The Common Good

DRONE WATCH: Shadow Wars

A series of recent news stories, largely based on anonymous sources, reveals an emerging new U.S. military strategy. After more than 10 years of long, bloody ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration is turning to what one report called “shadow wars.”  

Erik Simonsen / Getty Images
MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Drone with Hellfire Missiles Flying at Sunset. Erik Simonsen / Getty Images

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Rather than large numbers of troops on the ground, these wars involve covert intelligence and action, special forces units, cyberwar against computers, and a greatly expanded use of unmanned drones. They are undeclared, still largely secret and unaccountable.

Beginning under President George W. Bush and dramatically escalating under President Barack Obama, the U. S. is now using drones in four countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia), and has used them in two others (Iraq and Libya). Going by the names Reaper and Predator, firing missiles named Hellfire, the drones are responsible for thousands of deaths, including hundreds of women and children.

A lengthy report in The New York Times  described a ritual by which people’s names are nominated to be killed. A group gathered from the national security agencies meets every week or so to add new names to “an expanding ‘kill list,’ poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre ‘baseball cards’ of an unconventional war.” The list then goes to the White House, where the president approves the names.

In Pakistan and more recently in Yemen, drone strikes are moving to what are called “signature” attacks, not aimed at specific individuals but at what are considered suspicious behavior “signatures” of al-Qaeda activity based on vehicles, facilities, communications equipment and patterns of behavior.  And the president has adopted a new method of counting civilian deaths – all military-age males in the area of a strike are considered militants, unless there is posthumous evidence they were civilians. 

Last week, the White House delivered its semiannual report to Congress on combat operations abroad. For the first time, it publicly acknowledged that the U.S. military has been taking “direct action” in Yemen and Somalia. The news report explained that “’direct action’ is a military term of art that refers to a range of lethal attacks.”  

Another report revealed that “The U.S. military is expanding its secret intelligence operations across Africa, establishing a network of small air bases to spy on terrorist hideouts from the fringes of the Sahara to jungle terrain along the equator.” In the past five years, about a dozen small bases have been constructed.

The surveillance is primarily run by Special Operations forces, working with private contractors. These forces also have teams that are assisting the armed forces in various countries, as well as teams that track and kill suspected terrorists, primarily in Yemen and Somalia. More than 100 military personnel are located at a Kenyan naval base, from which they launch raids in Somalia. Drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are launched from U.S. bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Seychelles.

In one of the first known instances of cyberwar, the U.S. and Israel launched two waves of attacks against Iranian computers involved in a uranium enrichment program. The first wave was a computer virus nicknamed “Flame,” which infiltrated highly secure networks to map the system and send back information. The intelligence thus gathered was then used to introduce a virus known as “Stuxnet,” which caused nearly 1,000 centrifuges to spin out of control.

What all of these secret programs have in common is their lack of accountability, and the implications for international law. Specifically, the use of drone strikes for what are, in essence, targeted assassinations in countries with which the U.S. is not at war, are seen by many experts as violations of international law. 

The U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions released a report this week urging the U.S. to clarify the basis under international law of its policy. Christof Heyns wrote, "The (U.S.) government should clarify the procedures in place to ensure that any targeted killing complies with international humanitarian law and human rights and indicate the measures or strategies applied to prevent casualties … “ 

One part of this concern is simply that if the U.S. can justify its activities against other countries, our country will have no right to object when they do it to us. We are not the only country in the world with these capabilities. More than 50 countries are now believed to have unmanned drones, and some of them are developing programs to arm them. The ability to attack U.S. computer systems certainly exists. The potential for blowback is real.

But more fundamentally at stake is the power to make war. Our founders – the writers of the Constitution – were deeply wary about a too-powerful executive, and consciously vested Congress with the power to declare war. Yet the Obama administration, with its extraordinary claim of executive power, down to deciding who lives and dies, is making a mockery of what has been created to limit that power. 

It is a time when, as Dr. Martin Luther King said about the war in Vietnam, “Every [person] of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits [their] convictions, but we must all protest.” 

Duane Shank is Senior Policy Adviser for Sojourners.

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