Since September 11, 2001, the number of U.S. military drones has expanded to over 7,000. Over the past eight years, the Bush and Obama Administration authorized approximately 400 combined drone strikes in Pakistan. Of those strikes, nearly 300 were authorized by President Obama in the last four years. We have killed numerous Al-Qaeda operatives and Taliban fighters, and have crippled both networks to the point where leaders are becoming more difficult to replace. According to a January 2012 U.S. Congressional Report, drones eliminate the risk to a pilot’s life, are not bound by human limitations, and more cost-effective to operate than conventional aircraft. In fact, drone missile strikes are more efficient in preserving civilian life while eliminating key militant targets. The emergence of drone technology is winning the global war on terrorism and reducing the likelihood of troop casualties.
That was our initial assessment until The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic conducted its own investigations into U.S. drone operations in Pakistan since 2004. Their reports highlight a disturbing and significant discovery in which drone strikes have killed more civilians than militant leaders. The Obama Administration rarely acknowledges civilian casualties; however, TBIJ reports that “from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children, and an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals injured”. Even more striking are the number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%. In other words, our drone strikes are more successful at killing low-level targets and civilians. The reports also highlight the abuse of drone usage by the CIA relying on inaccurate intelligence on the ground, which has led to more civilian casualties. Some of these casualties include aid workers and first-responders that arrive on the scene of a fresh drone strike to assist the injured, only to have another drone missile strike in the same area. As a result, we are being pressured by the Pakistani Government, civil society, and international humanitarian groups to stop our drone strikes.
In addition, there are two separate, but related issues that require attention. First, we are beginning to witness the next threat to U.S. national security and interests at home and abroad: drone proliferation. Our future plans to share or sell drone technology to allies would be a major mistake. In fact, we have learned that multiple countries have already begun to manufacture and operate their own drones. For example, unconfirmed reports claim Iran has built silent drones capable of vertical take-off and landing and have flown them over to Israeli bases. In October 2012, Hezbollah, a terrorist organization with close ties with Iran, launched a drone that traveled 25 miles into Israeli airspace and was eventually shot down by Israeli forces. It is also rumored that on November 14th, 2012, Hamas militant leader Ahmed al-Jabari was killed by a missile from an Israeli drone in Gaza. These events shows that we are entering a new era in warfare in which conventional usage of military forces are becoming more obsolete. Second, we are starting to implement drone technology into our law enforcement agencies to improve domestic surveillance. Some interest groups have argued this to be unconstitutional, violating civil liberties and severely reducing right to privacy. This can eventually lead to domestic extremism in which radical groups will incite riots and violence against the U.S. government.
What Should We Do Next?
Drone strikes in Pakistan are creating a new generation of individuals who do not support U.S. military actions. We will not win the hearts and minds of the people if we cannot preserve and save innocent lives. If the U.S. military and the CIA continue their drone strikes, there must be an effort to improve its precision, accuracy, and intelligence. The reason why many civilians have died from drone strikes is the unreliable intelligence obtained by sources at the local level. False and unreliable information are constantly fed to the CIA and the U.S. military by local informants on the ground. Many of these opportunistic informants have personal vendettas against neighbors and other rivals. They use our drones as an opportunity to strike back at their enemies and/or claim financial rewards. Most of them do not have ties to Islamic extremism. This is a growing problem that needs to be resolved immediately. We need to implement a system in which information from local informants and sources can be verified. For this to happen, the CIA and the U.S. military must reevaluate its collection and verification methods on the ground. For instance, we may need to collect and verify information from multiple sources in order to give authorization to future drone strikes rather than rely on quick and questionable intelligence. This can be time-consuming, but would increase the likelihood of an accurate and precise drone strike on high-level targets.
Furthermore, the U.S. is not the only country capable of fielding drones. The preference for drones in combat and surveillance is increasing in the Middle East and Asia. There is a huge demand for drones on the global market and weapons manufacturers continue to sell them without restrictions. China, Russia, and Iran possess the means to manufacture their own drones and could exchange its technology with other countries or non-state actors. Unfortunately, we do not have control over which state and/or non-state actors should possess this emerging tool of war due to uncertain or non-existent boundaries that prevent countries from abusing its use. For example, the use of armed drones directly challenges international law, specifically violation of sovereignty, self-defense, and human rights. The Obama Administration is setting a dangerous precedent in which drones can be used to legally target individuals in a foreign, sovereign state such as Pakistan. There are also numerous reports that Syria is using Iranian drones to coordinate attacks against rebels. What will stop other countries from doing the same? What could stop terrorist organizations from obtaining armed drones and flying them into heavy civilian-populated areas? And how will the U.S. respond? We need to consider methods to reduce or regulate drone proliferation because so far, proliferation is out of control and will have global political and legal implications. The first step is to reduce our frequent usage of drone strikes in Pakistan. We should not completely eliminate the use of armed drones, but emphasize more on joint cooperation with Pakistan forces to decrease its dependence. In other words, return the sense of sovereignty to Pakistan and hope they view our reduction of drones as their opportunity to eliminate Islamic extremism and reassert authority in the region. The second step involves introducing new laws to restrict manufacture and usage of armed drones throughout the world. This would be seen as a long-term proposal to prevent further drone proliferation. Not many countries will be convinced by the dangers of a global drone arms race, but we should take the lead in assuming responsibility and show the rest of the world that drone proliferation will have serious consequences.
Finally, law enforcement agencies are advocating the use of drones to improve domestic surveillance. Drones are currently being used to patrol the U.S.-Mexican border, but the police want to expand its use to encompass chasing criminals, monitoring protests, recording suspicious activity. In fact, law enforcement agencies have discussed arming drones with non-lethal weapons like tasers and rubber bullet guns to suppress criminal activity. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations prevent drones, particularly UAVs, from flying through U.S. airspace because the technology is not sufficient enough to avoid collision with other airplanes. However, the FAA is beginning to reconsider changing its policies, and this brings up a serious question of constitutionality. Many Americans view the U.S. slowly transitioning from a democracy to a police state, and the domestic usage of drones as a further violation to civil liberties and rights to privacy. This can lead to future consequences such as increase in civil unrest and extremism against U.S. government policies. We will become more worried about controlling our population within our own borders than preventing terrorist attacks from abroad. Because of this, an expansion of drone usage within the U.S. would become a terrible idea.
Samuel Woo is an Analyst at 361Security