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Since 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror, armed military drones have become an intrinsic part of U.S. military tactics. They have also become the weapon of choice for the CIA and U.S. international counterterrorism strategies. The Obama administration embraced drones as a low-cost method of fighting covert wars. The expansion of the U.S. drone programme under Obama has been highly secretive and largely unregulated. Drones have been used frequently in countries outside legal battle spaces, such as Pakistan and Somalia, to locate and kill terrorists. This has created an unregulated international drone system. With President Trump’s increased volatility and the proliferation of drones across the world, the lack of regulation has dangerous implications for the future of conflict. The increased use of these violent methods to eliminate enemies of the U.S. in territories not at war with the country represents worrying implications for sovereignty, international law, ethics and the future of non-violent conflict resolutions.
Under Obama’s two terms there was a total of 563 drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; a huge amount in comparison to the 57 strikes under President Bush. While the Obama administration insisted that drones are “exceptionally surgical and precise,” the exact figures of the civilian casualties by drones are unclear. Official U.S. data released last year states that between 64 and 116 civilians have been killed during these strikes. This sharply contrasts figures collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which estimates civilian casualties are six times higher.
The inconsistencies in this data emerge due to the way in which U.S. forces identify ‘civilians’ and ‘combatants.’ U.S. forces use broad definitions that categorize all military age males in a strike zone as combatants. This definition led the New York Times to accuse Obama of “presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers.” It appears as though the drone strikes are not as ‘precise’ as some would assume.
The introduction of signature strikes has exacerbated the fogginess of drone civilian casualties. These strikes allow targets to be fired upon if they fit a ‘pattern of life’ that is deemed to be that of a terrorist. Such strikes raise serious ethical concerns and also challenge international laws governing the use of force. Thus, individuals are targeted based on limited visual data from the drone itself, and killed extrajudicially.
For civilians, living in the areas U.S. drones operate is difficult. Drones undermine the social fabric that allow societies to function. The constant fear of attack from the predatory skies puts a huge strain on people living in drone areas such as the tribal areas of Pakistan.
“When children hear the drones, they get really scared, and they can hear them all the time so they’re always fearful that the drone is going to attack them,” an unidentified Pakistani man told the Atlantic. “Because of the noise, we’re psychologically disturbed, women, men, and children. … Twenty-four hours, a person is in stress and there is pain in his head.”
This causes people to take their children out of school and avoid markets, funerals and any social gatherings in fear that they will be classified as threats. “We can’t go to the markets. We can’t drive cars. When they’re hovering over us, we’re all scared. One thinks they’ll drop it on our house, and another thinks it’ll be on our house, so we run out of our houses,” said another Pakistani man named Fahad Mirza in the Atlantic.
At a more political level, these U.S. drone strikes are creating issues of legitimacy. In Pakistan, most people believe the excessive use of drones to be unfair. These individuals also view the presence of U.S. drones in Pakistan to be a violation of sovereignty. The public witnesses the endless U.S. strikes and believe their government can do little to stop the programme in their territory, thus eroding the legitimacy of the Pakistani government. Former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari outlined this political cost by saying, “Continuing drone attacks on our country, which result in loss of precious lives or property, are counterproductive and difficult to explain by a democratically elected government. It is creating a credibility gap.” This is causing a shift in public and political rhetoric. People are increasingly anti-drones and against the U.S. presence in Pakistan. A Pew Research Center poll in June 2012 revealed that 74 per cent of Pakistanis now consider the United States an enemy.
Additionally, drones strikes help to swell the ranks of the extremists they are targeting. When we consider the psychological effects of drones strikes and the anger and grieving they deliver, we can see how strikes could cause more recruitment. This is a negative side effect for both host countries and the U.S. as it further increases the threat from the terrorist groups, thus failing to meet their strategic objectives and creating a seemingly endless cycle of death.
Drones are ethically unjust. While they may serve as an effective tactic, the use of drones is a bad strategy. As a result, a proliferation of drones could be dangerous. There is a danger that drone strikes will only increase and normalize acts of extrajudicial violence, making peaceful options a less popular choice in the international order. Drones may lower the threshold of the last resort element of the Just War tradition because they allow quick and cheap action without putting boots on the ground. If drone strikes become normalized as acts outside of warfare, there will be considerably less support for non-violent diplomatic attempts at peace.
There are now 680 drone programmes around the world including state and non-state actors. It is clear that the drone arms race has begun. Obama’s failure to create an international framework of norms for drones may be his worst legacy. Without one, there is a serious danger that the lack of ethics and ineffectiveness of military drones described in this article will only proliferate. Equally, the lack of regulation is worrying as Trump has inherited the U.S. drone programme and is significantly less preoccupied with ethics and legalities as Obama was. While there has yet to be any significant alterations in the drones programme apart from the deployment of drones on the Korean border, a future world of drones looks very dangerous indeed.