| By Waqas Aslam Rana |
Perhaps the International Security Policy (ISP) concentration at SIPA should replace the word ‘International’ with ‘American.’ That’s certainly the message one gets from Krisztian Simon’s article ‘Up With Drones’ published in the last issue of Communiqué. My colleague included quotations from the ISP concentration director Richard Betts and Associate Professor Austin Long. Their comments contain not even a hint of the legal, humanitarian, and policy implications of using drones in the ‘War on Terror’. Essentially what the big wigs of the ISP concentration are saying is this: who cares about bothersome impediments like international law and collateral damage; as long as America can rain death over other sovereign countries with impunity, let’s keep squeezing the trigger.
The big question over the use of drones to target suspected militants in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and other countries is that of accountability. After U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent admission that that the U.S. is using drones in Pakistan, Amnesty International pointed out the lack of legal cover for such actions. Its Asia-Pacific Director Sam Zarifi said: “The US authorities must give a detailed explanation of how these strikes are lawful and what is being done to monitor civilian casualties and ensure proper accountability.” How can the United States act as judge, jury and executioner all at the same time? Members of the U.S. military establishment point out, always off the record of course, that drone strikes are based on high quality intelligence sources. This answer has two great deficiencies. First, it simply side-steps the glaring fact that U.S. drone strikes violate international law and other countries’ sovereignty. Second, asking the world to have faith in the American intelligence achine is asking too much; it was not too long ago that Colin Powell embarrassed himself at the UN selling the Bush Administration’s Iraq-WMD theory.
Apart from the lack of legal basis for drone strikes, Simon’s article ignores the issue of civilian casualties. In 2010, The New America Foundation in its study ‘The Year of the Drone’ concluded that 32% of those killed out of 1200-plus fatalities from 114 strikes analyzed were in fact civilians. Ascertaining who really gets killed is admittedly difficult; a recent report by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (BIJ), in conjunction with the Sunday Times of London opined that some of the civilian casualties resulted from follow-up strikes which deliberately targeted those who had gone to help victims of previous strikes or were killed in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.
Perhaps the most poignant piece of writing on the issue was a New York Times article by Clive Stafford Smith, an American lawyer and director of Reprieve, an organization that advocates for prisoners’ rights. In it, he recounts how he met 16 year old Tariq Aziz in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. Tariq, who hailed from the country’s tribal region near the Afghan border, was killed two days later in a U.S. drone strike along with his 12 year old cousin Waheed Khan. His crime: driving a truck to go pick up his aunt from a neighboring village. In Clive Smith’s words: “Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile — most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.”
Smith hits the nail on the head. The discussion about the use of drones is dominated by considerations of tactical utility and completely over-looks the drone program’s failure on the strategic front. Pakistan is the prime example. As drone strikes in the country have increased since Obama took office, deaths from retaliatory suicide attacks and other terrorist acts there have skyrocketed. It is obvious that killing ‘high value targets’ does not accomplish much for reducing terrorism so far as Pakistan is concerned. A similar case can be made about Yemen and Somalia, where drones are being used for similar purposes. Dennis Blair, the American Director of National Intelligence who was later fired by Obama, pointed out that drone strikes end up creating more enemies than they eliminate. Writing in the New York Times last year, he said: “Drone strikes are no longer the most effective strategy for eliminating Al Qaeda’s ability to attack us.… The important question today is whether continued unilateral drone at
tacks will substantially reduce Al Qaeda’s capabilities. They will not.”
Coming back to Simon’s piece, perhaps I should not be surprised that American security experts would mainly talk about their own country’s side of the story. Yet, I cannot help but continue to focus on the ‘I’ in SIPA. After all, if I wanted to read about how things affect only America, I could have just gone to SAIS or Georgetown.
Waqas Aslam Rana is a second-year Master of International Affairs student. This article will appear in the next issue of Communiqué.