Drone Wars

Well kiddies, guess who just got an op-ed published in The Cairo Review. Guess this makes me some kind of international policy thing now.

 Warfare is partly defined by the images of its weapons, from medieval knights in armor clashing on the battlefield to the mushroom clouds of modern nuclear weapons. For warfare in the twenty-first century, consider the image of a video screen. In September 2000, the counter-terrorism advisor in the White House, Richard A. Clarke, watched a video of a tall man in white robes. The man was probably Osama Bin Laden, who by that time had organized the attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. The man’s location was a compound outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. The videographer was a robot, an RQ-1 Predator drone aircraft.

Clarke, along with two senior Central Intelligence Agency officials who were also present, Cofer Black and Charles E. Allen, recognized the Predator’s potential to revolutionize national security by providing real-time intelligence for precision missile strikes—using manned or unmanned weapons—on enemy targets. Then they put the idea aside, waiting for an opportunity when a drone mission might be the best weapon for a job. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC, armed drones were targeting terrorists as well as providing air support for Special Forces troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. One decade later, the armed Predator is a key instrument of American statecraft. Missiles launched by the drones rain down over the tribal areas of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, killing figures linked to Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, such as Anwar Al-Awlaki, Baitullah Mehsud, and Badar Mansoor, as well as thousands of foot soldiers and a significant number of civilians.

All of this is happening without very much awareness in the United States. The Pakistani government, the American Civil Liberties Union, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Amnesty International—among others—have condemned the ethics and legality of America’s Drone Wars. The strikes are deemed violations of national sovereignty and a tool of war that inevitably leads to the deaths of innocent civilians. These moral and legal arguments are important, but they have failed to stop the Drone Wars, or even initiate serious public debate on the uses, merits, and limitations of this kind of warfare. Perhaps before asking questions like “Is the Predator drone an ethical weapon?” or “Is its use in this particular conflict within the boundaries of international law?”, it is important to understand what the Predator drone is, how it came to be armed, how the armed drone changes military capabilities, and—most important­—how the drone program evades democratic accountability.

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