It’s no secret that the Central Intelligence Agency has a drone warfare campaign: the tracking and lethal targeting of Islamist radicals in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The campaign is estimated to have killed at least 2,000 people, although no one knows exactly how many militants and how many innocent civilians have died. The death tolls are educated guesswork.
But is it making America any safer? While the drone strikes may take out some terrorists, don’t they also create serious risks for the United States?
But first, what do we know about drones?
In a time of cutbacks, Barack Obama has set aside around $5 billion for Predators and Reapers, “drones” in common parlance, signalling their growing importance as a policy instrument. The air force has struggled to supply enough crews for the multiplying hardware.
Here’s how Rory Carroll, writing in The Guardian, describes Holloman air force base in New Mexico, where pilots are trained to operate these planes not from cockpits but from trailers wedged in the sand, at a distance of 8000 miles.
The electronic cavern is dark, save for the glow of consoles, and Lt Col Mike Weaver surveys his apprentice warriors with satisfaction as they project American might halfway around the world. One crew – two young men in flight suits seated before half a dozen screens – prepares to fire missiles from a remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) at a boatload of suspected insurgents in Afghanistan. Another crew circles a suspicious bulge by a roadside in Iraq and feeds co-ordinates to ground troops. Another tracks what appears to be a vehicle in Yemen.
Is this the future of US military force? If so, it’s a scary picture.
This year the base at Holloman will graduate 360 crews; each crew consists of a pilot, a sensory operator and sometimes a mission coordinator.
Is all this really keeping America safer? Critics suggest that drone warfare could actually be dangerous for the US.
1. Innocent civilians are murdered
Far from being precisely accurate, the number of civilians being accidentally killed seems to rise daily.
A new joint study from New York and Stanford Universities, “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” estimates from an analysis of public records that as many as 881 civilians, including 176 children, have been killed since the US covert drone program began.
2. No one is overseeing the campaign
Although the rules for drone warfare by the US military in a declared war like Afghanistan are clear, when the CIA is using drones for covert purposes in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the extent of the oversight is far less clear.
It is traditionally the US military that wages war on behalf of the country. But what happens when the CIA is waging the wars instead, through drones whose operators may or may not be US military personnel?
The few members of Congress who should provide oversight and are briefed on such operations include the speaker of the House of Representatives, the Senate majority leader and the chairs of both the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, together known as the “Gang of Eight.” But actually, how much attention are they paying?
3. The US is vulnerable to copycat attacks
CIA operations, being secret, don’t get scrutinized under any international law, so it’s easy for other countries to argue that they too are entitled to use armed drones. That’s a hard one to argue against.
So CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, for example, might be vulnerable to attacks from enemies who point out that, since the CIA is carrying out such attacks, their headquarters is also a legitimate military target.
And even beyond these pragmatic fears, what about the legal and human rights’ implications? There are plenty of critics of drone warfare, people like former president Jimmy Carter, who say that drone strikes are extrajudicial executions that violate nations’ sovereignty, stain the US reputation and provoke even more extremism.
What do you think? Is drone warfare a good idea?
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