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Drones and the War on Terror

Last week, the US Department of Defense announced the addition of a North African military base in Niger. The base will hold unarmed surveillance drones purposed to gather intelligence on Al Qaeda members, and will also serve as an aid to the French in the current war against the Taliban in Mali. The announcement has thus far prompted few criticisms from domestic or international stakeholders, and highlights the increasing presence of drones in modern warfare.

But not all drones are created equal, and praise for the technology should be more carefully considered.

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), were first used for surveillance and reconnaissance to more efficiently size up the enemy and prepare for possible attacks. When unarmed, drones are fairly harmless – you can even buy your own drone on Amazon if you want to spy on your neighbours (It even comes in three different colours!).

But then there’s the combat drone.

As a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States military began equipping drones with weapons. These combat drones were first used in 2002 with the intention of taking out Al Qaeda members through remote-censored target-to-kill missions, and have since then been increasingly employed in the war on terror.

While the deployment of combat drones falls within the legal realm in an established warzone such as Afghanistan, the legitimacy of drone warfare may no longer hold in Pakistan, where issues of legality is much more obscure.

Justified by the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the current drone strikes in Pakistan are only legal under the assertion that the United States is acting in self defense – one of the two exceptions to the UN Charter, which otherwise makes direct combat on another sovereign state an international illegality issue (The other legal loophole being the country’s consent – which the US does not have).

While anti-terrorism has become an engrained part of what it means to be an American, and has made it impossible to ease sanctions on possible terrorists, the justification that the US is acting in self-defense and can therefore declare drone warfare on Pakistan no longer stands on a solid legal foundation – especially once you leave American soil.

The United States is the only country in which the majority of the population supports the drone strikes in Pakistan.

Although hardly objected immediately following 9/11, drone strikes have been prompting increasing international scrutiny in recent years, and many human rights lawyers are calling for the issue to reach a discussion table. They are concerned not only with the large number of civilian deaths in Pakistan (estimates suggest there are 10 civilians killed for every high-ranking Al Qaeda officer), but also with the lack of legal channels provided to the families of the civilian victims, who have no power against the massive force of the United States Military.

Why has this issue never made it to the discussion table?

According to Harold Koh, legal advisor to the U.S. Department of State, the development of drone technology is a wonderful thing (he probably has interesting neighbours to spy on). He stated at a conference in 2010 that “using this new technology ensures that civilian casualties are minimized”, and further supported the drone program in Pakistan as completely legal. In light of this logic, the employment of combat drones has increased tremendously over recent years, and billions of dollars in R&D are being poured into perfecting the technology.

While the United States ascertains that many Al Qaeda officers have been eliminated thanks to the drone program in Pakistan, many more civilians have also fallen victim, and societies that suffer from a daily occurrence of drone strikes are starting to increasingly resent the United States’ presence – a feeling possibly even heightened by the fact that US soldiers are not even present, due to remote control operating.

Drones in Pakistan are operated from military bases that are located thousands of kilometers away. The military officials in charge of operating them sit in their offices in America, typically spend their day hunting down and shooting the targeted terrorists, break for lunch, and drive home at night to have dinner with their families. The officers have become completely detached from the act of killing, and psychological studies are under way to map the intricacies of the consequences this may have.

The legal framework is also being threatened by the Pakistani drone program, as the United States is squeezing through the present loopholes without considerations for their role as the international leaders of military technology. As the pioneer of drone technology, it is the role of the United States to enforce a solid framework in which the utilization of drones may be realized only in ways that can be deemed just and legal by international standards.

In the way the US is currently running its drone program, the legal framework is being completely superseded, and has instead given way to the United States’ hegemonic powers.

This is even more problematic when considering that the United States is not the only country capable of developing and employing drone technology. A study undertaken in 2010 on the international law of drones highlighted the fact that several other state and non-state actors were acquiring drone technology, including Brazil, China, Georgia, Hezbollah, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. These countries are getting access to drone technology for a fraction of the cost that the United States has been pumping into R&D – and they are getting it fast.

Drone technology is altering the way wars are fought  and in coming years may grow to dominate military combat completely. While the use of drones eliminates the need for ground troops and has allowed militants to fight in a smarter way, the United States must realize its role as the pioneer of this technology, and create a solid foundation upon which this type of warfare can be justified. If America fails to establish a sound legal framework to guide its drone programs in the war on terror, other countries acquiring the new technology may also be able to slip through the same loopholes.

-Valerie Weber


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Doctress Neutopia, Creative Commons, Flickr)


About Valerie Weber

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  1. Good article. Also, there are more attacks on Pakistani civilians by extremists who want to put pressure on the government to somehow get the U.S. to stop these strikes. This serves to polarize the country, spark anti-american sentiment in the masses, as well as mar the beautiful north with endless violence.

    • i agree. I don’t know how much I buy into this ‘lesser of two evils’ argument.. The ethics of drone warfare are far from black/white. It is increasingly scary how easily people swallow this magic pill as the the cure to ground troop loss.

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