PERSPECTIVES: 'Drone War Will Trigger New Arms Race'

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Predator drone firing missile | Credit: Drone Wars UKBy Jaya Ramachandran

LONDON - The increasing resort to drones by President Barack Obama will over the long term usher in "a new arms race and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent, destabilized and polarized between those who have drones and those who are victims of them", a leading terrorism expert has warned.


One of the distinctive elements of President Obama's approach to counterterrorism has been his embrace of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to target terrorist operatives abroad, says Michael J Boyle in an article for International Affairs, a British journal published every two months.

During his first term, President Obama launched more than six times as many drone strikes as President Bush did throughout his eight years in office, all the while keeping the CIA-run drone programme away from the scrutiny of Congress and the courts, writes Boyle, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at La Salle University.

He adds: "The U.S. is now using drone strikes to kill terrorist suspects in at least four states (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia), although drone strikes are rumoured to have been used in other places. The campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are run by the CIA, with little congressional oversight, and their existence has even been denied by the Obama administration in the courts. Most Americans remain unaware of the scale of the drone programme operating in these countries and of the destruction it has caused in their name."

The conventional wisdom on drone warfare holds that these weapons are highly effective in killing terrorist operatives and disabling terrorist organizations, while killing fewer civilians than other means of attack, writes Boyle.

He argues that much of the existing debate on drones operates with an attenuated notion of effectiveness that discounts the political and strategic dynamics – such as the corrosion of the perceptions of competence and legitimacy of governments where drone strikes take place, growing anti-Americanism and fresh recruitment of militant networks – that reveal the costs of drone warfare.

Boyle substantiates his view by recalling that on June 21, 2010, Pakistani American Faisal Shahzad told a judge in a Manhattan federal court that he placed a bomb at a busy intersection in Times Square as payback for the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and for its worldwide use of drone strikes.

When the judge asked how Shahzad could be comfortable killing innocent people, including women and children, he responded: "Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don't see children, they don't see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It's a war and in war, they kill people. They're killing all Muslims.”

In a videotape released after his arrest, writes Boyle, Shahzad revealed that among his motives for the attack on New York City was revenge for the death of Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani Taliban leader killed in a drone strike in August 2009.

While his comments were reported in the American press, the Obama administration never acknowledged that it was revulsion over drone strikes – which Shahzad was rumoured to have seen at first hand when training with militant groups in Pakistan – that prompted his attack.

"In his official statement on the attack," writes Boyle, "President Obama fell back on language reminiscent of his predecessor to describe Shahzad as just another of those 'who would attack our citizens and who would slaughter innocent men, women and children in pursuit of their murderous agenda' and 'will stop at nothing to kill and disrupt our way of life'. That the Times Square attack was blowback from the growing use of drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere was never admitted."

The failed Times Square bombing marked the first arrival of blowback from President Obama’s embrace of a drones-first counterterrorism policy on American soil. Boyle sees no reason to believe it will be the last. When President Obama came into office, he pledged to end the 'war on terror' and to restore respect for the rule of law to America's counterterrorism policies.

Instead, he has been just as ruthless and indifferent to the rule of law as his predecessor, avers Boyle, adding: "The basic dimensions of American counterterrorism policy have barely changed between the two administrations, though there has been a shift in tone and emphasis. While President Bush issued a call to arms to defend 'civilization' against the threat of terrorism, President Obama has waged his war on terror in the shadows, using drone strikes, special operations and sophisticated surveillance to fight a brutal covert war against Al-Qaeda and other Islamist networks.

"The Obama approach, which emphasizes relatively few 'boots on the ground' and avoids nation-building missions, has been described by members of his administration as efficient, and even morally necessary, given the state of the U.S. economy and the war-weariness of the American people."

Legality

Much of the existing debate on drones has focused on their legality under international and domestic law and their ethical use as a weapon of war. Setting these issues largely aside, Boyle makes a different case: that the Obama administration's growing reliance on drone strikes has adverse strategic effects that have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists.

The article focuses primarily on the strategic costs of the CIA-run drone campaigns outside active theatres of war (specifically, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia) and does not examine the benefits and costs of drones in active theatres of war such as Afghanistan.

But it challenges the conventional wisdom that drone strikes in the ungoverned spaces of these countries are highly effective by contrasting claims about their relative efficiency at killing 'bad guys' with their political effects in the states where they are used. It argues that drone strikes "corrode the stability and legitimacy of local governments, deepen anti-American sentiment and create new recruits for Islamist networks aiming to overthrow these governments."

Despite the fact that drone strikes are often employed against local enemies of the governments in Pakistan and Yemen, they serve as powerful signals of these governments’ helplessness and subservience to the United States and undermine the claim that these governments can be credible competitors for the loyalties of the population, says Boyle.

"This dynamic makes the establishment of a stable set of partnerships for counterterrorism cooperation difficult, if not impossible, because these partnerships depend upon the presence of capable and legitimate governments that can police their territory and efficiently cooperate with the United States," cautions Boyle.

"In this respect, American counterterrorism policy operates at cross-purposes: it provides a steady flow of arms and financial resources to governments whose legitimacy it systematically undermines by conducting unilateral drone strikes on their territory," the writer adds.

This article will further argue that a drones-first counterterrorism policy is a losing strategic proposition over the long term. The Obama administration’s embrace of drones is encouraging a new arms race for drones that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent, destabilized and polarized between those who have drones and those who are victims of them. [IDN-InDepthNews – January 18, 2013]

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