Will 2013 be the year of the drone? This is a question that may define the Af-Pak policy and perhaps how the rhetoric of the “Global War on Terror” ( GWOT) is shaped in the months ahead. With over 3,228 people dead in the drone strikes, of whom about 881 are estimated to be civilians, drone strikes are turning out to be President Obama’s litmus test as a “moral” leader. A major criticism of the drone program is that it makes President Obama the judge, the jury, and the executioner; not very democratic, if you think about it. I believe that the coming year is likely to be the year of the drone, unless something dramatic happens and the GWOT is concluded.
The roots of this strategy, of using drones to strike high-value targets by the current administration, are in the speech that President Obama gave, in 2009, in which he said: "So let me be clear: Al Qaeda and its allies — the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks — are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that Al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows Al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.” How effective has this strategy been ?
Well, not erribly effective according to a new report released in Sept.2012 by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (IHRCRC) and Global Justice Clinic (GJC) at NYU School of Law. They point out that the narrative of “surgical strikes” that take out specific individuals is wrong and that the drone strikes are having a counter-productive impact. Their work is based on nine months of intensive research — including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting. The report also quotes The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent organization, which has reported that: "From June 2004 through mid-September 2012, data indicated that drone strikes killed 2562-3325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals."
Some might ask, "so what?" "We are just going after the bad guys and there is bound to be some collateral damage in the process." Well, this is precisely the problem. When the “targeted killings” kill about an equal number of civilians and make life unbearable for people in that region, then the local population is likely to sympathize with those very people whom we are targeting as evil. As Robert Pape and James Feldman point out in their book, Cutting the Fuse, the very cause of suicide terrorism is nationalism and the feeling among people that the American forces are “occupying” their lands. This “occupation” by foreign forces unleashes very strong forces of anti-Americanism and nationalism which lead to attacks against American and allied forces. They have shown data, which includes all known cases of suicide terrorism (including 9/11) that this is the root cause of the problems.
There is intense debate even among President Obama’s supporters about drone effectiveness and how the rhetoric of using them has been counter-productive; this article makes that all clear. The Obama administration has carried out five times as many covert drone strikes as the Bush administration, as this Colbert Report pointed out, not without irony: "So what’s behind the president’s righteous kill spree? Could it be that he’s just gunning for another Nobel Peace Prize?"
Counter-narrative to this criticism is that drone strikes are a more effective way of dealing with terrorists, and studies by RAND corporation have shown that drone strikes are associated with decreases in both the frequency and the lethal nature of militant attacks overall, and in IED and suicide attacks specifically. While one can question their methods of analysis (statistical analysis), even the report acknowledges that: "To the extent drone strikes ”work,” their effectiveness is more likely to lie in disrupting militant operations at the tactical level than as a silver bullet that will reverse the course of the war and single handedly defeat Al Qaeda.”
The really important question one needs to ask is not whether 2013 will be the year of the drone, but an even bigger question: is the global war on terror over? The issue of drones is inextricably linked to the war on terror, and unless we wind that down, it is likely that the drone strikes will continue.