THE Obama administration chose the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden to break its doctrine of silence over the CIA’s drone warfare.
The most aggressive operation yet that the CIA has been carrying out in Pakistan and half a dozen other countries had remained one of Washington’s worst-kept secrets. Its existence had neither been accepted nor denied by US officials despite growing controversy surrounding the campaign which many critics describe as extrajudicial executions by remote-controlled unmanned Predators.
There has been mounting international concern over a tactic that has become the Obama administration’s weapon of choice against terrorism suspects. The use of armed drones to kill individuals in regions outside active battlefields also raises legal, ethical and political questions. For the first time in history, an intelligence agency of one country has been involved in such operations in other countries with which it is not officially at war.
In the first ever official public explanation of the CIA drone operations, White House adviser on counterterrorism John Brennan offered a vain defence of the controversial strikes against suspected militants declaring them “legal, ethical and wise”.
“There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat,” Mr Brennan declared while speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, a Washington-based think tank.
Ironically, the remarks came as Pakistan delivered its strongest public condemnation yet of the latest drone strike in North Waziristan calling the campaign “a total contravention of international law and established norms of interstate relations”. These opposing positions on the CIA’s drone operations inside Pakistani tribal regions remain a major source of tension between the two estranged allies which appears hard to resolve with no sign of the Obama administration relenting on the issue.
Once derided by his opponents as a dove and a Nobel Peace Prize winner, Obama is now being described by the US media as one of the most militarily hawkish American presidents in recent times. His approach marks a radical shift from Bush’s war on terror.
Instead of direct military interventions, Obama has relied on covert operations. As Roger Cohen, a columnist for New York Times, put it: “Drone attacks have become the coin of Obama’s realm.” This new way of fighting is aimed at physically eliminating terrorism suspects and all others perceived to be threatening American national security.
Inevitably, the latest drone weapon technology has expanded the use of force beyond active battlefields and is completely dehumanising war itself. Strikes carried out by operators sitting in front of a monitoring screen thousands of miles away from the targets raise the risk of developing, as a UN commission report said, a “play station mentality to killing”.
There has been a massive expansion in the use of armed drones since the installation of the Obama administration in January 2009. Now the CIA and the US air force are conducting drone strikes in at least six countries including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
There were four times as many drone strikes in Pakistan during the first two years of the Obama administration than in the entire Bush period. There have been 250 such attacks in Pakistan since 2009. That makes an attack every four days compared to every 43 under the Bush administration.
Justifying the strikes, Mr Brennan argued that the precision strikes have dramatically reduced the danger to US personnel and weakened Al Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents operating from Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions.
Indubitably, the targeted strikes in the remote tribal regions have eliminated many key Al Qaeda and militants commanders and thrown the terror network into disarray. But the success of this decapitation strategy remains questionable. A new generation of Al Qaeda leadership mostly comprising young Pakistani militants and Muslim recruits from other countries has emerged. The increasing number of civilian deaths have also stirred public anger and fuelled anti-American sentiments.
Meanwhile, a recent UN report warned that the growing use of armed drones by the US to kill terrorism suspects is undermining global constraints on the use of military force. A major concern is that the American example could be emulated by other countries to carry out attacks outside their borders against groups or individuals branding them as terrorists.
Some American officials maintain that one of the major reasons for not talking openly about the drone operations was to protect the foreign governments which had granted permission for strikes under secret deals. It is particularly true in Pakistan’s case.
For years, Pakistan, fearful of a public backlash, publicly condemned the attacks and denied any complicity, but the fact is that the drone strikes were carried out with the full knowledge and cooperation of the Pakistani civil and military leadership. The drones were mostly flown from Shamsi airbase in Balochistan until it was shut down by Pakistani authorities last year. In many cases, the intelligence was provided by the ISI.
It was only when the attacks became more frequent and indiscriminate fuelling public anger that Pakistan took a harder position against the drone operations. But it is important for the Pakistani leadership to publicly disclose the scope or limits of any permission granted in the past. Besides, Pakistan’s demand for stopping drone operations would not be taken seriously if it fails to combat the militants and terrorist groups operating from sanctuaries in the tribal areas. The presence of foreign militants on our soil is as much a threat to our sovereignty as are CIA drone strikes.
The writer is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre, Washington D.C.