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Turning the Tables on Drones

April 14, 2013

Let’s say that Norway decides that US law enforcement is unable or unwilling to provide the best means for incapacitating terrorist threats posed by the mentally ill US citizens’ whom are owners of semi-automatic weapons. Then, imagine this headline on Norwegian Newspapers on April 10th, 2014:

 “Norway Targets American Terrorist on US Soil: Drone-Strike Declared Success Despite Some Collateral Damage”

With the US history of mentally ill citizens whom embark on mass shootings in shopping malls, movie theaters and schools, Norway has become concerned that the trend will spread and put Norwegian tourists in danger. Let’s then say that Norway determines, after months of spying on one American citizen without the consent of the US government, that one gun owning-American is mentally ill and declared an imminent threat to Norway. Some vague intelligence will lead to a conclusion that the person will most likely go on a shooting spree in a movie theater in the near future. A “pilot” in Oslo pushes a button and releases one AGM-114 Hellfire missile from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The Hellfire kills the target, his son and damages surrounding buildings.

As rescue workers attend to the scene, another Hellfire is dropped, a tactic known as a “double-tap”. It is meant to prevent rescue workers from saving the target’s life. The strikes are declared a success even though the second strike accidentally hit a Church and a wedding ceremony next-door, killing 15 civilians. The Norwegian spokesperson announces that the “collateral damage” was an unfortunate event and offers 2000 Norwegian Kronor (3,500 USD) to the town as “reconstruction compensation”. The spokesperson concludes the scripted speech by saying that the strikes, however, were ultimately a success. He justifies the strikes by twisting the definition of what an imminent threat means.

Let’s now say that no world leader or United Nations official publicly decries Norway’s misuse of imprecise deadly force. European leaders complacent response leaves Norway confident that it can continue its strikes. For the next ten years, on each Tuesday, also known as “terror-Tuesdays”, the Norwegian prime minister will decide which suspected Americans to keep on its kill-list. At one point, there will be 90 strikes per month. Norwegian policy-makers will even argue that the people whom died in collateral damage were probably potential mass-killers anyways because they had “occasional phone contact with the target.” When journalists question the strikes, Norway’s prime minister justifies them with meaningless words such as ‘surgical’ and ‘precise’. “They are necessary”, the prime minister says. The national security adviser also explains that “The purpose of these actions is to mitigate threats to Norwegian’s persons’ lives,” and that Norway is doing the right thing. The “pilots’”, steering the UAV’s a continent away, begins to label the successful strikes a “bug-splat”.

A provocative hypothetical for sure, but definitely a useful one. Until the Obama Administration faces the wrong side of a Hellfire missile, it will be hard to get the message through of the illegality and inhumane practice of drones.

On February 5th, 2013, White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the current drone program, saying that, “These strikes are legal, they are ethical and they are wise.” He further argued that the Obama Administration prefers targeted killings with UAVs because they mitigate threats, stop plots, prevent future attacks and they save American lives.

If you are a victim of a terrorist attack, Carney’s words might resonate. If you are the Pakistani mother of a six-year-old boy whom has to identify her son by his destroyed skull and blown off arm, then a vague White House press release will mean little.

1. Drone Strikes Are Legal. [Not at all.]

It does not take a UN High Commissioner to understand that US drone strikes are not adhering to international law. A freshman can point out Article 51 of the UN Charter and how the US’ extrajudicial killings goes against the Geneva Conventions’ three pillars pertaining to laws of war: military necessity, distinction, and proportionality.

First, the director of the CIA, John Brennan, argued in his speech on counterterrorism in April, 2012, that drone strikes are “necessary”, that they “better minimize the risk to civilians” and that the US should continue to “conduct targeted strikes because they are necessary”. When will John Brennan admit that drone strikes actually have not minimized the risk of civilian lives? Once 100 children are dead or 200? A military necessity means that any attack must be intended toward a military enemy, that an attack must not cause harm to civilians and that military necessity cannot justify the violation of other rules of International Humanitarian Law.

Second and third, the US drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia violates the international law principles of proportionality and distinction. Proportionality means that an attack cannot be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage sought. Killing 24 Pakistani soldiers is not proportional. Distinction requires that the attack be directed only at a direct military threat. Killing a 16-year-old American boy in Yemen or 17 children in a strike in Yemen, which killed a total of 55, is not distinctive.

According to a NY Times article, the US has developed “creative” ways to distinguish targets from civilians with so called “signature strikes”. A signature strike means that CIA does not have to distinctively verify weather the target is a terrorist or not. It is enough for a person to simply bear characteristics associated with terrorism. Examples of these characteristics could be a) riding in a Toyota pick-up truck, b) owning a black flag with printed Arabic scripts from the Koran on it, or c) if you happen to be male between the age of sixteen to forty travelling in a big group. All military-age men killed in a drone strike zone are considered to be combatants, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” How convenient for the US book keeping system when keeping track of the dead terrorists and dead civilians. If anyone is still counting?

Lastly, the US is clearly breaking the traditional Westphalian view of national sovereignty. Even though the UN have been investigating US non-battlefield drone strikes since they first began in November 2002, it has taken almost 10 years for UN officials to speak up. It was not until two weeks ago that the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, dared to conclude that the Pakistani government had indeed made it clear that Pakistan does not consent to the US strikes.[1]

2. Drone Strikes are Ethical. [The double standard reeks.]

When the Bush administration was eavesdropping on US citizens there was an outrage. When the same administration tortured, or as they say, used “enhanced interrogation techniques”, against suspected militants, there was an outcry amongst US citizens and world leaders. However, when the Obama Administration assassinates suspected militants, the silence among US citizens and European leaders reeks of double standards.

Americans tend to look at the US constitution as the Holy Grail of ethical guidance, whereas international law is exclusive to something Europeans fuzz around with. US laws prohibit torture but the language is sketchy on extraterritorial judicial killing. The Constitution does forbid the government from depriving any person of life without due process of law; let me translate, an arrest and a fair trial. Yet President Obama has approved the killing of people, most of whom are not identified before the “kill order” was given.

A study released in September of 2012, Living Under Drones, by Stanford and New York University researchers, found that 1,500 to 2,500 civilians have been killed by these attacks. They also found that only 2 percent of the people killed were connected to terrorism, which means that 49 out of 50 of the victims of these attacks were civilians. On which account does this seem ethical?

Furthermore, US drones hovering over cities causes psychological harm, scares and disrupts the daily lives of ordinary civilians. How does Jay Carney justify the psychological harm caused as ethical? While intimidating someone is not a crime, it is nowhere near the camp of ethical behavior. In Yemen, mothers have been too afraid to let their children off to school, living with the constant worry that a deadly strike can be fired at any moment.

As for the ethics of the “double-tap” strikes, how does the White House defend the US practice of striking one area multiple times, killing rescue workers, women and children? It makes both village members and humanitarian workers afraid and unwilling to assist injured victims. Waziris told researchers at Stanford and New York University that, “the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals.”

3. Drone Strikes are Wise. [Calling them wise is an Orwellian propaganda.]

The Obama Administration has argued that the strikes are wise, precisely because they are surgical. This narrative is false. Conor Friedersdorf said it best: “Calling U.S. Drone Strikes ‘Surgical’ Is Orwellian Propaganda”. US press reports suggest that over the last three years, drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders in Pakistan. They have also killed some 700 civilians. That is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent according to David Kilcullen, once a counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus. Not the hallmarks of precise or wise.

Counter-terrorism expert Micah Zenko, whom have studied targeted killings and drone strikes for over ten years, said in a Council on Foreign Relations event (“Assessing U.S. Drone Strikes Policies”) that some Pakistani reports claim that 9 out of 10 killed have been civilians with no relation to terrorist groups. The New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank claim that the success rate of hitting militants is among 95% in 2010. As Zenko has argued, somewhere between those dichotomies the truth is to be found.

David Kilcullen has also argued that the use of drones “displays every characteristic of a tactic — or, more accurately, a piece of technology — substituting for a strategy”. It does not take a counterinsurgency expert to realize that the Obama Administration purely tactical approach is everything but wise. War cannot be won without a strategy.

4. Drones Mitigate Threats. [What about the the long-term, unintended consequences?]

As last week’s UN report concluded, Pakistan says that it considers the drone campaign to be counter-productive as it has radicalized a new generation that dislikes the US. General Stanley McChrystal even said on January 7th, that:

“What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world… The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates… They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”

As US public opinion shows, Americans overwhelmingly prefer drone strikes to snipers being sent to the ground in dangerous places. The only loud domestic opposition against drones is the debate on the unintended consequences of drones used for Domestic Surveillance Operations Fourth Amendment rights. Apparently Americans do not like to be spied upon but have no problems to conduct imprecise extraterritorial killings. If those Norwegian drones would hoover over Virginia, perhaps opinion of the effects of drone strikes would be much better understood.

5. Drones Stop Plots. [No, they increase plots.]

As David Kilcullen warned in 2009, drone strikes have created a siege mentality among Pakistani civilians. Kilcullen compares this to what happened in Somalia in 2005 and 2006 when similar drone strikes were employed against the forces of the Union of Islamic Courts. The US strikes did kill militants, however, the public anger over the American show of force solidified the power of extremists and caused them to increase their plots. As the Islamists’ popularity rose and the group became more extreme, so did propaganda and plots. Just a few years later the world witnessed a clumsy Ethiopian military intervention, the rise of a regional insurgents and an increase in offshore piracy. History might not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

6. Drones Prevent Future Attacks. [No, they breed Al Qaeda propaganda output.]

Related to the previous point, propaganda is a key output of many terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda. Megan Smith and James Igoe Walsh at the University of North Carolina asked whether drone strikes degrade Al Qaeda’s influence? The researchers found evidence from propaganda output and concluded that Al Qaeda’s propaganda output in Pakistan has increased significantly since the intensification of drone strikes. Thus, drones strikes are counterproductive, they breed increased resentment against the US and lead to the recruitment of more terrorists.

7. Drones Saves American Lives. [Yes, US soldiers’ lives are spared, but not the lives of Pakistani, Yemeni and Somali children.]

By sending an unmanned aircraft, instead of American soldiers to face the threats on the ground, does save American soldiers’ lives. However, the “pilot” in Colorado (technically a co-belligerent ad legitimate target in the war on terror) whom strikes with imperfect knowledge of whom is a terrorist and whom is a civilian does not save innocent humans’ lives. The uncomfortable truth is that, for the West at least, these innocent lives are hard to feel sorry for. The children in Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia are faceless to the West. The drone strikes happen in remote areas. No TV crews are there to bring back footage of blown-up homes with children covered in blood to our comfortable living rooms. Clearly, US public opinion on drones is stuck in Clausewitzean thick fog of war and many American’s do not have the monocular night vision device to see through it.

The Obama Administration is Setting a Dangerous Precedent

Spreading fear into American’s hearts and minds must stop. As Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen have argued, the US is safer now than ever. The Obama Administration cannot continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm caused. European leaders must have the guts to shame the US for its inhumane measures and complete disrespect for international law. Drone strikes are not the most effective strategy for eliminating Al Qaeda and it is time for the Obama Administration to face the facts of the counter-productive impacts. American citizens, the UN and European leaders must publicly decry the US for undermining the rule of law. If the Obama Administration continues on this dangerous path, it will likely have a harder time to object when Norway obtain drone technology and develops a list of US citizens to hit with similar “bug-splats”.


[1] The US even breaks Ashley Deeks proposed and revised international law framework of how to make the right decision regarding extraterritorial killing in a sovereign state which is “Unwilling or Unable” to counter the threats.

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