Following the September 11 attacks in the United States, the Bush administration adopted the policy of ‘targeted killing’ of suspected members of Al Qaeda, and associated terror groups in their fight against terrorism. With this policy, began the use of drones – a term encompassing a range of Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) – to conduct ‘precision’ missile strikes against targets anywhere across the world. This technology was introduced to achieve military objectives efficiently by reducing casualties amongst American soldiers.
What started as a ‘Global War on Terror’ by Bush was converted into an ‘Overseas Contingency Operation’ under the Obama Administration. This gave US legitimate grounds to expand the use of UAVs from their counter-terrorism program to military operations against ‘potential threats’ to national security – a more generic and broad category – which have not yet actualized. The praise that UAVs received in the United States following the killings of terrorist groups and their leaders provided military planners with an opportunity to advocate for the frequent application of this technology in military campaigns and enabled policymakers to justify its unethical nature. Therefore, technology introduced by the US to fight against terrorism is now being (mis)used as an instrument of power projection in areas of conflict, like Pakistan and Yemen. Western countries, particularly the United States, are now utilizing drone warfare as an element of an Arms Race.
This new techno-political transformation has laid the foundations for a violent international system which has destabilized several regions, and is widening the gap between those who possess drones, and those who do not. The people of the latter group of countries are face a brutally normalized threat to life that skirts limitations imposed on strategic, and military superiority within international law, while being an indiscernible part of the same category.
The indiscriminate nature of US drone strikes in conflict-ridden countries - such as Yemen and Pakistan - reflects the (mis)use of this technological advancement to advance US power interests under the pretense of counter-terrorism. This technological reconceptualization has undermined the nature of military ethics, and countermanded restraint by desensitizing soldiers – and by extension, the chain of command – thereby creating a psychological, physical, and social distance from combat never before seen in human history.
On November 5, 2002, US conducted its first targeted strike in Yemen, killing Al-Qaeda operatives in car using a CIA Predator Drone. The Obama administration advanced the application of this technology further by constructing an extensive apparatus for carrying out killings of suspected terrorists, and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. In Yemen, the US policy of drone strikes under Obama – meant to target AQAP and other Islamist networks – enabled it to influence events in Yemen’s ongoing internal conflict with the Houthis, which has now turned into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia – the latter being backed by the US.
Even though senior US officials negated their involvement in the Civil War and insurgency in Yemen, evidence shows otherwise. The US conducted 35 drone strikes in 2012 alone, a majority of which were aimed at local insurgents. These strikes were used not only as a counter-terrorism strategy against AQAP, but also against local insurgents hostile to the government of Yemen, thus fulfilling US national interests by supporting an allied government in the region.
The strikes in Yemen was followed by the use of drones in Pakistan. Following Obama’s inauguration in 2009, drone strikes in Pakistan soared from 44 in the five years of Bush (2004-09), to 240 in 2009 alone, with a commensurately drastic increase in casualties. A number of these causalities were categorized as ‘enemy combatants’, a notorious category that includes most unidentified individuals killed in a strike – an easy cop out of declaring actual civilian deaths.
Since then, the US government has been carrying out hundreds of covert drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan, and Yemen. While the Department of Defense, and Pentagon constantly ignore and repudiate external estimates of civilian casualties, significant evidence substantiates that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that from June 2004 through September 2012, drone strikes killed 2,562,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474,881 were civilians (including 176 children); an additional 1,228,362 individuals were injured.
Clearly, an ethical policy which discursively aims to combat terrorism has been systematically (mis)used to conceal all unethical outcomes of drone strikes, especially civilian casualties in conflict-ridden countries. Ethicists and legal theorists believe that when one’s own casualties are minimized at the expense of those of the opposition, is in itself is a substantial transgression since it treats people as dispensable. In this case, thousands of innocent civilians in foreign countries are being treated as dispensable pawns in a move to further US interest.
Drone strikes also induce demonstrable psychological damage on pilots. Pilots under the drone program become quickly desensitized to this form of warfare, given that they conduct these strikes from safe rooms located miles from their dehumanized intended targets. This physical distance is an important factor in creating an emotional, and ethical distance: The pilots do not feel the brutality of strikes, they launch a strike and are driving home a few hours later. Consequently, first hand accountability is reduced; apathy sets in, which, over time causes behavioral changes. This translates into responses and considerations changing across the chain of command, right up to the President. Proximity to conflict of a large section of the US population is the reason why the Vietnam War (run by a conscripted army) invited far stronger protests than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (run by a professional standing army), despite the latter having a greater economic cost and periodicity.
Technology is replacing judgment and character, thereby blurring ethical lines in American military policy. As soldiers’ justifications regarding their “moral legitimacy” increase, their ability to reason and judgement decreases, hence clouding their objectivity in pinpointing enemies.
While often understood as a negative quality, fear plays a crucial role in holding soldiers to account. In the absence of fear, it is highly likely that a soldier will overstep ethical and moral boundaries. Similarly, when the threat of loss of ‘American life’ is removed, officers are more likely to issue engagement orders – resulting in a larger number of deaths, with many being arbitrary. This security aspect (for the American soldier) creates a power disparity of a different kind, pitting American pilots who have no fear of losing their lives in the combat against adversaries and civilians across the world rendered virtually defenseless against this disproportionate superiority. The effects of the use of drones therefore create multiple, glaring problems, most of which cannot be ignored and must be confronted.
US ground operations, which minimize civilian casualties while putting more troops at risk, are therefore, considered more ethical than drone strikes; at the same time, they are unpopular back home because of the threat to “American life”. In his Michael Walzer’s Just War Theory contends that political and military leaders must fulfil a “radical responsibility" whereby they are willing to make sacrifices not only for their citizens but also for civilians on the opposite side. Ethical legitimacy cannot be achieved by the mere use of a particular technology. Technology does not have to ability to make ethical assessments, nor can it be held accountable in cases where it makes the wrong call. As technological advancements open the door to fully autonomous drones with the ability to make kill decisions on their own – many of which are already in use for surveillance – American policy’s history on the subject only sends shivers down the spine.
There has always been a gap between the American practice of armed force and how it should be used according to the laws of conflict. However, technological advancements have allowed the gap to metastasize into a lopsided conflict. Furthermore, the policies of drone warfare adopted by the Obama administration have blurred the lines of traditional legal, and ethical restraints on the use of force. Analyzing the amount of evidence which proves the harmful impacts of drone strikes on Pakistani and Yemeni civilians, it is high time for the United States to re-evaluate the fundamentals of their targeted killing policy by taking into account its unethical consequences. The ignorance of both the American public and US policymakers on this issue cannot continue any longer. It also sets precedent for future world powers (read: China) to use the similar tactics, as and when they deem global power relations to be in their favor. Failures of American policy atleast come with the safety valve of democracy, self-correction, and some pressure from international perceptions. China, on the other hand, is far less likely to be pinned down on these considerations.
The use of drone strikes should be minimized by limiting their use to terrorist networks, while also improving the transparency in the policy surrounding their use. Using drones in areas of conflict comes with long-term consequences and political costs - not limited to its unethical nature, and including the dilution of principles of territorial sovereignty. Amending this policy will not only reduce the number of drone strikes and civilian casualties, but will also limit the use of drones to only targetted individuals or groups which pose an imminent threat to the national security of United States. A thorough examination of drone technology before it is widely applied and accepted as a lethal weapon is necessary for other countries contemplating the use of UAVs. With technology so young, it is risky and unethical to experiment with people. If the apparent problems are fixed and the drone policy is replaced with a more effective alternative in the future, it could be a viable option; however, in their current state, drones are violating international laws and ethics and cannot be allowed to become instruments of American power projection.
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About the Author
Simran is pursuing her Masters in International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London and has a Bachelors in Political Science from Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. During the course of her undergraduate degree she volunteered with multiple NGO’s and also worked for the Government of Delhi as a Policy Intern. In London, she got an opportunity to be a Political Communications Intern at Afghanistan and Central Asian Association. Simran was also part of a week long study tour at the United Nations office in Geneva where she was privy to the complex workings of the organisation and also got an opportunity to chair the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. She has a strong inclination towards International Security and her area of research focuses on Surveillance and Intelligence tactics used by the United States of America both domestically and internationally.