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Damaged drone dreams


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The US drone program buzzes its unmanned aircraft over distant lands, frightening the public, because they are not sure whether the alien vehicle will merely fly over them or drop bombs to annihilate them. Many in the US, from across the political divide, agree that drones are a dream weapon that provide a “cleaner” way to do war, by pursuing American interests without risking military lives. However, one should remember the words of John F. Kennedy, “there is little value in insuring the survival of our nation if our traditions do not survive with it.”

There are certainly costs to using drones, including logistical failures that have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths and America’s staunchest rival, Iran, now possessing a downed drone. Further, the over-usage of the drones in international relations shows that it is a case of the weapon inspiring the war, not the war inspiring the weapon. Finally, the domestic effect of the drone program is that it violates the constitutional checks and balances placed on the president and CIA’s power by Congress.

With a constant bombardment and surveillance operation led by the drones, the US has eliminated several high level terrorist leaders. Despite all the logistical successes of the program, there have certainly been some blunders that were inevitable in using remote technology to kill human targets. As such, there have been countless botched drone missions in Pakistan and Afghanistan that have led to the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent civilians.

While some may discount these deaths as unavoidable collateral damage, one should think of the operational mistakes being made in the over-use of drones. By using an unmanned vehicle, the US will engage targets that they would otherwise avoid sending ground forces to attack. Thus, the US uses force more freely and takes action even when they lack the amount of credible information needed to put American lives at risk. This means that while the drones might protect American lives, they put the lives of civilians living in war zones at greater risk of destruction due to faulty or negligible intelligence.

Another issue is the hazard that more countries will acquire drone technology, which will all but guarantee an increase in hostilities across the globe. Most nations wish to posses a technology that could allow them to wage a seemingly “cost-free war”, and this is especially true for America’s adversaries like China or Iran. The recent downed drone that Iran has recovered is just one of the many inevitable instances where other nations will attempt to harness this technology, and perhaps use it against the US in the future.

What is far more devastating to the future of the US than the logistical failures of the drone program is the way in which it is affecting the nation’s foreign policy. Under current international law, there are no rules in place for the use of drones. However, the international community, through major documents like the UN Charter, prohibits the use of force against nations one has not declared an enemy.  For the drone operations in Pakistan, where the US has at least nominally recognised the nation as an ally, there is a violation of America’s international legal obligations.

Not only is the drone program putting the US in violation of international law, it is creating more hostile enemies globally and subverting the soft-power of the nation. With the advent of new weapons, American policy makers seem far more willing to exercise force in order to achieve their objectives rather than utilising soft-power diplomacy. This is evidenced by the drones being used against Qadhafi’s regime in Libya, which was bombed rather than negotiated with, as well as the extrajudicial killing of an American-jihadist imam, Anwar Awalaki, in Yemen. The US has enjoyed several years of diplomatic negotiated peace with its rivals without reverting to force in the past, but it seems with the new technology, the policy is to shoot first, ask questions later.

The final and perhaps most alarming element to the drone program is the effect it has on the constitutional sharing of powers between the president and Congress. The decision to use drones is currently the exclusive right of the CIA and the president. Under the Constitution, the president is the commander-in-chief and can make treaties with the advice of Senate. However, Congress possesses the ultimate right to “provide for the common defense,” and “declare war.” Therefore, though the President represents the US to foreign nations, he or his agencies like the CIA, cannot unilaterally engage the US in an armed conflict without the consent of Congress.

As it currently stands, the drone program is handing far too much power to the executive branch and violating the rights of Congress. In many ways, the Congress has capitulated its rights to the president by allowing him to conceal the details of the drone program based on a generalised fear for national security. President Kennedy once stated, “there is very grave danger that an announced need for increased security will be seized upon by those anxious to expand its meaning to the very limits of official censorship and concealment.”

Therefore, the American people should realise that though drones may save some American military lives, they carry with them latent and long-reaching effects. Not only are there logistical nightmares that expose the US to greater threats by its enemies, the drones also have negatively affected America’s soft power in international relations and violated the constitutional balance of powers.

Unless this technology can be brought out of the shadowy rooms of the CIA and into the realm of the public through Congress and the international community, the drones will carry a far greater cost than benefit (despite popular belief).


The writer holds a Juris Doctorate in the US and is a researcher on comparative law and international law issues.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (39) Closed

Atta, Dec 12, 2011 05:32pm
It is a thorough Article but it must have had the official number of innocent causalities caused by drones in ratio to 1 militant killed, the international body count has declared it to be at-least a 14 innocent people killed per 1 terrorist, and the defination of terrorist is yet to be clearified, because anyone against US or US policies cannot be taken as Terrorists, because most nations in world today hold the same sentiment for US including China and Russia.
Ali Dec 12, 2011 05:43pm
Now this is a scholarly article. Bravo brother.
mudasar khan niazi Dec 12, 2011 06:02pm
time have come to prove drones failure ,,,usa will stop this program,,,as above my friend said Pakistan has paid much cost to it 1 militant killed with 15 innocent civilian, Pakistan should play role to stop this drone
Rao Dec 12, 2011 07:23pm
Drone technology has some of the finest and sophisticated high technology in the weaponsystems. It can be used for destructive or peaceful purposes. It is upto man to decide. One of the typical use is to map terrains, locate missing people and monitor what is going on the ground during flods or earthquakes. Sucessful designs further accelerate avionic designs. All these things can be put to good use.
M. Asghar Dec 12, 2011 08:11pm
These drones are geostrategic tools for the USA that will be confronted by the other playes with their own drones to ceate a balance in warfare.
Anand Dec 12, 2011 08:51pm
Rights (constitutional or otherwise) come with responsibilities. Abuse of those Rights causes loss of these Rights. That si why we have prisions and execution chambers. Abuse of the Rights of sovereignty (to train terrorists, aid and abet in such, aid in launch attacks on others citizens) also is cause for loss of sovereignty. And societies collectively bear responsibilities for their actions. When it comes to War, entire societies suffer the consequences. Dont want drone attacks ? Then act responsible.
alam Dec 12, 2011 08:53pm
no other life is as valuable as the americans,others are subhumans.what a shame.i call this nation inhuman,shame.
Menon Dec 12, 2011 08:58pm
DRONE's does not KILL Civilians. The terrorists hiding amongst them and the people aiding and abetting them kill the civilians.
naseer nasar Dec 12, 2011 11:09pm
so drone attack is unlawful,talibans are also doing unlawful things....then who are on the wrong side?
Kanwal Dec 12, 2011 11:12pm
Prisons and execution chambers come after a FAIR TRIAL of the accused...Drone attacks are extra-judicial killings. Besides, loss of civilians who did not do anything to anybody and are probably already repressed by the militants and their sponsors, is the height of irresponsibility. Does that mean if the other side gets some nuclear or mass destruction weapon, they should also tell Drone-attackers : act responsible. Get over the video games. Its real life. The so-called colateral damage is downright inhuman.
Jamil M Chaudri Dec 12, 2011 11:57pm
America has used power indiscriminately only against weaker nations/groups. The idea is to stimulate research and development in those pathetic nations. Supposing 90% of the natives get killed and the other 10% are able to develop technology with which to retaliate, America will stop the drone attacks and make trade pacts with them. It is weakness that INVITES aggression. Stand up and die for your rights; or develop overwhelming response. The Call of the Wild, obeying the Law of the Wild: Kill or be Killed, Eat or be Eaten.
Vijay Dec 13, 2011 12:05am
Dear Atta, unfortunately those 14 innocent people you are talking about feed, cloth and take care of that 1 terorrist. And most important of all they tolerate his acts of voilence towards other nations, people and willingly or unwillingly provide him the support to act, which makes them accomplices and liable for action. Killing other people by blowing themselves up, supressing women, blowing up girls schools etc, all these definetely qualify the definition of a terrorist and are neither against US Policies. The US is just doing the dirty work, that your own society or govt was supposed to do. Be thankful to god that u made enemies this way with US and not china.
Devendra Dec 13, 2011 12:48am
It never fails to amuse me as to how the Pakistani sovereignty is violated only when ISAF drones go after murderers who kill innocent Pakistani and Afghan civilians; but it is not violated by the fanatics who operate out of Pakistan without (or may be - with?) permission from the Pak Government? These Taliban and Al Qeida murderers have killed ten times more innocent Muslim civilians in Af-Pak then drones will ever kill. What a CROC?
KMR Overseas Dec 13, 2011 01:44am
Drones are being used only after getting intelligence inputs from Pakistan's army/ISI. Pakistan if wants either can stop the mission or shoot down drones. Shooting down surely would prove costly to Pakistan.
Mohammad A Dar Dec 13, 2011 03:17am
Yes drones do not kill innocent, criminals flying them do. If it was not criminality of the complaining criminals, no one had to pickup arms. One has to be blind to fundamental truth, to deny criminality of criminals,` cause of mayhem, not defence by victims cause of mayhem, as one suffering from mental dyslexia may claim in his ignorance.
Shafi Dec 13, 2011 03:48am
Drones are only being used against weak countries that are unable to retaliate ore unable to shoot them down. If the US enemies were hiding in Russia or China US would not dare to use these drones.Remember U2. The response would be devastating.
Muhammad Ahmed Mufti Dec 13, 2011 04:14am
All arguments, arrogance and eloquence in favor of drone attacks will evaporate if one puts him/her self in place of a drone victim.
ajaz-ur-rahman Dec 13, 2011 10:27am
Anand, yes you are right in saying that rights comes with responsiblity. but how will you address the people who are killed along and labeled "colletral damage". I am sure if your loved one have been lost in such colletral damage, your views have been different.
Anil Sharma ( India Dec 13, 2011 10:28am
The extend of using drones shows the depth of cowardice. It is also an inaccurate technology, that is why, it killed 28 Pakistani soldiers, by mistake. Nations should not cooperate with the USA ( as allies ) in fights of any nature using these experimental drones. The nation of cowards and paranoids ( USA ) expects foot soldiers from South Asian countries to do their wars for the wages the pay and get killed either by their enemies of by their drones.
Ralph Dec 13, 2011 10:50am
This is only the beginning of "robotic type weaponry" about to be unleashed on several parts of the world. As the US explores the use of solar powered factories that mainly use robots for assembly, the cost of robotic devices becomes very inexpensive. The American robotic weapons manufacturing will increase as American troops come back home with arms and legs missing and highly unstable mental capabilities (very high suicidal rate). US energy companies and weapon manufacturers are the main benefactor as they stand to gain billions more in profits by keeping the flames of war fanned for their hidden agenda. They keep the US lobbying/political machine well funded.
Saad Dec 13, 2011 11:10am
If these attacks were happening in your country, you wouldnt have the same opinion. You seem to have read much but you are far from intelligent. You better get your mind checked because if it was your mother, father, brother, sister, kids etc then you would be outraged. Before commenting you should always put yourself in other shoes.
bhu_kh Dec 13, 2011 11:21am
Drone are like terrorists who kill innocent people, to prove their political point. Human society should ban both.
Ahmed Dec 13, 2011 11:25am
As mentioned by Atta, what is the definition of a terrorist? From where we stand, its simply what US wants it to be. Pakistan has faced several cross border attacks from Afghanistan, meaning terrorists are based there. So should Pakistan send in forces and carry out attacks? Of course, then it will be violation of rights. And when it comes to society, we have taken more hits from these elements than the international community. Pointing fingers at every chance one gets wont solve problems, but trying to resolve issues mutually might.
Shankar Dec 13, 2011 12:18pm
To surmise that drones target innocent citizens is not correct. While it will be insensitive to call the victims as "collateral damage", it has to be said that drones can be an effective weapon. Baitullah Mehsud besides scores of other terrorists will vouch for that. It is also no secret that the terrorists use human shields to create just this kind of an impression around the world. On the other hand, the US has been a little indiscriminate in its use of drones. They must have a better mechanism of vetting the targets before they launch the drones after them.
Insha Allah Dec 13, 2011 12:24pm
Its like insects fearing Mosquito coils
SJ Dec 13, 2011 12:59pm
So you're justifying the killing of women and children for 1 militant. I guess then 9/11 makes perfect sense ... must be some terrorists in those buildings too that needed to be killed with the rest
Tajammal Dec 13, 2011 02:37pm
You want to prove drone attacks legal and noble task.
R.Kannan Dec 13, 2011 02:38pm
I am not sure how much choice the "14 innocents" have. Terrorists are known to barge into houses in remote areas and the local population has to take care of them for fear of their lives. The real tragedy is that the innocents get killed while terrorists and their supporters get minimal punishment.
Khan Wali Dec 13, 2011 02:46pm
So the Americans are doing a noble work by attacking drones.
shafi Dec 13, 2011 03:01pm
It was not the drones that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.
Romi Dec 13, 2011 05:39pm
Among all this debate, there is one point we can all agree on... If the terrorists stop operating from Pakistan, then the drone attacks will stop. However if the drone attacks stop today, then the terrorists won't stop operating from Pakistan. The solution to the drone attacks is clear. Get rid of the terrorists. But some people here just don't want to admit it.
Ahmed Dec 13, 2011 05:57pm
Think of a scenario where a drone operator who is flying the machine from thousands of miles away kills his target along with some civilians, this act will be considered a legitimate war action kill. The same person after performing his/her duty leaves the flying control room in USA to rejoin next morning. In the meantime mixes in with civilians, goes to bar, shopping, family etc and is attacked and killed with various other innocent civilians, would that be considered a legitimate kill or a crime? Where do you draw a line where you consider that as legitimate war kill or illegitimate terror act?
Agha Ata Dec 13, 2011 06:54pm
Lets be realistic. All what Americans need is a positive assurance that there will never be another 9/11 in their country caused by the people living in this region. Can we give them this.
Solomon2 Dec 13, 2011 08:02pm
Yes, the U.S. should not have acquiesced to the wishes of Pakistani officials to engage in denial; we should have insisted that since the U.S. is pursuing anti-Pakistani terrorists with its drones Pakistan must openly endorse their presence. But when was the last time a Pakistani politician took a political risk?
saurabh Dec 14, 2011 01:31am
he yes you are right
Simon Dec 14, 2011 05:37am
You hit it right on the head. Thanks.
El Cid Dec 14, 2011 11:16am
Words of a responsible thoughtful person...
habib Dec 14, 2011 12:09pm
I will question the extent of "realistic". Can someone be that much realistic to check out who actually carried out 9/11 program and what were the actual motives? OR we should blindly believe on the US accounts of event about 9/11 that that even American people are not believing any more.
khalis Dec 17, 2011 07:20pm
any weapon be it a robotic drone or a knife used for cutting vegetables can harm a person. its upon the user and ethics of it more over the level of correctness of logistics that the killed target is a terrorist or a civilian. it is also possible that terrorist may create a scenario where they fool spy agencies that the target they identified is actually a terror hide out but in reality it is a house having women, children and old people. it should have been thoroughly investigated but i think its too late to hear anyone's allegation