War from Above: The Legitimacy of Drone Technology


“Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not war against terrorism”

– Noam Chomsky

Diplomatic havoc was prolific last week as both the UK and USA governments decided to close embassies across the Middle East and Africa. Last weekend, Washington closed twenty-one embassies and consulates, including that of the Arabic peninsula state of Yemen. Although the US State Department has emphasized that the closures are a precautionary measure, rather than a response to any newly detected threats, members of Congress who have been briefed about the intelligence seem to agree that it amounts to one of the most serious threats since 9/11. All of this evidence points to a potential attack being on the horizon.

So what was the nature of the threat which provoked such an extreme response? It is widely reported that US intelligence intercepted correspondence between al Qaeda operatives which suggested that a serious terrorist attack was being planned, possibly to coincide with the end of Ramadan. But in the light of last year’s fatal attack on the US embassy in Benghazi, Libya, it is understandable why the international community is going to such diplomatic extremes in order to protect their own.

In response to the information, the US rolled out fresh targeting from what has become the Obama administration’s weapon of choice- unmanned fighter jets, or drones. Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen, working under the wing of the organisation known as AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), were hit by a targeted drone strike which left seven militants dead. Such raids have become more frequent in number: Wednesday’s operation was the fifth of its kind since July 28, with at least 24 suspected Al-Qaeda militants killed in the strikes. But the administration’s drones programme, initiated during the Bush years and expanded on an unforeseen scale in recent years, has been the continuous target of criticism, both internally and externally.

Many of the issues taken with drones are valid. The most commonly levelled criticism is that, despite the advancements of intelligence and military technology, drone strikes inevitably and repeatedly result in civilian casualties. Numerous sources have cited high death dolls, with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism putting the ratio of civilian to militant deaths at one to three. This can be attributed in the large part to an alarming rate of misinforming on the ground. The reliability of intelligence sources greatly varies, especially if the strikes are launched in nations with a weak central intelligence agency (such as Yemen). But even with sophisticated technology, identifying a citizen as either a militant or a civilian can be tricky. For instance, in the process of targeting and successfully killing a terrorist leader, his family and household staff may be brutally mutilated as well. Soldiers may be able to draw the distinction; unmanned fighter jets, however, cannot.

Another issue is that of national sovereignty. Whenever the US launches a drone strike in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, or any of the nations which are targeted, they not only enter their airspace, but do so launching violent military action against the country’s citizens. Politicians in targeted countries routinely rally against drone campaigns, but this matter is complicated further by the fact that nations often have contrasting definitions of “enemies”. What the US perceives as a threat to its citizens, another government may regard as their ideological or even political ally. In such instances, what is the justification for such destructive strikes?

However, in spite of these arguments, there is a compelling case to be made for the use of drones. The first, demonstrated by the conclusive strikes in Yemen, is the simple fact that drones work. The New America Foundation has reported that, since the beginning of the Obama administration, drones have killed approximately 3,300 al-Qaeda, Taliban and other jihadist operatives in Pakistan and Yemen. This has resulted in the core of terrorist cells being significantly weakened. With heads of organisations being targeted, cells are being faced with leadership crises, exacerbated by the hierarchical structure of most terrorist groups. So in the terms of their efficacy in the on-going “War on Terror”, drones are ticking boxes.

Secondly, drone usage has proven to be, in many ways, more effective, safe, and even humane than other forms of military action. One reason why the figures over civilian casualties vary so greatly is because public numbers tend to be unreliable. The sources are often unverifiable, and sources local to targeted areas may exaggerate the body count due to hostility towards external military action. But the technology lends itself to being less destructive than other methods. Ground invasion, for example, presents a far greater security risk as soldiers are required to carry out high profile and dangerous raids. They also violate the sovereignty of targeted nations to a more serious extent than drone strikes- especially since politicians have been known to admit in private that they support targeted drone strikes when they target enemies common to both states. Compared to traditional ground invasions, therefore, the advantages of drone strikes are palpable.

But faced with a potentially calamitous threat of a terrorist attack, powerful nation states such as the US and the UK will have no choice but to retaliate with some form of military action. Whether the seemingly frequent drone strikes launched by the US will aggravate or prevent the threats, however, remains to be seen.

Wanton killing of innocent civilians is terrorism, not a war against terrorism.


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