The US drone war will never end

The US drone war will never end
Comment: Drones have conditioned United States citizens to be comfortable with reports of "collateral damage". But despite Obama's assurances of reforms, the drone war will continue, says Said Arikat.
5 min read
27 Apr, 2015
Innocent people are frequently victims of the CIA drones programme [AFP]

On Thursday, 23 April, United States President Barack Obama told a sombre nation that a drone strike carried out by the CIA at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border had mistakenly killed two hostages on Jaunary 15.

One was a US citizen, Warren Weinstein, who had been held hostage by al-Qaeda since 2011. The other hostage was Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian citizen.

Launching the drones

The president also told the nation that a citizen affiliated with al-Qaeda, Ahmed Farouq, had been killed, while another member of the group, Adam Gadahn, was killed three days later.

A grim-faced Obama described the deaths of the hostages as an "incident" as "uniquely tragic". 

"As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations," Obama told reporters.

"I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families [of Weinstein and Lo Porto]... [and to] identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy."

The White House, the Pentagon and the State Department told the press that the government was conducting two reviews of the drone strike to determine what went wrong.

Officials suggested that the incident could force a broader rethinking of Obama's approach to fighting al-Qaeda. Under the president’s policy, drone strikes are to be authorised only when it can be concluded to a "near certainty" that there will not be civilian casualties.

Obama did not apologise for the killing of non-US innocent civilians - killed or injured as direct consequence of the drone programme. They have admitted that incidents such as these have "consequences", according to CIA analysts who admit that the drone programme is not a perfect system.

According to many sources, including Human Rights Watch, US drones have killed anywhere between 400 and 1,000 people in Pakistan alone.

The government's basic argument for the use of drones in "the war on terror" is that fewer US soldiers are killed, as the remotely piloted aircraft are a good substitute for high-risk ground missions to rub out the names on CIA's kill list.

Its other "compelling" argument for death-by-remote-control is the antiseptic and surgical feel that these operations present to the public.

Half the world away in the US, CIA agents can press the button that destroys their "enemies". This distance between the killer and killed reduces the moral burden perceived by soldiers in combat, in particular when faced with innocent civilians.

Drone strikes, or warfare by remote-control, are described as "targeted strikes" and "signature strikes", to connote precision.

In fact, these are nowhere near as precise as the public is led to believe.

"Signature strikes" or "targeted killings" are often determined in sloppy fashion. Amateurish sociological analysis highly dependent on stereotypical understanding of tribal habits and customs in far away places such as Pakistan, Afghanistan or Yemen, hold any crowd or moving convoy as suspects - with devastating results.

     Drones are nowhere near as precise as the public is led to believe.

Insurgents can be identified by satellites by the nature of their movements. For instance, a convoy of pickup trucks, often Toyotas, filled with men carrying rifles, present a "signature" strike for the drone operator, particularly when their target is insurgent territory, such as the Peshawar region. 

This is one of the reasons why weddings have been targeted more than once.
In January, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism reported that the very first CIA drone strike carried out during the Obama administration came just three days after his inauguration, on January 23, 2009. Officials boasted it had killed ten "high-value target" militants, including foreign fighters.

But the strike also killed nine innocent civilians, most from one family.

According to the report, Obama argued about the use of drones with then-CIA chief General Michael Hayden.

He finally relented after receiving a CIA promise to spare women and children.

'Collateral damage'

Here is how Daniel Klaidman reported on Obama's first drone strike: "Tribesmen a world away, in the tiny village of Karez Kot, later heard a low, dull buzzing sound from the sky. At about 8:30 in the evening local time, a Hellfire missile from a remotely operated drone slammed into a compound 'of interest', in CIA parlance, obliterating a roomful of people.

"It turned out they were the wrong people. As the CIA's pilotless aircraft lingered high above Karez Kot, relaying live images of the fallout to its operators, it soon became clear that something had gone terribly awry. Instead of hitting the CIA's intended target, a Taliban hideout, the missile had struck the compound of a prominent tribal elder and members of a pro-government peace committee. The strike killed the elder and four members of his family, including two of his children."

The US, under Obama, has become the world's top user of drones, surpassing even Israel.

Despite Obama's repeated pronouncements that he "would review" the use of drones, or shift their use from the CIA to the Pentagon, the country's drone policy is unlikely to change any time soon.

According to a New York Times report on April 25, there seems to be no opposition in Congress to the drone wars, and very little, if any, enthusiasm to end the CIA's control of the programme. 

"That unwavering support from Capitol Hill is but one reason the CIA's killing missions are embedded in American warfare and unlikely to change significantly, despite President Obama's announcement on Thursday that a drone strike accidentally killed two innocent hostages, an American and an Italian," the NYT reported.

"The programme is under fire like never before, the White House continues to champion it, and CIA officers who built the programe more than a decade ago - some of whom also led the CIA detention program that used torture in secret prisons - have ascended to the agency's powerful senior ranks."

In his speech before the National Defense University almost two years ago, Obama promised fundamental reforms in the drone programme and to bring it directly under the accountability of his administration.

Despite the promises, the White House has shown little enthusiasm to implement this.

What we now know for sure is that the CIA, not the Pentagon, continues to carry out of all of the drone strikes in Pakistan, and most of those in Yemen.

An internal administration proposal to create a counterterrorism centre at the Pentagon, modelled after the CIA unit that runs the drone strikes, was unceremoniously and quietly scrapped.

The administration, that has cloaked its excessive use of drones under the label of national security, has used the rise of the Islamic State group as a perfect cover for the continuation of its drone war.

Its desire to avoid putting boots on the ground in the Middle East had the perverse effect of promoting error-prone drones as the nation's weapon of choice. 

The US now seems to have reconciled with the fact that "collateral damage" is in an inevitable part of the drone wars.