Sunday, July 15, 2012

Drone war thoughts


We live in the era of the drone war now. For the moment, the U.S. has something of a monopoly on using this new weaponry, though there is nothing to prevent other states from joining the fray. Do we really have any idea where this technological breakthrough is taking us?

Michael Cummings -- back from deployments with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan -- has a simple explanation of what's dangerous about the military's new toys:

Kill enough of the wrong people, and everyone will join the insurgency. Why not? The Americans will probably come kill you soon enough.

That's the blowback the drone program creates in an actual theater of war. There's lots of argument about how many of the "wrong people" -- "innocents," non-combatants, children -- are being killed remotely in Afghanistan, but at least in that country there's a recognized war. And -- perhaps -- there's something of a recognized war in the adjacent areas of Pakistan where angry Pashtuns and many Taliban live, so there may be some justification for strikes on people the U.S. regards as "terrorists" in "safe havens." Whether knocking these guys (and their relatives) off is worth destabilizing a fragile nuclear weapons-armed state is a judgement question. A huge majority of Pakistanis certainly don't think so.

And we are also killing people in countries where we don't claim to be at war, but where there's not much government either, like Yemen and Somalia. Sometimes we know who we're killing, but apparently the administration has also authorized "signature strikes." If some bunch of remote tribal guys act in ways the C.I.A. associates with terrorist cells, sure -- blow 'em away.

Law professor David Cole points out the implications of that seemingly safe exercise:

While such a strategy might make sense on hot battlefields, where one frequently kills “the enemy” without knowing precisely who they are, it is extremely dangerous when employed beyond battlefields, where it can be very difficult to know with any degree of certainty which groups are engaged in hostile military action. For this reason, Obama initially banned such strikes in Yemen, but news accounts indicate that he has relaxed that ban recently. What criteria are used to distinguish the enemy from those who merely look like the enemy? As President Bush showed us, it’s all too easy to make mistakes in identifying the enemy. A mistakenly detained man can be released, as hundreds held at Guantánamo have been. Mistakes in the drone program are final.

That's the thing about killing people; you can't bring them back.

And that, perhaps, points up the worst feature of the drone option -- it seems so easy and clean. Press a button and "the enemy" is gone. But as real world warriors like Michael Cumming know, kill the "wrong people" and pretty soon all the people are ready to fight you. This new weapon may not prove so antiseptically safe after all.

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