Return of the Drones

By Duane Shank 01-11-2012
An AUV, image via

An AUV, image via

Since mid-November, the CIA had not launched a drone attack against Pakistan. On Sunday, the New York Times front page prominently featured a story headlined Lull in Strikes by U.S. Drones Aids Militants.

Quoting an array of administration officials, diplomats, intelligence analysts, and one “American government official with decades of experience in Pakistan;” the picture painted was one of a bolder al Qaeda, increased attacks on Pakistani security, and threatened strikes against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. It was a “sky is falling” account of the dire effects of no drones.

In my more cynical moments, I think such stories, almost entirely from anonymous sources, are a not-so-subtle way of applying political pressure.  It’s one of the ways media and politics interact in Washington. And, sure enough, yesterday, the attacks resumed. Reuters reported that “missiles hit a home on the outskirts of the town of Miranshah in North Waziristan, killing at least four militants.” Recess is over, back to business.

Drones, officially known as “unmanned aerial vehicles,” or UAVs, have become a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s war in Afghanistan. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 253 drone attacks have been ordered by the administration, compared to 52 from 2004-2008. At least 1,897 people have been reported killed since 2009, compared to approximately 450 in the previous four years. The Bureau estimates somewhere between 392-781 civilians have died.

In a major new report, License to Kill, David Cortright, Director of Policy Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, examines the increased use of these weapons.

Cortright suggests that by making war “appear to be easier or cheaper,” the use of drones “reduces the political inhibitions against the use of deadly violence," he writes. “The use of these weapons creates the false impression that war can be fought cheaply and at lower risk. They transform the very meaning of war from an act of national sacrifice and mobilization to a distant almost unnoticeable process of robotic strikes against a secretive ‘kill list.’”

And to the official rationale that the drone attacks are an essential tactic against terrorism, Cortright poses the opposite. “Drone strikes and targeted military operations stand in the way of a political solution to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he writes. “The government of Afghanistan demands an end to U.S. military raids that violate Afghan homes. Pakistani officials want strict limits on drone strikes as a condition of their cooperation. Insurgent groups are using popular resentment at drone strikes to fan the flames of militancy.”

Cortright concludes that the U.S. should convene an international conference to develop legal standards on the use of unmanned weapons. The objective of such the conference should be to ensure that the use of drones “complies fully with the laws of war, including international humanitarian law and human rights law.”

As the drone attacks resume, these are important questions that deserve answers.  Anonymous killing from a remote location is still killing, and should be given serious attention.

 Duane Shank is Senior Policy Director for Sojourners. Follow Duane on Twitter @DShankDC.

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