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Can Killer Drones Be Turned on America? 50 Countries Are Trying to Get Their Hands on Military Drone Technology -- What Will They Do With It?

China, Iran and even non-state actors are buying or developing drone systems.

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The London-based Bureau of Investigative Reporting disagrees. It has counted between 109 and 279 non-combatants killed by drones since May 2010 and as many as 780 civilians killed overall, including at least 175 children. “My personal meetings with three drone victims - one of whom lost an eye, one who lost two legs and an eye and a third who was killed three days after I met him -- suggest that the U.S. government claim is at the very least, wrong,” Bureau journalist Pratap Chatterjee told me over email. “In my recent trip to Pakistan, I met with some three dozen family members of drone victims and a dozen elders from Waziristan, who reject the U.S. claim that there have been no civilian casualties. It is possible that the U.S. government is misinformed, but it also possible that they are lying.”

The U.S. military is in charge of drone attacks in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The CIA war in Pakistan is in a different category. “The CIA is completely opaque, and no information is available from them even on the existence of the drone war in Pakistan, let alone civilian casualties,” Chatterjee continues. “By contrast, the Pentagon has briefed me and other reporters on how it conducts drone strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq and the legal check-offs necessary before a kill order is issued.”

The drone war in Pakistan is the greatest foreign policy outrage of the Obama administration, and yet it attracts virtually no criticism from Congress. "In Washington, the assumption that drone strikes in Pakistan are necessary to maintain regional security largely goes unchallenged," writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Nick Scott in  Disaster Times Two in Pakistan. "However, it is not clear that the policy has actually reduced levels of militant violence or that the benefits outweigh the costs in terms of civilian casualties and damage to U.S. prestige in the region." 

The drone war is finally making people in high places in Washington uncomfortable. "The U.S. government simply cannot arrogate the right to wage an endless, global war against anyone it deems a threat to national security,"  writesPaul Miller. "The prospect of such a war should trouble anyone who has the least acquaintance with history or political philosophy." Miller, who was responsible for Afghanistan policy on the National Security council from 2007 to 2009, believes in drones and their efficacy. He's simply concerned that the administration has committed itself to a war without limits — what used to be called the "global war on terrorism," a phrase the Obama administration has retired rhetorically but continued in practice.

Over the summer, the debate over drones inside the Obama administration led to specific policy changes, in part because, as the  Wall Street Journal has reported, “Many officials at the Pentagon and State Department privately argued the CIA pays too little attention to the diplomatic costs of air strikes that kill large groups of low-level fighters.” As a result, “The State Department won greater sway in strike decisions; Pakistani leaders got advance notice about more operations; and the CIA agreed to suspend operations when Pakistani officials visit the United States.” 

These changes, of course, don’t remove the CIA from the assassination business or establish a definitive end date for the drone war. But the logic of drone technology – and its rapid proliferation – will soon prompt a more radical rethink. After all, the Pentagon wanted the United States to abide by the Geneva Conventions not because of a sudden conversion to human rights advocacy, but because of a fear of what other countries might do to U.S. soldiers. And U.S. officials eventually came to understand the usefulness of arms control not out of a commitment to world peace, but because the Soviet Union had acquired a sizable and quite dangerous arsenal of its own.

 
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