A Metacriticism of the U.S. Drone Program

“Before we can talk about what is ‘effective’ we have to talk about what the goal is of using military force at all. Is it to make Americans safer? Is it to keep Afghanis, Pakistanis or Yemenis safe? What’s the goal?  The question of being ‘effective’ – if you’re asking do drones work to kill people? Absolutely. Does that help anyone? That is a different question; we need to start with that.”
Phyllis Bennis, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies


“I’m really good at killing people.”
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Barack Hussein Obama, reflecting upon the U.S. drone program


Among critics of U.S. foreign policy, there is a particular fascination with Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. While primarily used in Pakistan and Yemen, the United States has also deployed armed drones in the theaters of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia—using them for surveillance  across much of the world, including within its own borders; America has been relying upon  unmanned systems since the Vietnam War, although their use and capabilities have increased exponentially under the Obama Administration.

Due to the secrecy of the programs, there has been little reliable data on the UAV campaigns until recently; this has not prevented many from airing bold and largely unsubstantiated claims regarding the program and its effectiveness. However, to their credit, largely as a result of these activists’ persistence some reliable data is beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, most criticism of the UAV campaigns remains ill-conceived and misplaced:

Evaluating the Efficacy of the Program

In evaluating the impact of the drone program on non-combatants, most critics focus on the number of deaths. There is certainly a story to tell there:  utilizing research by the New America Foundation on the U.S. campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen, in conjunction with the recent U.N. inquiry into the use of UAVs for counter-terrorism operations, the first clear picture of the U.S. “hit-rate” begins to emerge:

In Yemen, between 41 and 98 non-combatants have been killed by UAV strikes over the course of the 10-year campaign, out of a total of around 797 deaths;  that is, 5 to 12% of the casualties of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have been civilians, with most of the airstrikes targeting Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  However, there have also been a significant number of strikes against Ansar al-Sharia “militants” (about 16% of the total), who de facto would have posed no imminent threat to the United States.

The story in Pakistan is far worse. Since 2004, there have been between 400 and 600 non-combatant casualties, amounting to 14- 21% of the estimated 2,830 deaths. And even for those strikes which targeted apparent combatants, most of the casualties were not from the Taliban or Al-Qaeda—instead, tribal militants who possessed neither the means nor aspiration to pose a meaningful threat to the United States or its interests. Even the term “militant” is vague, typically including any military-aged male killed during a strike.

Most of the casualties from the Taliban or al-Qaeda 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 terror 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 non-combatant casualties obscures this more significant reality.

Moreover, despite the occasional high-value kills the administration touts to justify the program, extremist groups have been gaining in strength and influence, not waning. An instructive example is the recent assassination of Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, who had previously agreed to enter into ceasefire 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 in the Af-Pak region, Mullah Fazullah, is even more of a hardliner. His credentials include plotting the attempted assassination of Malala Yousafzai, a 16-year-old Pakistani activist turned global icon.  During a recent visit to the White House, Yousafzai warned that the drone campaigns are serving the extremists’ narratives; it is ironic that the Administration inadvertently empowered her would-be killer by ignoring this insight. Mehsud himself is increasingly viewed as a martyr in Pakistan as a result of his manner of death, potentially drawing others to his cause posthumously.

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.

That is, there are probably better indicators of the effectiveness of the program than the “hit-rate,” ones indexed to the broader purpose these campaigns are supposed to serve. If the purpose of the strikes is to weaken terror organizations or limit their expansion, it would seem that they’ve been an abject failure.


Measuring the Impact on Non-Combatants

The deaths of non-combatants are certainly tragic—however, if the problem is the loss of innocent life, it is unclear why those killed by the drone program somehow have more significance than collateral damage from more conventional campaigns. For instance, many more civilians were killed by the United States during their invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan; many others continue to perish as a result of second-order effects of these wars.  But this suffering has become virtually passé, despite its much larger scale.

Ultimately, measuring collateral damage must transcend mere calculations or case studies on the number of dead. In the case of the U.S. drone campaigns, the UN inquiry shows that in addition to those killed in the strikes, hundreds more, mostly civilians have been severely injured– often with permanent disabilities. Moreover, the psychological impact of the campaigns remains under-analyzed:

The attacks are not evenly (or even widely) dispersed across Pakistan or Yemen, but instead have relentlessly targeted small, mountainous, and sparsely populated areas.  For instance, in Pakistan 72 percent of the strikes targeted the North Waziristan region while some 23 percent were focused on South Waziristan.

The causalities from drone strikes in Waziristan lie somewhere between 0.5 and 1 percent of the region’s total population—and if one considers the enormous impact on the friends and family-members of the victims, a much larger percentage of the population has been directly and adversely affected.  Coupled with  the uncertainty of having invisible drones flying incessantly overhead – often striking without any warning or reason – the campaigns have created an epidemic of depression, PTSD, and anxiety disorders in the region, for which there is virtually no infrastructure and few resources to address. Since 2002 (when these campaigns began in earnest), a whole generation has grown up under these horrific conditions.

Most of the population finds themselves sandwiched between the unrelenting and unpredictable drone campaign and the exploitation of militants, with the governments of Yemen and Pakistan being unwilling or unable to meaningfully curb either group.  In the case of Pakistan, the government appears complicit with both parties—on the one hand attempting to secure Afghanistan as their client state once the U.S. withdraws via the Taliban, while simultaneously trying to demonstrate themselves as an indispensable ally in America’s jihad against jihadists, angling to secure more military aid (which, when granted, often exacerbates corruption).

These second-order effects have tactical implications in addition to the humanitarian concerns.  SISMEC has pioneered research suggesting that the destruction of precious infrastructure and delegitimizing of the governments resultant from the U.S. drone campaigns actually empowers, rather than undermines, non-state actors.  In turn, this fosters extremism and hostility towards the U.S. and its allies, often complicating, rather than advancing, America’s regional interests over the medium-to-long term. Sociological conflicts are easily exacerbated, but not easily resolved, through military means.  This has been the great error of America’s indefinite “War on Terror;” the drone program is simply one more instance of this miscalculation.


The Legal Questions

According to the recent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, some of the drone strikes may constitute war crimes. Of particular concern were strikes against non-combatants, especially the “double-tap” measures targeting those attempting to provide aid in the aftermath of a blast, or even funerals for those killed in UAV attacks. Others have focused on the extra-judicial killings of American citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son Abdul-Rahman, and colleague Samir Kahn—slain for the ideas they spread rather than for playing any direct role in planning or executing strikes against the U.S. or its interests. 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 someone be singled out for extra-judicial 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 decision-makers be subject to?
  • How is the success and effectiveness of these tactics to be evaluated (in any particular instance and in general), and by whom?
  • What additional safeguards will be instituted to protect American citizens, or limit the use of these tactics on American soil?
  • What is the level of cooperation America 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 address these pressing issues at all. Conversely, getting clarity on these broader questions will entail reform to 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 which could already be evoked to limit the U.S. drone program. That the international community continues to ignore these infractions has ominous implications; 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 additional constraints and clarifications where the corpus juris is vague or otherwise insufficient—but these can only be effectively determined after the preceding canon is actually enacted.

It is in everyone’s interest to work towards these ends:

The United States is rapidly losing its technological monopoly on drones, even as its geopolitical adversaries are advancing at breakneck speed. China has been highly successful at hacking U.S. tech companies in order to emulate America’s advanced UAV technology at an extremely low cost. Last year, Iran hacked and then downed one of America’s RQ-170 Sentinel drones, subsequently accessing its data with the aim of reverse-engineering it. They have also been able to manufacture and mass produce a U.S. Scaneagle drone previously captured, gifting one of their copies to Russia as a proof of this 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 which would benefit defense contractors at the expense of global security, stability and prosperity. Instead, America must collaborate with the international community in order to establish, comply with, and enforce regulations limiting the proliferation and use of UAVs for military and/or intelligence purposes. The Obama Administration should also work to create analogous domestic restrictions on the use of drones for law enforcement, businesses, and individuals.


Megalomaniacs v. Extremists: Everyone Loses

Evoking the hackneyed and cliché debates over the 2nd Amendment, industry representatives have attempted to defend their death machines by insisting that it isn’t UAV’s that kill people, but instead, those who operate them. Of course, this argument is a farce: the defense contractors couldn’t care less about who is morally culpable for the harm caused by their products (or why); they are merely trying to push the blame on others for the sake of public relations. In fact, the industry lobbies hard to promote the military’s continued use (and therefore, continued purchases) of UAV systems, with no 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: the Obama Administration seems to be operating under the belief that America can do anything it wants in the name of national security, wherever, whenever and to whomever it pleases, without any accountability to anyone.

This is a problem that transcends the use of drones: consider the scale and audacity of the recently-revealed U.S. surveillance programs, whose operations are also largely cloaked in secrecy and lacking in accountability—especially when paired with the Administration’s relentless crackdown on whistleblowers. As with the drone attacks, these tools have also been deployed against Americans, and at times abused, with little accountability or oversight. As with the drone campaign, the surveillance programs have shown little regard for national sovereignty (incidentally, as with the drone program, the NSA collection of bulk data has been shown to be generally ineffective at its stated objective).

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 which animates the UAV campaigns, this “change” is little more than cosmetic. Consider 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 which resulted in no civilian deaths. They successfully captured and interrogated al-Libi, and he is now standing trial in America 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 Abu Anas is going to be subjected to the legal system rather than being executed in an extrajudicial strike, or detained ­indefinitely in Guantanamo Bay.

However, the same careless disregard for national sovereignty and international norms and laws persists, with all the second-order effects entailed thereby. Libya was already on the brink of disintegration as a result of the haphazard and short-sighted NATO intervention which deposed Gaddhafi without dedicating the necessary forces and resources to ensure a stable and viable government succeeded the regime. As with the assassination of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, the rendition of Abu Anas created a major legitimacy crisis for the already-weak government—in this case, pushing the country to the precipice of a civil war.

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 America’s 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 can be a powerful symbol for the deep problems with America’s counter-terrorism and foreign policy —provided critics remain mindful of Baudrillard’s warning,

“Behind every image, something has disappeared. And that is the source of its fascination.”

In the case of the popular fetish with UAVs, what has vanished is substantive debate.


Originally published 12/3/2013 by Al-Jazeera America
Syndicated 12/15/2013 by SISMEC


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