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Among critics of U.S. foreign policy, there is a particular fascination with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones. While the United States has primarily used them in Pakistan and Yemen, the U.S. has also deployed armed drones in the theaters of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia — and used drones for surveillance across much of the world, including within its own borders. The United States has been relying on unmanned systems since the Vietnam War, although their use and capabilities have increased exponentially under the Obama administration.
Because of the secrecy of the programs, there has been little reliable data on the UAV campaigns until recently. Even as substantive data begin to emerge, most criticism of the UAV campaigns remains ill-conceived and misplaced. Rather than focusing narrowly on its effectiveness as a means for killing targeted militants, critics should evaluate the UAV program instead in terms of its larger ramifications for U.S. national security and foreign relations, for the countries whose citizens are targeted, for U.S. and international law, and for the global precedents it sets. Drones play but one part in an overall U.S. strategy that is deeply problematic.
Five to 20 percent of the casualties from U.S. drone campaigns have been civilians, according to research by the New America Foundation on the U.S. campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, in conjunction with the recent United Nations inquiry into the use of UAVs for counterterrorism operations. While those deaths are tragic, it is unclear why civilians killed by the drone program somehow have more significance than collateral damage from more conventional campaigns — or why the casualty statistics are perceived to be an appropriate measure of the total impact of the program on noncombatants. For instance, many more civilians were killed by the United States during their invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; many others continue to struggle and perish as a result of second-order effects of these wars. But this suffering has become virtually passé despite its much larger scale.
Regarding combatant deaths from drone strikes, the data suggest that most of those killed have been tribal militants with unclear connections to transnational terrorist organizations — posing no meaningful threat to the U.S. or its interests. Among the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, most casualties have been low-level fighters, as opposed to the senior leadership the program is ostensibly targeting. That is, if the hit rate were determined by comparing the deaths of critical members of transnational terrorist organizations to the total number of dead, the accuracy of the program is abysmal despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of casualties have been “militants.” Focusing on the noncombatant casualties obscures this more significant reality.
There are better ways to evaluate the program than hit rates, particularly in relation to the stated goals of weakening transnational terrorist organizations and limiting their expansion. Viewed through this lens, the campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan have been abject failures.
Despite the occasional high-value kills the Obama administration likes to trumpet, extremist groups are gaining in strength and influence. An instructive example is the recent assassination of Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, who previously agreed to enter into cease-fire negotiations with the Afghan government: both Pakistan and Afghanistan promptly condemned his extrajudicial murder. The Taliban responded by rejecting the peace talks and vowing revenge attacks against the U.S. and Pakistan. Mehsud’s successor and the Taliban’s former chief propagandist, Mullah Fazullah, is even more of a hard-liner. His credentials include plotting the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani activist. During a recent visit to the White House, Yousafzai warned that the drone campaigns are serving the extremists’ narratives. In the aftermath of Mehsud’s assassination, he is increasingly viewed as a martyr in Pakistan — potentially drawing others to his cause.
Within the affected areas, the destruction of precious infrastructure by drone strikes and the resulting delegitimization of the regional governments significantly empowers non-state actors. In turn, this fosters extremism and hostility toward the United States and its allies, often complicating rather than advancing U.S. regional interests.
In light of the widespread erosion of regional governance in the wake of the Arab uprisings and foreign interventions, to the extent that the campaigns have been successful in driving Al-Qaeda from peripheral areas like Yemen and Pakistan, they have been able to gain ground in the heart of the region where they stand poised to be far more destabilizing.
These second-order effects have little to do with drones. They are the result of attempting to resolve sociological problems through military means. This has been the great error of America’s indefinite war on terrorism; the drone program is simply one more instance of this miscalculation.
The United States is rapidly losing its technological monopoly on drones, while its geopolitical adversaries are advancing at breakneck speed.
In recent separate reports, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch declared that some of the U.S. drone strikes constitute war crimes. Of particular concern were strikes against noncombatants, especially “double tap” measures targeting people attempting to provide aid in the aftermath of a blast or even attending the subsequent funerals. Others have focused on the extrajudicial killings of U.S. citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki; his 16-year-old son, Abdul-Rahman; and his colleague Samir Kahn. The legal questions raised here are profound, but they are not particular to drones. These acts would have been legally problematic regardless of how they were carried out. Accordingly, the focus on the means (UAVs) rather than on the acts themselves obscures more significant legal questions:
Under what circumstances can the government select someone for extrajudicial monitoring, detention or execution?
How does one determine if a potential target meets these criteria?
Who makes this decision?
What systems of oversight and accountability will the decision-makers be subject to?
How is the success and effectiveness of these tactics evaluated and by whom?
What additional safeguards will be instituted to protect American citizens or limit the use of these tactics on U.S. soil?
What is the level of cooperation the United States must have with the host countries of these operations?
What sort of compensation is owed in the case of collateral damage?
What sort of measures will be taken to minimize these risks?
Piecemeal policies tailored specifically for the U.S. drone program will not adequately address these pressing questions. Conversely, getting clarity on these broader questions would entail reform for the U.S. drone program. Hence the most effective way forward for activists is to address the broader legal questions first rather than fitting new piecemeal regulations into a largely murky, unstable and therefore permissive judicial framework.
Pundits frequently lament the absence of international laws regulating the proliferation and use of UAVs for military and intelligence purposes. But the call for a new legal regime overlooks the myriad existing international laws and norms that could be evoked to limit the U.S. drone program. That the international community continues to ignore these infractions has ominous implications. In fact, it is unclear what purpose would be served by passing new regulations specifically aimed at drones if the current body of law is not even being enforced. Of course, as the international community works to ensure compliance with existent rules and precedents, there will be a need for additionalconstraints and clarifications where the body of lawis vague or otherwise insufficient — but these can be effectively determined only after the existing canon is actually enforced.
The United States is rapidly losing its technological monopoly on drones, while its geopolitical adversaries are advancing at breakneck speed. China has been highly successful at hacking U.S. tech companies in order to emulate the U.S.’s advanced UAV technology at an extremely low cost. Last year Iran hacked and then downed a U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone, subsequently accessing its data with the aim of reverse-engineering it. The Iranians were also able to manufacture and mass-produce a U.S. ScanEagle drone previously captured, gifting one of their copies to Russia as a proof of their accomplishment. UAVs are increasingly used by non-state actors, including multinational corporations, activist organizations and militant groups. It will not be long before these assets are deployed against the U.S. and its interests.
The answer to this threat should not be an arms race, seeking ever more sophisticated and powerful kill-bots — a proposition that would benefit defense contractors at the expense of global security, stability and prosperity. Instead, the United States must collaborate with the international community in order to establish, comply with and enforce regulations limiting the proliferation and use of UAVs for military or intelligence purposes. The Obama administration should work to create analogous domestic restrictions on the use of drones for law enforcement, businesses and individuals.
Changing the debate
Evoking the hackneyed and clichéd debates over the Second Amendment, industry representatives have attempted to defend UAVs by insisting that drones don’t kill people, their operators do. In fact, defense contractors do not care about who is morally culpable for the harm caused by their products (or why). The industry lobbies hard to promote the government’s continued use (read: continued purchases) of UAV systems, with little concern for the larger implications.
That said, the major problem with the U.S. drone campaign is not the technologies utilized but the underlying ethos that the United States can do anything it wants in the name of national security, wherever, whenever and to whomever it pleases, without any accountability. This is a problem that transcends the use of drones.
Because this psychology is so prevalent, reducing the use of drones will not solve the problem. Of late, the United States has been ramping up special-operations missions in order to decrease reliance on unmanned systems. However, insofar as these operations are planned and executed via the same calculus that animates the UAV campaigns, this change is little more than cosmetic. A telling example is the rendition of Abu Anas al-Libi, a former computer and intelligence specialist for Al-Qaeda — which occurred in conjunction with similar raids in Somalia and Afghanistan.
It was a boots-on-the-ground intervention that resulted in no civilian deaths. Teams successfully captured al-Libi in Tripoli, Libya, and interrogated him, and he is now standing trial in the United States for his role in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings. On its face, the mission seems like a success. It could even seem like progress insofar as al-Libi is going to be subjected to the legal system rather than executed in an extrajudicial strike or detained indefinitely at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.
These disasters are likely to persist as long as the critical discourse remains so shallow and toothless. The problem isn’t drones per se but rather how they fit into the United States’ often ill-conceived strategies. Critics have largely focused on the means of execution rather than on the acts themselves or the ends these tactics are intended to serve. Drones are a powerful symbol of the deep problems with U.S. counterterrorism and foreign policy, but in their rhetorical power, they have also misled. In the case of the popular fetish with UAVs, what has vanished is substantive debate.
“Behind every image, something has disappeared,” French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote. “And that is the source of its fascination.”
Musa al-Gharbi is a senior fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.