More than two months since President Obama heralded sharp changes in America’s drone operations including promises of increased transparency, little has actually changed.
Despite announcements by administrative officials in late May stating that the “bulk of drone operations would shift to the Pentagon from the Central Intelligence Agency,” America’s clandestine aerial combat maneuvers in Pakistan remain in the CIA’s hands.
Although Secretary of State John Kerry commented earlier this month during a televised interview in Pakistan that the United States had a “timeline” to end drone strikes and that “we hope it’s going to be very, very soon,” the State Department immediately issued a statement to the contrary: there is no timetable to end the targeted killing program in Pakistan’s western mountains.
The CIA carried out three more strikes in Yemen last week and four people suspected of al-Qaeda militancy were killed last Monday, not long before American and British diplomats were told to evacuate their embassies amid reports of potential al-Qaeda terrorist attacks. And in a speech Friday intended to ease concerns over US surveillance and lack of transparency, President Obama declined to speak about the recent drone strikes in Yemen, saying he would not talk about counterterrorism operations.
Constantly scanning that vast blue ether, Yemenis say they live in a perpetual context of fear.
“Just like when Americans looked up and saw that second plane targeting the Twin Towers in 2001, Yemenis feel the same terror. It’s something you can’t anticipate or know where it will target next. Yemenis have begun hating the sky,” 22-year-old Sanaa resident Farea al-Muslimi told GlobalPost about the recent strikes.
While evidence mounts on these effects of drone war—the “considerable and under-accounted-for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury”—they remain, for the most part, unaddressed in the larger dialogue about legality and ethics.
But what are the ethics of using technological advancements, which effectively remove the human operator from the physical sphere of conflict, to target a potential threat in tribal areas outside of live conflict zones? What is the legality behind “double-taps”—where there are multiple strikes in the same place—which have been said to be targeting rescuers tending to those wounded in initial strikes?
“If the government strikes once at a military target, and then again when others come to the strike scene, are those others also military targets?” asked Sarah Knuckey, an international lawyer at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice and an adviser to UN rapporteur Christof Heyns. “And how does the government know this? Does it have information on each of those people to justify categorizing them as fighters? That’s where we have a lot of questions and no answers—at least those of us outside of the government."
'Secondary' strikes on an area can be lawful, Knuckey added over the phone, but only if those coming to the scene are also fighters. If a secondary strike happens quickly, after others nearby had rushed to the scene, she said, one has to question how the government would know those people to be militants as well.
“The law is clear: the government is only allowed to launch an intentional attack on militants, it is prohibited from intentionally directing attacks at civilians, and it has the obligation to distinguish militants from civilians.”
What is not clear, however, is the information the government is willing to impart—which is why, despite the fact President Obama has said that “before any strike is taken there must be near certainty that no civilian will be killed or injured,” the international community still has no idea who is being killed and how “near certainty” is being maintained.
Government officials and proponents of the current program consistently (and without detail) declare the precision of the strikes, and insist that few civilians are killed. But when met with precise information regarding alleged civilian deaths in specific strikes, officials never publicly respond.
"The conversation rarely goes any further when specific allegations are bought forward,” Knuckey said. “The government has an obligation to respond to specific reports, to explain what happened, and to compensate civilians if there was a mistake."
Still, those who survive the death of a non-militant loved one appear to have little they can do in seeking retribution, and are often left legally and financially empty-handed.
The Bureau for Investigative Journalism leaked documents earlier this month which revealed official Pakistani death tolls for strikes to be much higher than the US administration has repeatedly insisted.
“Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators,” the 165-page report said. “Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals.”
The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, the report added, also makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims.
Even with this evidence of the long-term damage drone strikes impose on targeted communities, public debate fails to take into account those on the ground who are forced to live with the daily presence of drones and the unending possibility of lethal attack. Instead, the debate continues to focus narrowly on whether strikes are “doing their job”—whether the majority of those killed are “militants.”
According to CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen, the number of high-level targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is quite low—estimated at just two percent.
What’s more, Living Under Drones said evidence suggests an alternative outcome—“that the strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks.”
“As the New York Times has reported, ‘drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants,’” the report said. “Drone strikes have also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani relations.”
In fact, the most recent PEW report on Pakistani public opinion of America, released on May 7, revealed that 64 percent of Pakistani’s see the US as more of an enemy than a partner, while only 11 percent said they would view the US “favorably.”
The percentage of Pakistanis who consider improving relations with the US important has also declined in recent years.
And in an article published yesterday on Al-Monitor, Yemeni youth activist Farea al-Muslimi described the “public frenzy” in Sanaa during last week’s evacuation and drone operations, pointing out that three strikes took place just in the time that Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was meeting with the CIA and President Obama in Washington.
“It is no longer appropriate to worry about America’s image in Yemen,” al-Muslimi wrote. “America’s image as a promoter of peace, democracy and progress in Yemen can no longer be resurrected. The families and friends of women and children killed in drone strikes will not tolerate any such masquerading.”
An editorial appearing today on the Saudi Gazette urged the West to pay heed to lessons from Yemen’s past.
“Yemen's history is replete with examples of how tribal opposition to the extension of state power ends up in insurgencies,” the editorial said. “One should expect something far worse if this extension is done to help a foreign power achieve its strategic objectives. If AQAP [Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] continues to grow as the largest Al-Qaeda affiliate in the world as Western media report, this is only because the Yemeni authorities and Washington are ignoring lessons of Yemen's history.”
And so it remains a dreadful and erratic cycle that perhaps does not signal danger or continuing tragedy for some, but there are others who worry about the precedents the US is setting for other governments.
No president should ever “deploy armed drones over US soil,” President Obama said in his counter-terrorism speech earlier this year. “Determination is not something to be messed with. That’s who the American people are: determined and not to be messed with.”
But as the US Navy develops new drone technologies, including the world’s “first pilotless warplane with the same bombing abilities as today’s manned jet fighters,” that can take off and land from an aircraft carrier at sea, drone manufacturers and officials reduce export control barriers for parts being sent around the world. And as export controls are reducing, and countries develop drone technologies for themselves, risks of other governments using lethal force and the potential for the US to be “messed with” increase.
Though Obama has acknowledged that threat levels have fallen below any level seen since before 9/11, the government still shows no signs of actual changes to the criteria for the use of drones, except for the proliferation of machines and aerial assaults.