The ‘good’ drones

Apr 25 2012


THE pine-topped lush landscape of Seattle, Washington, with its hills and rain-soaked greenery could not be more different from the craggy, burnished plains of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Yet despite the landscape at which they stare down, the skies above the former will soon be hosting the same wide-winged, aerial vehicles that are known so well on the edges of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

According to the Federal Aviation Authority Modernisation and Reform Act of 2012, signed into law by President Obama this February, all US local law-enforcement authorities will be required to make arrangements for the “safe integration of civilian drones into American airspace” by the year 2015.

The drones could be owned and operated by private individuals as well as law-enforcement. The law does not specify whether it refers only to unarmed drones for surveillance or armed ones for law-enforcement purposes.

The passage of the act has catapulted the drone issue, from a remote distant problem concerning only Afghanistan-Pakistan issues, to one front and centre in the American public sphere.

In its statement, the American Civil Liberties Union insisted that while it saw the utility of unarmed drones to accomplish basic government missions, it was seriously concerned that “the use of drones can really change the relationship of people with the government”.

Disapproving sentiments are not limited to watchdog groups alone. A Rasmussen poll conducted in February, soon after the passage of the act, found that only 30 per cent of American voters approve of any sort of drones flying in American skies.

In the last weekend of April, a drone summit is expected to convene in Washington D.C. bringing together activists, lawyers and citizen groups together to formulate a comprehensive strategy to push back against the government’s use of armed and unarmed drones in the US and elsewhere.

In Pakistan, the debate on armed drones has centred largely on issues of sovereignty and transparency, questions of who flies the drones and who selects the targets being the pivotal concerns. As a consequence, most believe that the problems surrounding drones could be solved if the technology was in Pakistani, as opposed to American, hands.

One story reported by Public Radio International asserted that a Pakistani drone which is to be called ‘Burraq’ is already being developed with the Chinese. According to the report, Pakistani drones have not only begun to be made but also have a long history.

Many have been developed by a private engineer named Raja Sabri Khan. Mr Khan admits to having sold designs to an unnamed company in the US and to the fact that drone design is not a new concept in Pakistan. Both he and retired Pakistani general Talat Masood, also quoted in the story, admit that drones whether American or Pakistani, are part of Pakistan’s future.

It makes sense then to ask whether the problems Pakistanis currently attach to armed drones would simply dissipate if they were controlled by pilots in the Pakistan Air Force. Those holding this position would have to argue that the problem with drones is poised not on technology but strategy, making the foreign nature of the operation more problematic than its unmanned remote aspect.

If armed drones were operated by the Pakistani military against their own population, there would be more care, fewer missing bodies, less collateral damage and greater transparency. That, of course, is what the optimists rooting for Pakistani control of drones would say.

Human rights activists are wary of this solution, less amenable to believing that a controller sitting in a Pakistani airbase instead of an American one would somehow be more careful, less cavalier about pushing the kill button simply by virtue of his or her nationality. Their issue with armed drones is not the nationality of the controller but the inherent disparity of the encounter; the reduction of human beings to moving dots and homes to coordinates.

For the unmanned variety, the problem shifts from the temptation of not looking closely enough, to looking too closely and too intently at things never meant to be seen at all. Like a virtual raid, whose knowledge may never be possessed by anyone but the raiders, the drone that watches everything leaves nothing concealed from the eyes of the state or the vigilante.

The rights issues mentioned above have curious iterations in the Pakistani context where the staunchest opponents of drones seem to have problems not with the technology, its insidious inequality as a killing machine or mockery of individual privacy. In their vociferous speeches against drones, no one in the Difaa-i-Pakistan Council for example ever mentions these points.

Drones are bad indeed, but only because they are a curse imposed by a foreign power. Armed drones in the service of their own projects, to kill their own enemies, or unarmed ones to enforce strict moral codes on one and all would be quite welcome. A moral police with a fleet of drones that could see anything, anytime might well be every religious conservative’s fantasy force.

Made in Pakistan or the US, fulfilling one political or strategic objective or another, drones are here to stay. Articulating opposition to arming them, and insisting on controls that circumscribe their limits does not consequently mean denying the wrongs that have instigated their use.

The colonisation of the private sphere by terrorists who hide behind women and children, intentionally pushing them in the path of missiles, the use of village homes as safe havens by those guilty of killing hundreds in suicide bombings is one of the most despicable tactics of warfare that the world has ever seen. The challenge in responding to them is not to simply, blindly oppose armed or unarmed drones, but to oppose them for the right reasons.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.