles targeting militants but invariably end up killing unsuspecting civilians as well. Of the strike fatalities, at least one third are estimated as being non-militants and are conveniently labelled as being part of the unfortunate yet necessary ‘collateral damage’ that such operations entail. But are the operations themselves even legal? Human rights groups have reiterated Alston’s argument that targeted killings outside armed conflict zones are unlawful anyhow and made worse by the fact that these drone strikes are sanctioned by unlawful combatants, namely the CIA and not the military.
Add to this the fact that these operations are highly covert, lack disclosure of the number of casualties, aren’t legally justified nor accounted for and these drone strike opponents have a strong case on their hands. How can killing suspected militants without giving them a fair trial or trying other non-violent means first, violating another state’s sovereignty by conducting attacks within its borders and attacking pre-emptively without a concrete threat, ever be justified?
Most US officials however tend to disagree and go about defending the strikes on the grounds of them being essential to rooting out the Al Qaeda and Taliban networks that have formed in these mountainous regions. Ergo, the CIA insists it works under the highest level of scrutiny, is held accountable and reports directly to the government vehemently denying the illegality of these covert operations. Moreover, it claims that drone technology is now highly accurate and the non militant death rate has gone down tremendously as a result making it highly target specific, but on what basis are these targets set? Human judgement that is liable to err is what Alston concludes and rightly so. To think that highly sensitive intelligence information being passed over from one country to another spatially separated by thousands of miles, would always be spot on is an overestimation by all accounts. But, does any of this really matter? Will the UN report or any parliamentary debate over ride what the President and the highest echelons of government deem as necessary? I think not.
Considering support for these strikes in the US has come from the highest quarters and the government has adamantly defended its right to launch these attacks based on its national security being at stake, it is unlikely the use of drone attacks will be abandoned in any case. The possibility however that the Congress might actually win itself legal cover from the state if not from the UN is not remote at all. By using unmanned vehicles the US is able to attack suspects without putting its own soldiers in danger making it easy and effective to kill targets without risking the loss of support from American voters. This presentation of the debate as a matter of security rather than human rights and the removal of personal risk from the equation greatly adds weight in favour of the strikes. Conversely, unless countries like Iraq and Pakistan can take a stand, the ubiquitous employment of drone technology is likely to continue and eventually affect everyone, not just victims and their families.
Currently, more than 40 countries including Israel, Russia, China and India have drone technology with many more seeking it due to its effectiveness. On the other hand, we need to stop and re-think whether such technology is really laudable or whether it is just the beginning to an all expansive mode of warfare where humans are merely dots on screens to be fired at without any repercussions. It is as Alston writes in the report, ““because [drone] operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing.” A mentality that would arm government’s with the license to kill without question and inevitably lead to cold blooded combat without resorting to less violent means. This is why in my opinion whether or not the Congress can get away with a legal cover will set the tone for how the rest of the world will handle “predator drones” and that remains to be seen. For now though, one thing is for sure; be it legally or illegally, they’re here to stay.