Drones are unethical and risk ‘blowback’

An opinion piece in Al-Jazeera discusses the expanding US drone program, and the problems it produces. Some of the interesting tidbits are summarized below.

The Taliban in Afghanistan increasingly rely on the classic tactics of guerilla warfare, in the form of motorcycles supplied by Pakistan’s ISI. These ‘Talibikers’ are feared across the country, and regularly hit civilians with kidnappings and assassinations. There are less than 10,000 in Afghanistan – and could be eliminated if the US and NATO used drone technology for security rather than assassinations.

 Unmanned aerial vehicles date back to Predator drones in 1994. Today, the Air Force and CIA stockpile is at least 7,000 in 6 countries (known-knowns). As of March 2011 the US Air Force was training more drone “pilots” than conventional ones, with the Pentagon requesting $5 billion just for drones next year. The small, 3-foot hand-tossed Raven drones are used by the US Army to see what is ‘over the hill’, and there are some 4,800 in the Army. A Predator costs $4.5 million; an F-22 Raptor fighter jet runs $150 million a unit.

Peter Singer cites the ‘three Ds’ for their justification. They are:

  1. Dull – and can patrol empty stretches of barren land 24 hours a day
  2. Dirty – can fly in toxic clouds
  3. Dangerous – the absence of a pilot eliminates the risk to that pilot, and the UAVs exploit the element of surprise

“People who have seen an air strike live on a monitor described it as both awe-inspiring and horrifying,” The New Yorker magazine reported in 2009.

You could see these little figures scurrying, and the explosion going off, and when the smoke cleared there was just rubble and charred stuff,’ a former CIA officer who was based in Afghanistan after September 11th says of one attack. (He watched the carnage on a small monitor in the field.) [Bleeding] human beings running for cover are such a common sight that they have inspired a slang term: ‘squirters.

According to media reports cited by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 957 Pakistanis were murdered by American drones in 134 airstrikes in 2010.

Yet the Pakistani government does not officially acknowledge or authorize these attacks. They are illegal acts of war.

It takes 19 analysts to study images from one drone. But intelligence, even with hundreds of people studying the date, is sometimes impossible to get right for these virtual warriors.

 At the beginning of the US war against Afghanistan in 2001, for example, it was an article of faith within the Pentagon that men wearing black long-tailed turbans were Talibs.Dozens, possibly hundreds, of noncombatants were killed because of this incorrect assumption. In February 2002 a drone operator blew up a man because he was tall – as was Osama bin Laden. In fact, he and two other men killed were poor villagers gathering scrap metal. Again, this doesn’t address the broader issue of whether it’s okay to murder people simply because they are members of the Taliban.

Strangely, however, the US does not attempt to kill the ‘Talibikers’. Why?

A well-placed US military source confirms that Afghan security “isn’t a priority, it isn’t even much of a passing thought”. “Afghanistan is a staging area for drone and other aerial strikes in western Pakistan,” he says. “Nothing more, nothing less. Afghanistan is Bagram [airbase].”

Drones are perceived as ‘cowardly’ technologies, with a real risk of ‘blowback’ (obviously).  In 2002, former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith worried about this “If [Taliban leaders and soldiers are] dead, they’re not talking to you, and you create more martyrs,” he noted. Ongoing drone attacks “suggest that it’s acceptable behavior to assassinate people…Assassination as a norm of international conduct exposes American leaders and Americans overseas.”

International law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell of Notre Dame University said that the new reliance on drones could prompt the US to fight even more wars. “I think this idea that somehow this technology is allowing us to kill in more places and … aim at more targets is for me the fundamental ethical and legal problem.”

Mary Dudziak of the University of Southern California’s Gould School says: “Drones are a technological step that further isolates the American people from military action, undermining political checks on…endless war.”

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