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The drone warfare drawbacks

LOS ANGELES TIMESdoyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

The coming backlash from drone warfare

The drone has become America's counter-terrorism weapon of choice. But


does drone warfare really further U.S. goals abroad?
To wartime strategists under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the
new weapon, like many innovations in the history of military technology,
seemed at first like a silver bullet.
Drones with lethal missiles could hover for hours over potential targets,
waiting for the moment to strike. They could kill suspected terrorists with
relative precision, though not, as the CIA claimed in 2011, without any civilian
casualties. Best of all, drones didn't endanger American lives; the pilots were
safe and snug in Djibouti or Nevada.

Drone strikes may be an efficient way to kill terrorists, but they're no way to
make friends.- (the politics of the action)
In an almost-invisible campaign that started modestly under Bush and
expanded dramatically under Obama, the U.S. has launched more than 1,600
drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and even,
in one case, in the Philippines, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on
Foreign Relations.
But consider how those drone strikes appear if you are an ordinary civilian in,
say, northwestern Pakistan. You know you are in constant danger; a missile
may strike your home at any time without warning. It's not clear who's
shooting; the war and its combatants are officially secret. It's not clear how
you can avoid becoming a target; members of Al Qaeda are fair game, of
course, but what are their neighbors and cousins and grocery suppliers to do?

And if something goes awry, there's no one to complain to; the CIA doesn't
have a customer service desk, and the government of Pakistan claims (falsely,
in most cases) that it has no control over foreign missile strikes.
Drone strikes may be an efficient way to kill terrorists, but they're no way to
make friends.
That's one of the messages of a stinging new report issued recently by a panel
of experts convened by Washington's independent Stimson Center, a
thoroughly establishment group of former officials from both Democratic and
Republican administrations. Blue-ribbon commissions in Washington often
pull their punches; this one, chaired by retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid and
former Pentagon official Rosa Brooks, didn't. Among its highlights:
Just because drone wars have succeeded in killing terrorists doesn't mean
they're working. The Obama administration's heavy reliance on targeted
killings as a pillar of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy rests on questionable
assumptions and risks increasing instability, the report warns. After a decade
of drone strikes, it notes, we face more Islamic extremists, not fewer.
The widespread use of drones has created a backlash around the world, and
not only in remote villages in Pakistan or Yemen. The report quotes retired
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the former U.S. commander in Afghanistan, warning
that the tactic creates resentment much greater than the average American
appreciates.
Reliance on drones for targeted killing has allowed the CIA and Pentagon to
obscure exactly whom we are fighting. About the only thing the Obama
administration has said on the subject is that it has aimed the drone program
at Al Qaeda and associated forces. But, as the report notes, while U.S.
targeters may exercise great care in their decisions, the drone attacks still look
perilously like a secret war, governed by secret law.

Our drone policy could come back to haunt us once the U.S. loses its current
near-monopoly in drone technology. China and Iran are already working on
military drones, and Russia is unlikely to be far behind. If Vladimir Putin
decided to use drones against anti-Russian militants in Ukraine, the report
notes, Russia could simply repeat the words used by U.S. officials defending
U.S. targeted killings, asserting that it could not provide any evidence without
disclosing sources and methods.
The ease of using drones makes them seductively tempting to deploy. The
increasing use of lethal drones may create a slippery slope leading to continual
or wider wars, the panel warned. [Drones] may lower the bar to enter a
conflict, without increasing the likelihood of a satisfactory outcome. Obama
has assiduously avoided one slippery slope, the one that leads to putting U.S.
troops on the ground, but he's presided over the creation of another.
Given all those issues, the report notes, it might be a good moment for a pause
in the drone wars. But don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.
Many of the Stimson Center's findings resonate with the administration's
current policy, National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told
me last week. As the president said last month at West Point, the United
States must be more transparent about both the basis of our counterterrorism actions and the manner in which they are carried out.'
But that doesn't mean the administration plans to abandon drone warfare. It
has already said it may soon use the missiles on a new battlefield against the
Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has shortened its name to Islamic State.
The Stimson Center report gives the administration a smart list of policy
proposals: a systematic review of drones' costs and benefits; a commission on
targeting, to show that we're very careful about whom we kill; and an effort to
establish international norms, so when Russia and Iran get drones some basic
rules are in place.

I'll add one more: The administration should make public its enemies list. It's
past time that the U.S. disclosed a list of organizations that qualify as Al
Qaeda associates, and thus as legitimate targets for U.S. attack. If secrecy is
necessary in some cases, keep those secret. But even a partial list would be
better than we have now: a secret war governed by secret law.