Of Drone Wars and Buffalo Urine
Has the drone war in Pakistan's rugged frontier finally come home? Was Faisal Shahzad, the bumbling Times Square bomb maker, a blowback from the Obama administration's increased use of killer robots? David Sanger of The New York Times asks the question, and the New York Post says an "anonymous law enforcement" source claims Shahzad was driven to his act after witnessing drone attacks in Pakistan.
In fact, there is little evidence that the bomber ever saw drone assaults, or even that he received training. While one wing of the Pakistan Taliban initially claimed credit, they later denied it. If he was trained in Pakistan, it was by the Pakistani version of the Gang That Couldn't Bomb Straight.
But the question is real. And if the United States thought that killing people at a great distance was not likely to end up being a messy business, then the White House is deeply deluded.
The drone war has stirred up considerable anti-Americanism in Pakistan. Some of the designers of the current counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, have denounced it as a "technology" fix that has alienated Pakistanis by chalking up a kill ratio of 50 civilians for every targeted Taliban or al-Qaeda leader. "Every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement," the two wrote in The New York Times.
The number of civilian deaths caused by the drones is a sharply debated issue. The Long War Journal blog puts the number at around 30, Pakistani sources argue the figure is over a thousand, and a recent study by the New American Foundation concludes that civilian casualties make up about 30 percent of the fatalities.
But the word "civilian" is a slippery one, because no one knows exactly what criteria the United States uses to distinguish a "militant" from a civilian. Is someone with a gun a "militant"? Since large numbers of males in the frontier regions of Pakistan carry guns, that definition would end up targeting a huge number of people. Is someone who offers hospitality to a Taliban member a "militant," and thus a legitimate target, even if it includes his whole extended family?
Who is targeted and how those decisions are made are the subjects of a growing controversy that has sparked at least one lawsuit in the United States and spilled over into international law.
According to the CIA, the drone war is legal, although the intelligence organization refuses to even admit it is using the killer robots in Pakistan. "The agency's counterterrorism operations — lawful, aggressive, precise, and effective — continue without pause," says CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano.
No one disputes the program is "aggressive," particularly under the Obama administration, which has launched more drone attacks in a little over a year than the Bush administration did in eight.
Whether the attacks have been "precise" and "effective" is debatable. A drone did kill Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, but only after 16 tries in which over 300 people were killed, at least half of whom were civilians. The agency also took credit for killing Baitullah's successor, Hakimullah Mehsud, but reports of his demise turned out to be premature. The Pakistan Taliban leader surfaced in early May to claim credit for the Times Square bomber.
But "lawful" is promising to cause the Obama administration a major headache.
The CIA strikes are "a clear violation of international law," argues Notre Dame Law School professor Mary Ellen O'Connell, who says it would be like Mexican authorities bombing houses and hotels in the American Southwest because they may harbor drug lords.
In testifying before the House Subcommittee on National Security, Kenneth Anderson, a professor at Washington College of Law at American University warned that "CIA officers or for that matter military officers or their lawyers" could be called before "international tribunals or courts in Spain or some place that say you've engaged in extra judicial execution or simple murder and we're going to investigate and indict."
Last October, Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, said, "The CIA is running a program that is killing significant numbers of people, and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international law." He called on the United States "to reveal more about the ways in which it makes sure that arbitrary extrajudicial executions aren't, in fact, being carried out though the use of these weapons."
This lack of accountability is the target of a lawsuit, filed March 16 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), demanding "information on when, where and against whom drone strikes can be authorized, the number and rate of civilian casualties and other basic information essential for assessing the wisdom and legality of using armed drones to conduct targeted killings."
"The government's use of drones to conduct targeted killings raises complicated questions," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project. "These questions ought to be discussed and debated publicly, not resolved secretly behind closed doors."
However, the CIA has problems with being open that have nothing to do with national security. The agents and contractors who fly and direct the drones are civilians, who are prohibited from waging war by the Geneva Conventions.
"In terms of international armed conflict, those CIA agents are, unlike their military counterparts, but like the fighters they target, unlawful combatants," says Gary Solis, law professor and author of The Law of Armed Conflict. According to Solis, the CIA employees, like their targets, "are fighters without uniforms or insignia, directly participating in hostilities, employing armed force contrary to the laws and customs of war."
This is hardly an arcane legal issue. The Obama administration is in the process of vastly increasing the number of lethal drones for the U.S. military, adding everything from more Predators and Reapers — the current killers of choice — to unmanned attack aircraft and tanks, and tiny but deadly "nanobots."
Many of these will be directed by military personnel — next year the Air Force will train more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots — but some will end up with the CIA.
The Flaws of Super Weapons
For the time being, drones are super weapons. But they aren't the first, and it's instructive to consider a few examples from the past.
At one point in European history the armored knight was pretty much invincible, until someone figured out that a peasant welding a crossbow could bring down a very expensive piece of military technology with a simple bolt.
In Vietnam, the United States spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a sniffing device to seek concentrations of urine indicating enemy campsites, which would then be bombed by B-52s. The Vietnamese finessed that piece of high tech with buckets of buffalo pee hung in trees.
And NATO thought they had bombed Yugoslavia's armor back to the
Middle Ages during the Kosovo War, until they found out that most of
the "tanks" were wooden dummies with little primus stoves in them to
fool infrared detectors.
"The more the drone campaign works, the more it fails," says Naval Post Graduate School analyst John Arquilla. "Increased attacks only make the Pakistanis angrier at the collateral damage and the sustained violation of their sovereignty."
Drones are a high-tech solution to a deeply complex political problem. The longer they stalk the skies over Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the more difficult those political problems become. It is time to stop bombing and start talking.
© 2010 Foreign Policy in Focus