WASHINGTON: America’s campaign of assassinations by missile-laden drones could push the country down a slippery slope to endless war and hand other governments a playbook for murdering dissidents under the guise of combating terrorism.
So says a new report on the widening use of drones, President Barack Obama’s favored weapon of war. Published by the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank on security matters, the report was compiled by a panel headed by John Abuzaid, a former commander of the U.S. Central Command, and made up of senior former intelligence and military officials. The Stimson Center set up the panel in response to an Obama speech in May last year inviting contributions to a growing debate on drones. They are deeply unpopular in much of the world, even among U.S. allies, and at home criticism has focused on the secrecy surrounding what is officially known as “targeted killings.”
They began in 2002 under President George W. Bush and spiked sharply after Obama took office in 2009. By 2012, he had authorized six times as many drone strikes in Pakistan alone as Bush had in eight years in office, according to statistics compiled by the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. Although Obama scaled back the drone campaign last year, unmanned aerial vehicles – as they are officially known – continue hunting suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.
The report noted that the use of missile-laden drones “may create a slippery slope to continual or wider wars” and spelled out in unusually blunt detail how America’s remote-control war is seen around the world, outlining: “A covert multi-year killing program” based on a claim to “the legal right to kill any person it determines is a member of Al-Qaeda, or its associated forces, in any state on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret evidence, evaluated in a secret process by unknown and largely anonymous individuals.”
In a speech a year ago, Obama promised greater transparency and more accountability for drone operations, but the report says the administration has fallen short of that, with its current practice setting a precedent that other states might adopt. To drive home the point, it gives an example:
“Imagine, for instance, if Russia began to use UAV strikes to kill individuals opposed to its annexation of Crimea and its growing influence in Ukraine.
“Even if the United States strongly believed those targeted ... were all nonviolent political activists lawfully expressing their opinions, Russia could easily take a page out of the United States’ book and assert that the targeted individuals were members of anti-Russian terror groups with which Russia is in armed conflict. Pressed for evidence, Russia could simply repeat the words used by U.S. officials defending targeted killings.”
Routinely, U.S. officials have insisted that targeted killings comply with the law allowing action against “imminent threats” and have refused to release details on operations, arguing that doing so would endanger national security.
As the authors of the report see it, current U.S. practice raises a question: “Is the United States inadvertently handing abusive regimes a playbook for murdering those it considers politically inconvenient, under the guise of combating terrorism?”
While the U.S. has the world’s largest and most sophisticated fleet of drones, the report said, it does not have a monopoly on drone technology, and there is reason to fear increased instability and wider wars as more countries begin producing drones and mimicking American tactics.
The report gave no figures on the global spread of drones. But according to an estimate by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the number of states with drones, mostly unarmed, increased from 41 to 76 between 2004 and 2011 and is still rising.
So far, the only countries that have used drones to kill opponents are the United States, Britain and Israel, which is the world’s largest exporter of drones, and does not comment on whether its vehicles can be fitted with rockets.
China, Russia and Iran are reported to possess armed drones. In Europe, aerospace companies from Greece, France, Italy, Spain and Sweden are jointly developing an armed drone.
The Stimson report acknowledges that drones “are here to stay” but questions how effective they have been in America’s fight against Al-Qaeda and its offshoots.
“While tactical strikes may have helped to keep the homeland free of major terrorist attacks, existing evidence indicates that both Sunni and Shiite extremist groups have grown in scope, lethality and influence in the broader are of operations in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.”
That was written before ISIS, the Al-Qaeda splinter group, captured a string of cities in Iraq and dealt blows to the U.S.-trained army so devastating that Obama decided to send in 300 U.S. special forces troops to assess how the extremists’ advance could be stopped. Drone strikes on ISIS are among the options under discussion.
Bernd Debusmann is a former Reuters world affairs columnist. This article was written exclusively for The Daily Star.