The practice of using UAV’s as part of a targeted strategy in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen has become so frequent that its come to characterize the Obama administration’s handling of the “War on Terror”. Reaction to this policy has been increasingly critical, due in no small part to unanswered questions surrounding civilian death tolls and the rapid escalation of deployment. In response, the Obama administration announced this past week that the surge is at an end.
In a speech made to the National Defense University in Washington on Thursday, Obama emphasized that from now on, the use of UAV’s would be in the hand of the military instead of clandestine intelligence organizations such as the CIA. He also indicated that the rules for launching the strikes would be stricter. For instance, there must be a “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed, and the strikes are to become less frequent.
While Obama would not declare an end to the war on terrorism, he did offer to work with Congress to constrain some of his own authorities for waging it, which may include the creation of a court modeled on the secretive one used by the NSA to oversea the surveillance of suspected foreign agents. He also expressed a preference to constrain “and ultimately repeal” the broad latitude of warmaking powers granted in the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), an act that was created in 2001 by the Bush administration which is considered the wellspring of the “War on Terror”.
And above all, issues of legality are to take a backseat to the moral and ethical implications raised by ongoing use. Or as he put it: “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”
Naturally, a great many questions remain. In addition to how drones will be used in the years to come to combat terrorism and militants, there’s also questions surrounding their use thus far. Despite pledges made by Obama that changes will be made, the history of the program is still shrouded in mystery. Fittingly, Bloomberg Businessweek created a map to serve as a reminder of the scope of that program, calling it the first ever “comprehensive compilation of all known lethal U.S. drone attacks.”
It should be noted though that the numbers represent an estimate which were compiled with the help of the nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Sources in Washington apparently offer a wide range of numbers, and the State Department remains hush hush on the issue of casualties. However, the estimates presented in this infographic still present a stark and sobering picture:
- Yemen: at least 552 killed between 2002 and 2013. The site of the first ever drone strike in 2002.
- Pakistan: at least 2,561 killed between 2004 and 2013.
- Somalia: at least 23 killed between 2011 and 2012.
Naturally, it is hoped that Obama’s promise to curb the use of drones represents a renewed commitment to comply with international law, treaties and human rights. However, what was apparently missing from the speech was an indication about how easy it will be to get information about strikes that are made in the future. According to the New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti, who provided live analysis of the speech, Obama’s speech didn’t address the issue:
One of the big outstanding questions is just how transparent the Obama administration will be about drone strikes in the future. Will administration officials begin to publicly confirm strikes after they happen?
There was no mention of this in the speech, and it is telling that the president did not mention the C.I.A. at all. It seems quite certain that past operations in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere are not going to be declassified anytime soon.
Also, moving operations from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon does not automatically mean that the strikes will be publicly discussed. The Pentagon is carrying out a secret drone program in Yemen right now, and it is very difficult to get information about those operations.
So… promises to curb the use of drones have been made, as well as promises to create some kind of oversight for future operations. And this does seem consistent with many of the criticisms made about the ongoing war on terrorism, specifically the Bush administrations handling of it and how his reliance on special executive powers were unlawful and unconstitutional.
But until such time as information on how these strikes occur and who is being killed, the issue will remain a contentious and divisive one. So long as governments can wage war with automated or remote machinery and kill people without transparency and in secrecy, will this not constitute a form of illegal – or at the very least, a very opaque – warfare?