Published on
The Sydney Morning Herald

America's Deadly Robots Rewrite the Rules of War

Paul McGeough

A predator drone. For the first time ever, a civilian intelligence agency is manipulating robots from halfway around the world in a program of extrajudicial executions in a country with which Washington is not at war.(AP Photo/U.S. Air Force, Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson)

The kohl-eyed Hakimullah Mehsud probably is dead. He was the target
for a missile fired last month from an unmanned aircraft hovering over
the Afghan-Pakistani border - but launched by an operator in the US.

was the ruthless mastermind of multiple suicide bomb attacks in
Pakistan. He was part of a suicide mission on December 30 at Khost,
just across the border in Afghanistan, which killed seven CIA agents
who were working on the covert operation that now appears to have ended
Mehsud's brief and brutal leadership of the Taliban in Pakistan.

the artistry of war, the insertion of a Jordanian double-agent who
detonated his explosive vest inside this super-sensitive CIA bunker was
flawless. But, in their payback, the enraged Americans confirmed the
breadth of a new horizon in modern warfare - launching 15 clinical
drone attacks in which more than 100 people died along the border, as
Washington's electronic eyes and guns sought out Mehsud and his Taliban
and al-Qaeda allies.

War does not get more radical than this - technically, politically and, perhaps, ethically.

for the first time ever, a civilian intelligence agency is manipulating
robots from halfway around the world in a program of extrajudicial
executions in a country with which Washington is not at war.

too: the drone wars were initiated under the presidency of George Bush.
But it is the Democrat Barack Obama who has given them flight and
stumped up sufficient funding to spark serious debate on the end of the
''Top Gun'' era of the fighter-pilot.

And there is
this: despite decades of American disquiet about assassinations abroad
and a shrill Republican critique of him as a security wuss, the
professorial Obama is the new killer on the block, authorising more
drone attacks in the first year of his term in office than Bush did in
his entire presidency.

At the White House these days
they hold their breath, praying for a turnaround in the war in
Afghanistan to vindicate Obama's gamble in dispatching 50,000 more
young Americans to a conflict some deem unwinnable.

confidence in the use of state-sanctioned lethal force in the
undeclared American war in neighbouring and nuclear-armed Pakistan
borders on the giddy. "The only game in town" was how CIA director Leon
Panetta described it last year.

As a covert
operation, insufficient data is released to judge its efficacy. It took
publication by the Pakistani media of Google Earth images of Predator
aircraft on the ground at a base in Pakistan to elicit oblique CIA
confirmation that the program actually operated there. Last month a CIA
spokesman, Paul Gimigliano, only said the agency's ''counter-terrorism
operations - lawful, aggressive, precise and effective - continue
without pause".

Mehsud's is an impressive scalp of
war - for Washington and Islamabad. He had been in the leadership post
for just five months after his predecessor of two years, Baitullah
Mehsud, suffered a similar fate in August.

The first
drone strikes of the new presidency took place on Obama's third day in
office - four Arabs, presumed to be al-Qaeda associates, died in a
strike in the border region. But as many as 16 members of the extended
family of a respected pro-government tribal elder died when the second
drone strike that day went terribly awry.

A study by
the New America Foundation last year found that just six of 41
CIA-launched drone attacks in the border region had targeted al-Qaeda
members. Eighteen of the targets were Taliban and 16 of them alone were
efforts to kill Baitullah Mehsud - which, depending on who did the
counting, racked up more than 300 additional civilian deaths.

Body-counting is a fraught business. Called Revenge of the Drones,
the NAF study concluded that, since January 2008, the American kill has
included ''about 20 leaders of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and allied groups
... in addition to hundreds of lower-level militants and civilians. Under
President Obama, the strikes have taken out at most [a] half-dozen
militant leaders while also killing as many as 530 others - of those,
around 250 to 400 are reported to have been lower-level militants,
about three-quarters; and about a quarter appear to have been


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The number of civilian deaths and their
implication are hotly debated - because of the extent to which they
inflame anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and because the vaporised
death of a target denies any opportunity to capture and interrogate him.

Writing in The New York Times,
the counter-insurgency experts David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum decried
the toll. Citing a civilian figure of 700, they extrapolated a civilian
loss of 98 per cent of deaths or 50 civilians for each militant

Bill Roggio, the managing editor of the
respected American blog The Long War Journal, goes to the other
extreme, claiming only 10 per cent of those killed could be described
as civilians.

After a detailed study of media and other reports from the border region, Revenge of the Drones takes a middle course, opting for a civilian toll of about one-third of those killed.

like their political and military leaders, Pakistanis give conflicting
signals on the drone wars. Last summer a Gallup poll found only 10 per
cent support for the attacks, but about half in a study of 550
professional people living in the border region described the strikes
as accurate, and a little more than half estimated that the strikes
damaged the militants without increasing anti-US sentiment.

changed ground rules making extrajudicial killing more acceptable are a
product of post-September 11 thinking. In 2001 Bush overturned
President Gerald Ford's 1976 prohibition on assassinations by US
intelligence agencies - but there's something else in the works, too.

its loyalty to Israel, the Bush administration condemned Israel's
campaign of targeted assassinations in the Palestinian Occupied
Territories in the weeks before the September 11 attacks on New York
and Washington. But, as critics of the drone wars struggle to get
traction in public debate, it is curious that in the absence of any
negative reaction to Obama's expansion of his remote killing program
last year, the former Bush administration was under attack for
revelations that it had considered dispatching more traditional
hit-squads abroad to take out al-Qaeda operatives.

Forty-four countries now use unmanned aircraft for surveillance - only the US and Israel deploy them as killers.

the first weeks of his presidency Obama reportedly wrestled with the
moral and strategic implications of the program. But, as reported in The New York Times, he pointedly declared to one of his earliest Situation Room gatherings: "The CIA gets what it needs."

American Civil Liberties Union explained in a Freedom of Information
application last month: "It appears ... that lethal force is being
exercised by individuals who are not in the military chain of command,
are not subject to military rules and discipline; and do not operate
under any other public system of accountability or oversight."

A Democrat's targeted killings, it seems, are not quite the same as those of a Republican.

first drones flew before the September 11 attacks - searching for Osama
bin Laden. Now the US Air Force estimates that about 15 per cent of its
$US230 billion ($260 billion) arms-procurement program will be spent on
robot equipment within five years.

Predators can fly
700 kilometres, then hover for 30 hours at a stretch, feeding real-time
video and other data through 10 simultaneous streams to controllers in
10 locations. Priced at $US4.5 million, Predators carry sensors that
intercept electronic signals and listen in on phone conversations - and
they carry missiles. The newer Reapers cost $US17 million and can fly
nearly 6000 kilometres.

The US Air Force now has more drone operators in training than fighter and bomber pilots.

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