Archive for the ‘Drone strikes’ Category
A news story today reports how activists in the Pakistan tribal areas have constructed a huge photograph of a child casualty visible to US attack drone operators. The action is described at notabugsplat [the meaning of ‘notabugsplat’ is that drone strikes are killing real human beings, made in God’s image and likeness; yet US policy dehumanizes them so thoroughly as to treat them as no more than insects.]
I would like to commend those responsible for this idea. They have rediscovered an important truth: that when one meets aggression with anger and accusations, the climate merely continues to be aggressive: the aggression not only continues, but the aggressor feels vindicated.
The most effective response, therefore, is to take the high road. Change the rules of the game, the narrative, the context. Appeal to conscience, and in so doing, force the aggressor to come to his or her senses.
This approach dovetails with a judicial response to drone strikes to produce maximum results. Like the appeal to conscience, the judicial approach is a peaceful means that pleads the principles of the case in court. This again places the entire problem in the light of higher reason, where solutions may be found.
Yet a third approach, based on similar principles and which complements the preceding two, is prayer for ones oppressors.
If Pakistanis in the affected areas were to hold public prayer meetings, asking God to forgive drone operators and commanding officers and to help them see their error, and then publicize this activity, it may well, in addition to meeting with God’s favor, mobilize considerable world public opinion against the illegal and immoral US drone attacks.
We can be certain that the consciences of drone operators and their superiors are devastated by their participation in drone attacks. They genuinely deserve our sympathy. These unfortunate men and women are the unwitting tools of the US political system. Many will have mental difficulties later in life, and then their government will turn its back on them.
Last month Lawfare co-founder and Harvard Fellow Benjamin Wittes participated in a formal debate hosted by the Oxford Union on the resolution, “This house believes drone warfare is ethical and effective.”
In his followup column, Benjamin correctly observes that embedded within the drone debate are several separate issues. How many and what these specific issues are is a matter of opinion, but his list will do for starters:
- The platform question: Is the use of drones ethical and effective relative to other weapons given a decision to use force?
- The policy question: Should the United States be engaged in lethal targeting of terrorist suspects in countries like Yemen and Pakistan and under what circumstances?
- Platform/policy interaction: Does the availability of drones enable lethal missions we would otherwise eschew, and if so, do we consider that incremental enabling to be a good or an evil?
This sort of gradual refinement of issues and questions is exactly what needs to happen. So kudos to him for this part.
The substance of his actual argument, however, is another matter. Benjamin made the rather unenviable prospect of defending the “pro” position (drones are ethical and effective) somewhat more feasible by restricting his attention to the first issue above. Nevertheless, even in that narrow sense, defending drone use is not the ethical slam dunk he made it out to be. There are several important arguments against *any* use of attack drones, i.e., ethical and practical concerns that pertain to unique features of the drone platform:
1. Proliferation. Other countries (China, Iran, N. Korea) can easily build drone weapons. Does not our eager use of drones invite their use by other countries, perhaps even against the US and her allies? Would it not be wise now to foresee this imminent danger, and to proceed more slowly and carefully — if at all?
2. Operator remoteness. The operator of a manned aircraft arguably has access to more contextual cues that enable him to discriminate combatants from non-combatants. A remote drone operator is more likely to mistake civilians for militants, or to fail to notice cues that might alert to the presence of children.
3. Public sentiment and outrage. As the recent testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee of Farea al-Muslimi confirms, drone strikes produce greater public outrage than conventional military actions. For one thing, the drones circle for hours, creating a climate of general terror. Living in constant fear of ‘death from the skies’ is a pretty terrible thing.
4. Hygienic killing. Where do we draw the line on a killing technology which is so efficient and ‘hygienic’ that it is simply inhumane? The pilot of a manned attack aircraft has, arguably, some direct sense of the horror of his actions. Human conscience and feelings, a gut-level aversion to killing, still operate. But is this true for a remote drone operator in an air-conditioned office? And what are the psychological effects on the drone operators themselves?
5. Manner of death. Another unique feature of drone strikes is that the faster-than-sound missiles strike their victims with no advance warning. One second you’re walking around, the next you’re toast. The killed person has no time for final prayers, or even a moment to effect some degree of self-composure. Christians, and I suppose Muslims as well, believe: (1) the human soul is immortal; (2) there is an afterlife; and (3) that preparing oneself for death may have some bearing on what happens afterwards. I write this knowing that nobody dares to say such a thing today; I say it nonetheless — it should be said, and stated plainly: every human being has an inalienable right to last prayers. When this issue is not even considered, we no longer have human beings killing human beings, but machines and a soul-less system killing human beings. The former is tragic, the latter hellish.
So we see that there is significant doubt that lethal drones can clear even the lowest ethical hurdle, namely whether the platform itself is ethical and effective. All the points above pertain uniquely to drone weaponry and raise major ethical concerns. Points 1 and 3 also address issues of efficacy: drone proliferation may ultimately harm US security, and outrage concerning their use may alienate potential allies. In an expanded sense of the word “efficacy”, all points further testify to the special counter-productiveness of drones, inasmuch as the ethical problems they raise erode the moral fabric of US society; of what purpose is military defense if the result is debasement of the very principles we say we must fight to protect?
Clearly even more problems are evident when we consider the other issues Wittes mentioned, i.e., drone use Yemen and Pakistan, and whether having the ability to wage ‘cheap war’ increases the likelihood of military conflicts and “lethal missions.”
Regrettably, the US government is continuing its shell game of distraction, disinformation, and shifting definitions to thwart any serious attempts to impose transparency on its drone killing campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. A good example is found in the headlines of Monday, May 21, 2012. One news story reported that several anonymous government officials disclosed (off the record) certain new regulations concerning selection of drone strike targets. The new regulations probably mean very little, since, as we shall observe below, targeted strikes of terrorist kingpins are relatively infrequent. But ironically, a second story summarized the latest brief issued by the CIA in its ongoing legal battle with the ACLU (the ACLU is suing, under the Freedom of Information Act, for the government to supply more information about drone strikes, including data on civilian casualties.) The gist of the CIA response is that, even though the existence of drone strikes is common knowledge, and the government informally acknowledges the strikes, it does not officially acknowledge them, and to do so would somehow jeopardize national security. So, in short, on the same day the government is both leaking carefully prepared propaganda about the strikes in an evident move to assuage public opinion; and also refusing to admit that the CIA conducts strikes in Pakistan or elsewhere.
In the face of such contradictory and confusing tactics, we, the American public have only one recourse: to doggedly pursue the truth, and to not cease asking questions until we are entirely satisfied with the answers.
We must begin with clear terms, and that is the purpose of the present article. Drone strikes, that is, the launching of explosive missiles from a remotely operated aerial vehicle, come in four varieties: targeted killings, signature strikes, overt combat operations, and covert combat operations. We shall consider each in turn.
- Targeted killing. This occurs when a drone strike is used to kill a terrorist whose identity is known, and whose name has been placed on a hit list, due to being deemed a ‘direct and immediate threat’ to US security. The government would like people to think this means these strikes target a terrorist literally with his or her hand on a detonator. But, in actuality, the only real criterion is that the government believes the target is sufficiently closely affiliated with terrorist organizations (e.g., a propagandist or financier) to justify assassination. This is likely the rarest form of drone strike. However it receives the most publicity, because the government likes to crow when it kills a high-ranking terrorist.
- Signature strikes. In signature strikes, the target is a person whose name is not known, but whose actions fit the profile (or ‘signature’) of a high-ranking terrorist. There is some ambiguity concerning the meaning of this term. Some use it in the sense just stated — i.e., a strike against an anonymous terrorist leader. Others use it more broadly to include killing of any non-identified militants, whether high-ranking or not. However from the moral standpoint it makes a major difference whether an anonymous targeted victim is a high-level leader, or simply an anonymous combatant. For this reason it is advantageous to restrict the term “signature strike” to the targeting of anonymous high-level leaders, and to assign strikes against anonymous non-leaders to the two further categories below.
- Overt combat operation. This category includes drone strikes conducted as part of regular military operations. These strikes are presumably run by uniformed military personnel according to codes of military conduct, and are, logically and legally, not much different from ordinary air or artillery strikes. As a part of routine warfare, such strikes are subject to the provisions of the Geneva Conventions. Three items of the Geneva Conventions are of special interest here: (1) strikes should occur only in the context of a legally declared war; (2) they should be conducted by lawful combatants (which, many experts believe, excludes use of non-uniformed, civilian contractor operators); and (3) standard provisions concerning the need to report casualties, especially civilian casualties, are in effect.
- Covert combat operation. Finally, there are covert combat operations. These, like the former category, are launched against usual military targets – e.g., any hostile militant, not just high-ranking ones. But why should these strikes be covert? The obvious answer is: to mask something shady. Covert combat strikes can evade all those irritating constraints on military tactics imposed by the Geneva Conventions, International Law, public opinion, and basic human decency.
The specific terms used above to distinguish these four kinds of strikes are admittedly arbitrary, and perhaps some other nomenclature would be more advantageous. But we need some fixed set of terms to refer to these fundamentally different kinds of strikes. Without such terms, the US government will continue to have its way by relying on public confusion and terminological sophistry. For example, if there is only a single generic term, the government may issue a claim such as “drone strikes comply with international law.” This is perhaps technically true for, say, overt military drone strikes, but it is not true for signature strikes. With more precise terms, it would be more difficult for the government to mislead the public.
The last two categories of strikes correspond to what (according to the New York Times) the Department of Defense calls TADS, for Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes. This term is a misleading euphemism, however. It invites the interpretation that such strikes aim to disrupt potential terrorist attacks on the US. But what these strikes actually seek to counter are things like cross-border raids from Pakistan to Afghanistan, attacks on supply lines, militant engagements with US forces, and actions of insurgents within their own countries.
Statistical tabulations compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and other sources show convincingly that most strikes in Pakistan must belong to the last category, covert combat operations. The sheer number (300 strikes, with thousands of casualties) rules out targeted killings and signature strikes: there simply aren’t that many high-level terrorists. What seems much more likely is that the US military feels the need to attack Taliban fighters within Pakistan – both to prevent Afghan Taliban members from hiding in Pakistan, and to counter strikes by the Pakistan Taliban and affiliated groups on NATO supply trains.
This, of course, is completely illegal, inasmuch as the US is not at war with Pakistan, or, for that matter, with the Pakistan Taliban.
“But”, drone strike zealots will plead, “what if we have the permission of the host government to conduct strikes in their territory?” This is bogus logic to begin with. Suppose some brutal dictator gives the US permission to launch drone strikes against innocent civilians in his country? Would that permission somehow make the strikes just and legal? And in any case, what good does such permission mean if it is not public, not acknowledged by the host country?
What really appears to be going on in Pakistan is this: the US military in Afghanistan has a decided military interest in launching combat operations against the Pakistan Taliban. However, this is illegal. Meanwhile, conservative factions of the Pakistani government would love to see the Pakistan Taliban eliminated. Unfortunately, the hands of this faction are tied by an uncooperative and unreliable military, and by other powerful Pakistani factions that are not so interested in seeing the Taliban destroyed, and certainly not at the price of trashing national sovereignty.
The solution is obvious. The Pakistani conservatives give a wink and a nod to the US to do the dirty work. “You launch the strikes, then we’ll officially disapprove of them.” This works until the toll of innocent civilians killed by the strikes becomes too great, and pressure mounts on the Pakistani government to denounce them. But, as modern politicians understand so well, the public has a short attention span. All that need happen is for the strikes to subside for a few weeks until the anger abates, only to begin again.
To summarize, the US government thus far has promoted and capitalized on public confusion about the nature and purpose of drone strikes. Most strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are likely covert combat operations. The government, however, would gladly have the public believe these are targeted killings and signature strikes against high-level terrorists. As covert combat operations, the strikes are illegal under international law, and extremely harmful to US dignity and security. Further, unlike targeted killings or signature strikes, which might potentially prevent a terrorist act, collateral civilian damage of covert combat drone strikes is unacceptable.
John Uebersax is a psychologist, writer and former RAND Corporation military analyst.
On 30 April 2012, counter-terrorism czar John Brennan, in remarks delivered at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington DC, attempted to present the clearest legal and ethical justification so far for America’s anti-terrorism policies, including drone warfare in Pakistan and Yemen.
An optimistic interpretation of the speech is that it signals a new attitude of openness and transparency in the Obama administration’s approach to drone strikes. A more cynical view is that Brennan’s remarks offer mere rationalizations for a policy pursued for more dubious motives. The truth is likely somewhere between these two extremes.
In any case, Brennan made several arguments to justify the ethics of drone strikes, and these deserve a response. The following are some of the points which Brennan’s speech did not adequately address:
1. It remains ambiguous as to whether the claimed legal and moral justification for drone strikes derives from a war paradigm, a criminal justice paradigm, or some different paradigm altogether. This administration, like the previous one, seems to flip-flop on this question, choosing either position to suit its interests. Brennan’s comments, which included references to the killing of German and Japanese commanders in World War II, seem to lean towards the war paradigm. However: if drone strikes are considered acts of war, then international law does not recognize civilian drone operators as lawful combatants. More generally, why wouldn’t the US be bound by the Geneva Conventions? These would require that the US be much more cautious to avoid civilian casualties (and, I believe, to report them when they occur.) Another particularly offensive point in this regard is the alleged follow-up strikes which target militants (or others) who come to recover bodies of victims of an initial strike.
2. Again, if we are following a war paradigm, is there not a moral requirement to attempt negotiations, or at least some sort of discussions, with al Qaida? This would seem to follow directly from the ‘war only as last resort’ principle of just war theory.
3. Brennan contended that drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are aimed at killing high-level commanders of al Qaida and affiliated groups – because they constitute a direct threat and are involved in planning or implementing terrorist acts against the United States. However, it is the general perception that the drone war in Pakistan is primarily an extension of the Afghanistan war – i.e., directed at least as much against Taliban militants (who pose no direct threat to the US) as against al Qaida. Failure to consider this point seems, at the least, somewhat disingenuous by Brennan.
4. The monochromatic portrayal of al Qaida as an international terrorist organization with no aim other than harming the United States is surely incomplete. Rather, it would seem that, at least as an immediate priority, al Qaida factions in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere, are more concerned with regime change in their own countries than in attacking the United States. It is hard to believe that an al Qaida field commander in Pakistan or Yemen, engaged in a dire struggle against domestic military forces, has much spare time to master-mind a terrorist attack within US borders.
5. Supporting the previous point, note that al Qaida actively participated in the Libyan coalition to overthrow Colonel Gaddafi in 2011. In that sense, the Libyan al Qaida factions were de facto allies of the United States.
6. We must also not neglect to mention the role that the illegal Israeli occupation and virtual annexation of the West Bank plays as a motive in al Qaida activity. The Obama administration seems to accept that the occupation is illegal. Should this not then be seen as a mitigating factor in measuring our response to al Qaida (i.e., a reason to be proportionately less extreme in application of force)?
7. Brennan’s assertions that our drone strike and other counter-terrorist actions are working is less than fully credible. The strikes are winning no friends internationally. Clearly they are making Pakistanis angry; and, while there are no firm facts and figures available, the possibility that this is drawing new recruits to al Qaida and other insurgency groups must be taken seriously.
8. Brennan’s remarks do not indicate that he or President Obama recognize that drone strikes are morally different from other forms of warfare in these three important respects. First, the very presence of drones in the skies must be seen as terrorizing. Second, drone assassination is like shooting fish in a barrel or extermination of animals; their use is inherently inhumane. Third is the dehumanizing effects of requiring drone operators to act as exterminators — a far cry from what used to pass as ‘honorable warfare.’ If you’re being shot at yourself, risking life an limb, its undoubtedly easier to soothe a conscience over the killing of another human being. Drone operators do not have this remedy.