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America’s drone issue

February 12, 2013

OVER the last few weeks, particularly in the week preceding the congressional hearings for confirmation of Obama’s new CIA director, much has appeared in the American and international media about the role of drones in Washington’s war against terror.

What new or old information has all the hard news, commentary and testimony in the confirmation hearings of John Brennan and, less importantly, Secretary of State John Kerry brought us? And what does this portend for our region — the principal operational area for CIA-operated drones?

Let me include in this column the facts that were revealed or repeated before moving on in a subsequent article to what this means for Pakistan and the region.

Despite the many learned commentaries questioning the efficacy of drones as a counter-terrorism tool, in the absence of efforts to win hearts and minds, the American public supports their use by an overwhelming majority. A Washington Post-ABC poll conducted last year showed that 83 per cent of Americans approved the use of drones against suspected terrorists overseas. There is no indication that this level of support has dropped.

One respected expert and critic of drone attacks, Micah Zenko of the Council for Foreign Relations, says that the total number of deaths since 2004 is more than 3,000.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism based in the UK, estimates that in Pakistan 3,461 people were killed since 2004; 891 were civilians. Our own interior ministry has been quoted in our newspapers as saying that 2,670 people have been killed in Pakistan, and of them 487, including 171 children and 43 women, were civilians. Senator Dianne Feinstein at the Brennan hearing maintained, while calling for greater transparency, that the annual civilian death toll from drone attacks was in the single digits.

Only one American public source, the New American Foundation, supports this maintaining that total civilian deaths were six in 2011 and five in 2012. The Long War Journal, however, puts the figure at 30 in 2011 and 39 in 2012 and the other sources quoted would also seem to suggest at least double-digit civilian fatalities.

There is some concern on the part of experts, such as former US commander in Afghanistan, Gen (retd) Stanley McChrystal, that the American public did not appreciate the anger that drone attacks provoked, implying that they thus proved counterproductive.

Congressional concern, however, focused not on this aspect but largely on the use of drones to kill American citizens without due process of law. (Of the three American citizens killed in Yemen one was a 16-year old.) There did not appear to be much of a push to stop the programme but there was a clear push for greater congressional and judicial oversight. What did seem likely was that the drone programme’s operation would be transferred from the CIA to the defence department which by law would be required to provide more information to Congress.

It also appeared that the Obama administration would go along with the demand that approval of drone attacks be obtained from a special court. This would be a replication of the court set up to approve administration requests for surveillance and wiretapping of suspect American citizens.

Secretary Kerry at his confirmation hearings appeared to recognise that the drone campaign was presenting a very negative image of America, stating that the US had to make sure that “American foreign policy is not defined by drones and deployments alone”. However, there were no concrete indications in his testimony of how this was to be done.

Brennan in his testimony asserted that “I think the American people would be quite pleased to know that we’ve been very disciplined, very judicious, and we only use these authorities and these capabilities as a last resort.” Is this so?

The Obama administration in 2009 decided to end the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on suspected terrorists captured by US agencies and even more importantly ended the programme of “extraordinary rendition” under which suspected terrorists detained by US or allied forces were handed over or detained in other countries where less than savoury methods were used to extract confessions and information.

The Open Society Foundation’s recently released report states that some 54 countries including Pakistan, Syria and Iran participated in this programme in various ways “including by hosting CIA prisons on their territories; detaining, interrogating, torturing, and abusing individuals….”

It would be safe to surmise that deprived of these tools US officials — notably Brennan himself — may well have reasoned that drone strikes were the answer to the problem even though they carried the risk of alienating the very people whose cooperation would be needed to strike at the roots of terrorism. Certainly the initiation of signature strikes, a notable feature of recent drone strikes in Pakistan, could not be termed “a last resort”.

In 2001 the United States had less than 200 drones. Now there are some 7,500 of which more than a few hundred are armed. It seems that far from being discarded as a tool, drones will be used even more extensively in the future. Two years ago a new secret base was set up in Saudi Arabia and was apparently the principal launching pad for drone operations in Yemen against the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Negotiations are under way with Niger to set up a base in that country under the African command for unarmed surveillance drones. We can anticipate that it will soon thereafter acquire lethal Predators to kill the terrorists that surveillance has identified and who cannot be captured easily.

An MQ-9 Reaper, the hunter-killer drone costs $27 million, a fraction of the cost of a modern fighter aircraft. Its use eliminates the risk to the pilot that would arise if manned aircraft were to be used or the loss of American soldiers if Special Operation Forces were deployed to capture suspected terrorists. Given this situation, it appears that Americas reputation for being a nation of laws will be sacrificed at the altar of the prime objective of eliminating imagined or real terrorist threats.

Legalisms, as one observer put it, will be used to justify what is illegal in international and domestic US law but even these legalisms will be abandoned in the case of our region as will be explained in a subsequent column.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.