America’s drone war kills civilians
Washington - The United States’ long campaign of remote-control assassinations, deeply unpopular in most of the world, is coming under renewed scrutiny after the accidental killing of an American aid worker in a drone strike. But, although the rules of drone war are under review, don’t hold your breath for a change of US policy.
US President Barack Obama expressed “profound regrets” and offered “deepest apologies” to the families of the American, Warren Weinstein, and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto who died in a drone strike meant to obliterate an al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan. The two Westerners were held there as hostages, but their presence was not detected in hundreds of hours of surveillance by CIA operators watching video images transmitted from drone cameras.
The incident bolstered the arguments of critics who question the drone warriors’ abiding faith in technology and the notion that killing enemy leaders — “high-value targets” in official parlance — will result in victory. Human rights groups scoff at US assertions that drone strikes are so precise they rarely kill innocents.
Obama blamed the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto on “the fog of war”, but said the drone strikes that killed them had followed current guidelines. He then promised “to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes”. In other words: Let’s improve the tactics, but stick with the strategy.
There is no suggestion of significant changes to a programme Obama inherited from former president George W. Bush and embraced with an enthusiasm that baffled many of the Democratic voters who helped him win the presidency believing he was something of a pacifist. He disproved that idea just three days after his inauguration as president in January 2009, authorising two drone attacks that killed dozens of people, including civilians.
Drones became his favourite weapon of war, a way of going after al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups without risking the lives of US pilots or deploying “boots on the ground”. In the first six years of his presidency, drone attacks killed at least 2,500 people, including some 600 civilians, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based group that tracks the drone war. There were more drone strikes in Obama’s first year in office than in Bush’s entire eight-year presidency, an extraordinary record for a man who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just nine months into his presidency.
Opinion polls indicate a majority of Americans are in favour of drone warfare. Support runs across party lines in Congress, where lawmakers deem it an efficient, virtually risk-free way of thinning jihadist ranks. American support contrasts sharply with world opinion. Last year, the Washington-based Pew Research Center conducted a poll on the issue in 44 countries. In 37 of them, including close allies of the United States such as Germany, Britain and Jordan, sizeable majorities opposed the Americans’ use of drones.
Such differing attitudes help explain why the accidental death of a US citizen made headlines, dominated TV news for days and prompted presidential apologies. There have been no such public shows of empathy for the families of Pakistani, Yemeni or Afghan civilians. Their deaths are considered inevitable “collateral damage”.
This double standard has been a persistent theme of drone critics, mostly human rights organisations and experts challenging the secrecy that shrouds drone operations by the CIA and the legality of “signature strikes” that target people whose identity is not known, but whose behaviour leads drone operators thousands of miles away to conclude they are militants who merit execution.
Is drone video good enough to reliably tell militants from civilians? In a deeply researched new book on drone warfare Kill Chain, Andrew Cockburn quotes a weapons designer as saying the task is akin to “watching a Super Bowl broadcast and trying to determine whether a spectator was leaning on an AK-47 or a cane”.
Signature strikes do not require presidential authorisation, unlike the airborne execution of “high-value targets” whose names and profiles are on a secret “kill list”.
The White House has largely shrugged off doubts over the programme and its effects on America’s image.
Just before Obama’s inauguration for his second term, the former commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, US Army General Stanley McChrystal, said drones evoked visceral hatred in countries where their constant buzz fills the skies.
Drones contributed to a “perception of American arrogance that says, ‘Well, we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can’,” he said.
The American superpower appears disinclined to break that habit.