Analysis: Will 2013 Be the Year of the Unmanned Drone?

Predator droneBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
As United States President Barack Obama prepares to enter his fifth year in office, one may be excused for thinking that his administration’s response to insurgency warfare essentially boils down to one thing: the joystick. This is the means by which Washington’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet is remotely guided, usually from the safety of ground control stations located thousands of miles away from selected targets. Even prior to last November’s Presidential election, Obama administration officials declared in every possible way that the drone campaign would remain a permanent feature of the White House’s counterinsurgency campaign. Not only that, but it seems increasingly apparent that when, on November 19, 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that America’s UAV fleet would expand, he meant it both in terms of raw numbers and geographical reach. Africa appears now to be high on the list of UAV targets. The US is currently busy establishing a large network of small air bases located in strategic locations throughout the continent, in what US observers have termed a “massive expansion” of US covert operations in Africa.

The Central Intelligence Agency, which has been steering the development of America’s UAV program almost since its inception, launched over 50 Predator drone strikes during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. But the use of CIA drones under Obama has surpassed all precedent: last month the CIA launched its 300th drone strike under the Democratic President. Unlike Bush, who refused to even acknowledge Washington’s part in the remotely controlled strikes, Obama has publicly defended them, rejecting accusations that drone strikes have caused large numbers of civilian casualties, and arguing instead that “for the most part they have been very precise […] strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates”.

In light of the US President’s strong support, it is interesting to note that 2012 was marked by a significant fall in the number of CIA drone strikes inside Pakistani territory, which has traditionally been the main target of UAV operations under Obama’s presidency. According to a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes in Pakistan have fallen to their lowest level in five years, probably due to the CIA’s effort to deflect strong public criticism in Pakistan of the allegedly high civilian toll of UAV bombings. The study added that, according to media reports from Pakistan, there was a six-fold drop in civilian casualties from drone strikes.

But this was not necessarily indicative of Washington’s broader geographical use of ‘joystick bombers’ in the previous year. Observers correctly note that, as the number of drone attacks dropped in Pakistan, it rose dramatically in Yemen, where a major —and mostly underreported— US military campaign has been taking place since last March. Media reports from that country suggest that nearly 200 people were killed in CIA drone strikes in 2012. During the past six months, far more UAV missiles have landed in Yemen than in Pakistan. Moreover, at least two US confirmed drone strikes took place in Somalia in 2012, the first-ever such attacks on the African continent. This author agrees with those who speculate that Washington may have employed Predator drones elsewhere in Africa, but that these incidents remain unreported.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that the US electorate, which exercised significant pressure on the Bush administration over its use of torture against enemy detainees between 2001 and 2007, appears broadly unconcerned with the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists by the Obama administration. Congress seems equally disinterested in challenging the marked secrecy that has governed the Predator drone program since its inception. One is tempted to ponder whether the American public and its elected representatives are willing to tolerate the inconvenient discrepancies of the CIA drone program so long as it keeps US troops away from the physical dangers lurking in the front lines of Washington’s ‘global war on terrorism’.

In the current political climate in Washington, there is little indication that the Obama administration’s drone war will dissipate any time soon. On the contrary, the role of ‘joystick warriors’ can be expected to increase in America’s evolving counterinsurgency doctrine.

3 Responses to Analysis: Will 2013 Be the Year of the Unmanned Drone?

  1. davide says:

    unmanned perhaps is better than manned. rumors saying that the manned plain of hillary klinton had a landing problem in iran during a secret visit the day before media started to say that she had a health issue.

  2. “Washington has reacted to the torture scandals of the Bush era by generally forgoing arrests and opting for no-fuss aerial assassinations” according to an article at Mother Jones:

    My view would be the impunity argument is relative to both; whether case of torture or assassination in international law. Courts in Italy and Germany have delivered verdicts on the CIA in the case of renditions, but the political will necessary to demand extraditions are not forthcoming. In Spain, the one european judge with a demonstrated willingness to invoke ‘universal jurisdiction’, Baltasar Garzon, had been removed from the bench after what amounted to a show trial (the relevant Spanish prosecutor actually opposed Garzon’s prosecution but was over-ruled) following pressure from the USA.

    Inasmuch as there is serious concerns in the international law community at the damage done to the rule of law relevant to drone strikes, not only in the case of renditions (which continue as well, but in a reduced and modified manner), short of concerted political will to push back at Obama coming from a credible source such as a NATO ally like Germany, which could build on the case of Khaled El-Masri with widening scope of prosecution under universal jurisdiction, attempting some salvage of the rule of law, the courage and foresight are plainly lacking in the political leadership to bring pressure and rein in what has become out of control, extra-judicial license to kill.

    Obama’s claims of the preciseness of the strike with little to no collateral effect is plainly in error and mainstream press does not challenge him. Until/unless there is a break in the ranks, and that seems least likely to originate in the USA, it would appear ‘color of law’ will replace ‘rule of law’ and inasmuch as that is precisely what appears to be happening, democracy is failed.

  3. New development, it is clear your projecting 2013 will be the year of targeted killings is correct.

    “High priest of targeted killings” John Brennan to head up CIA

    All the more important someone bring pressure to bear on a cabal of killers

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