The invention of the aeroplane over a century ago was an important marker in human progress. But the technology that spread human dominance of the earth to the skies soon had military applications. The first recorded aerial bombardment took place in Libya in 1911 where Italy was fighting the Ottoman empire. A hundred years later European powers were bombing Libya again – and this time some of the pilots were thousands of miles away.
In the last 10 years drones have been used in at least seven countries – Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Seventy-six countries now own such weapons, which range from small 20kg surveillance drones to 11m long Reapers armed with Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs. Large armed drones are still the preserve of the wealthiest nations. Only the US, Britain and Israel are known to have used them in combat.The market for drones is growing and is expected to almost double in the next decade, to $11.3 billion (£7bn).
Drones have changed the way war is waged. An estimated 3,000-4,500 people have been killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. However, it’s hard to count the number of dead – let alone how many were civilians – due to the remote locations of many strikes. Official US policy is to consider any male of military age a militant unless proven otherwise, rendering the official stats an Orwellian aberration. However a steady stream of reports from Waziristan indicate that children, village elders at tribal meetings and innocent bystanders are among the dead.
A majority of US drone strikes have been on President Barack Obama’s watch. He who promised change has certainly been true to his word. Suspected “terrorists” are no longer kidnapped, tortured and held for years without trial. They are simply killed.
The president and his national security team reportedly meet once a month to decide which individuals to add to the “kill list.” These include US citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, killed in two drone strikes last year in Yemen. Legal process is not required, only “due process,” which means that Obama has discussed the matter with security advisers. How ironic that a man who routinely orders extra-judicial killings is a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
A recent study reported in the New York Times found that only 2 per cent of drone strikes killed “senior Taliban and al-Qaida leaders.” The relentless killing has turned public opinion in Pakistan against the US, contributing to revenge attacks in Afghanistan and the attempted Times Square bombing a couple of years ago, where the bomber explicitly mentioned drone strikes as a motive. Ex-counterterror chief for the CIA, Robert Grenier, has warned the US is “creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield.”
There is a worry that politicians may see drones as a way of avoiding the inevitable impact on public opinion of soldiers coming home in coffins. The wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all became steadily more unpopular because of the endless stream of dead and wounded veterans.
Britain is set to double its fleet from five to 10 Reaper drones in the next year, enabling the government to have three in operation at any one time. But the argument that drones keep “our boys” out of danger misses the point. The question is not how to maximise enemy casualties while minimising our own, but why are we in Afghanistan at all?
The countries targeted by drones are among the most deprived and unstable regions on the planet. War, however it is waged, will not end the problems of terrorism or instability. It will make them worse.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star in the 27th-28th October weekend edition of the paper
Categorised in: Editorial
This post was written by Tomasz Pierscionek