In The Media

A Case for Drones

by Frank harvey

August 29, 2012

George W. Bush was repeatedly vilified for embracing a number of highly contentious foreign policy initiatives, almost all of which have been adopted by Obama’s White House. The decision to keep Guantanamo open to prosecute high value detainees surprised many, but so has Obama’s decision to accelerate the pace of drone strikes against the Taliban and al Qaeda supporters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

According to a recent study by CNN security analyst Peter Bergen, within the first two years of Obama’s presidency, the average use of attack drones increased from one strike every 40 days to one every four days. Every branch of the U.S. military is now acquiring drone capabilities.

Unrelenting advances in technology will inevitably produce lighter, more maneuverable attack drones with enhanced surveillance capabilities, extended flight times, precision targeting and lethality. Without having to deploy troops or operators, drones essentially undercut the enemy’s primary weapon, counter-coercion, by stripping away opportunities to exploit casualty numbers to gain political or military leverage against Western democracies.

As Defence Minister Peter MacKay explains, “these eyes-on systems that can literally read a license plate from outer space have increased our ability to decrease civilian casualties.” Drones have become an essential alternative to costly military campaigns and massive counter-insurgency operations, which explains why NATO has allocated $1.7 billion towards their own program.

The 2012 National Defence Act is the most recent reaffirmation of congressional support for the president’s authority “to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the ”2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force” (passed shortly after 9/11). Targets include individuals “who planned, authorized, committed, or aided” the 9/11 attacks, “harbored those responsible for those attacks,” or “substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners”

Legal advisers in both the Bush and Obama administrations have also defended their actions with reference to the right of self-defence included in Article 51 of the UN charter, and the UN’s Chapter VII mandate assigned to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan – a mandate buttressed by nine other UN resolutions.

A good part of the legal defence for targeted killings is grounded in the conviction that the U.S. remains in a state of armed conflict against terrorists and affiliated supporters. Critics dismiss this ‘license to kill’ as excessively broad and essentially illegal. “It is imperative,” former Supreme Court justice (and now CEO of the International Crisis Group) Louise Arbour argues, “to impose conditions on the use of these drones, by establishing strict criteria for target selection and ensuring compliance with international law.”

But ‘strict compliance’ is problematic – the U.S. and NATO allies are engaged in an unconventional, asymmetric war with features (and an enemy) that arguably fall outside the parameters of laws designed primarily for the management of state-based conflicts. ‘Strictly’ speaking, non-state enemy combatants, belligerents, insurgents and terrorists are not soldiers, and remain uninhibited by any moral imperatives tied to international law or the principles of Just War. Attacking, capturing or prosecuting these individuals will inevitably require adjustments to conventional laws of warfare and military justice.

Perhaps the most compelling criticism of Obama’s drone strategy is the slippery-slope argument. Early stages of the program focused on ‘personality’ strikes directed at Taliban or al Qaeda leaders with a reasonably low risk of civilian casualties. The administration has shifted to “signature strikes” or “crowd killings” in which the standards for targeting are slightly more relaxed/flexible. A target with ‘signature’ characteristics of an al Qaeda or Taliban operation, meeting or convoy could make the list.

One U.S. official, quoted in the New York Times, justified the approach this way: “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization – innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs.” It is reasonable to conclude, officials argue, that adults who attach themselves to convoys with known terrorists or insurgents are facilitating activities that threaten coalition forces.

Proponents believe signature strikes diminish the threat by damaging the enemy’s capacity to organize, mobilize, plan, attack, recruit or replace leaders with willing candidates. Evidence compiled by the New America Foundation indicates that drones are “decimating” Taliban leadership in Pakistan.

The question is: how far down the chain of command should Washington go to enhance security and deterrence? Targeting has now expanded to more distant areas of Pakistan and Yemen against militants who pose a direct threat to these governments, but may not represent a serious threat to the United States. Where should flexibility end? In the absence of any serious public scrutiny or strong political opposition, and in the context of recent U.S. intelligence failures, the dual trends towards accelerated use and flexibility are worrisome, particularly if the strategy continues to damage an important counter-terrorist alliance with Pakistan.

Of course, Pakistan’s recent decision to re-open NATO supply routes into Afghanistan is a pretty clear indication that both sides value a strong partnership that will continue to accommodate an accelerated drone strategy against common enemies. Moreover, concerns about excessive flexibility or diminishing accountability should not be exaggerated. In a recent New York Times report on the administration’s drone strategy, Jo Becker and Scott Shane (May 29, 2012) reveal that most of the key decisions on targeted strikes are made by president Obama, James Cartwright (Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), John Brennan (Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser), and about two dozen security officials during weekly meetings at the White House.

Obama’s National Security Advisor, Thomas Donilon, addressed the question of accountability this way – Obama “is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go…he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world. He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.” Accepting personal responsibility for the program reinforces the image of a dedicated president committed to national security. But Obama’s hands-on strategy also serves as a powerful check (or brake) on the abuse of authority or technology as he will ultimately be blamed for any serious errors tied to slippery slopes.

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