Questioning the use of killer drones

Friday 04/03/2016

Retired US Air Force General Michael Hayden has laid out a defence for the United States’ use of unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs or drones — in its anti-terror fight, concluding that, in his opinion, the death toll from terror attacks would have been much greater if the United States had not first killed suspected terrorists.

His article in the New York Times is a narrow picture of the use of UAVs. Drones are effective killing machines but questions arise whether, given the anti- US propaganda value and, more importantly, ethical and moral concerns, employing them is a net strategic plus.

Hayden was a top official in the National Security Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Central Intelligence Agency. His tenure in those posts began in 1999 and ended in 2009, putting him in the administrations of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Undoubtedly many very frightening scenarios and much horrifying information crossed his desk that suggested immediate action was needed to forestall terror attacks.

Indeed, Hayden writes in February 21st editions of the New York Times that “by 2008” intelligence indicated that “the terrorist threat had become intolerable”. By then, however, drones already were widely used weapons. There were about 50 UAV attacks ordered by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks until the end of his tenure. The Obama administration has carried out more than 500 drone sorties in its seven years in power.

Hayden argues such attacks are effective. He cites documents confiscated in the operation in which US Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden — notably not a drone attack — that stated that UAVs were feared by al-Qaeda leaders to the point that many wrote to bin Laden requesting fewer travel assignments so as to keep out of UAVs’ sights.

“Al-Qaeda along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border was spending more time worrying about its own survival than planning how to threaten ours,” Hayden wrote, adding that “attacking Americans on American soil was central to their planning”.

US drone strikes scored many headline-grabbing kills of people who called for terror attacks but there has been a heavy price to pay — civilian casualties, which Hayden writes was a “constant concern”.

Civilian deaths — and there is every indication UAV operators do much to limit such casualties — quickly become jihadist cries for recruits to join the fight against a country that would kill non-combatants, handily ignoring that terror groups regularly make the innocent their targets.

Hayden wrote of the large number of high- and mid-level al- Qaeda operatives killed by drones. Those deaths slowed the group but did not kill it.

To that point, UAVs are not effective in ending terror threats and there is a deeper issue concerning drone use: right and wrong.

If a terror attack is imminent — no matter where the terrorists’ target is — there is a moral duty to stop that attack. Drones sometimes are the best weapon to accomplish that.

However, if the UAV strike is ordered because it is thought — rather than known — the suspects are planning to attack thousands of miles away, the morality of that action comes into question. Sometimes “threats” are just talk.

Who can tell the difference between threat and braggadocio?

The debate in the United States rarely touches on that aspect but focuses on how far the use of such tactics against Americans is allowed — US nationals have been killed on foreign soil; it is off-limits to have such attacks in the United States.

The logic does not follow. There are more serious threats planned and executed in the homeland than foreign terrorists entering the country with marching orders, so why aren’t UAV attacks used in the United States? Perhaps because such tactics cannot be justified as right.

If UAV use is effective on the personnel level but not towards the overall goal of halting terrorists’ threats and there is a moral question, perhaps drones are not the great success they are made out to be.

There is an impressive UAV-related kill total, which US officials like to cite as proof of efficacy. However, no one is of the opinion that this important war can be won solely with airborne weaponry, even without the bigger questions.

Drone strikes often make martyrs of their targets, any civilian death is propaganda and UAV attacks are widely unpopular in the regions they occur. Many people who would like to have been serious threats to the United States have been killed and powers in Washington seem to find that acceptable, all other issues aside, but for a people supposedly inhabiting the moral high ground and seeking peace is it worth it?

Hayden’s argument for lethal UAV use fails to thoroughly address serious concerns the programme breeds. Those need to be considered as drone operations increase.