London–President Obama apologized for ordering drones to hit a target in Pakistan that killed two al-Qaeda hostages, one an American, one an Italian. After being pushed out of the news for a while by beheadings in Syria and foreign intervention in a civil war in Yemen, the fatal strike is sure to revive the debate over the wisdom, effectiveness and legality of using drones.
By some counts, 2400 people have been killed by drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia during the Obama Administration, about 300 of them civilians. The covert nature of the attacks makes it all but impossible both to gauge the impact on the “war on terror.” Human Rights Watch noted that when civilians are killed, investigations are nil, due to the lack of transparency in the program. Supposedly, improved technology has reduced the chances of civilian deaths.
The Obama administration has tried to keep details of its strikes hits and misses under wraps. Is this warfare or not very accurate assassination? If it’s assassination, aren’t you supposed to know who you are killing?
Secret operations like the drone targeted killing program and massive spying are two hallmarks of Obama’s war policy.
During the last years of the Bush Administration, I first saw a drone in action, indirectly, on a TV screen in a van under a tent in Iraq, where a colonel was watching one cruise over a southern Iraqi town. It was night, yet blurry images of people on the move could be seen darting in silence among buildings.
Nothing happened, but I wondered just what the ground rules for an attack would have been and just who would be held responsible if something went wrong. The colonel said the same could be asked on any battlefield. Glitches happen. And, he queried, why is a drone worse than a cruise missiles or Katyusha rockets.
It will be interesting to see whether drone use will be a controversial issue in the upcoming US presidential election. It is my bet that no candidate and certainly not the winner will give up on the program. They will all see it as a necessity for use against jihadists who threaten the United States and a means, as President Bush once said, taking the fight to them. They will consider it a preferable alternative to the cost and risks of sending in ground troops.
This is a critical history from The Nation.
The Council on Foreign Relations chimes in on “targeted killings” and the administration’s defense.