The nature of warfare has changed. A world where states line troops along borders is, at least for now, no more. Instead, inter-state war has been replaced by intra-state conflicts involving one nation’s army and sub-state insurgents. This is what has defined much of the ‘War on Terror’ and adapting to this has been a challenge for the US since Vietnam. It has sought to fight back though through the birth of the revolution in military affairs. Economic dominance has led to mass research and development, resulting in the weaponisation of modern technology. The hope has been that this would make war more precise, allowing for more accurate targeting, and perhaps more humane (well as humane as war could be). The end result has been drones, whose use continues to increase under President Obama and which most recently killed Pakistan’s Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud.
While debates about drones have rumbled for as long as their usage, the US has remained committed to this hardware. And it’s not hard to see why. They, after all, simplify reconnaissance work enormously, allowing eyes and ears in the most rural areas without risking the lives of soldiers. When armed, they have also allowed the US to match their opponent’s flexibility, for their ease of movement means they can operate from Yemen and Somalia to Pakistan and Afghanistan, denying the advantage that modern warfare has given to non-state actors. Above all though, US military commanders argue that their use lies in their results. Drone strikes have seen the US take out individuals vital to organisations like Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, weakening their operational capability which makes not only the US, but the world in general, a safer place.
Many however are not convinced. Amnesty International for example, has argued that armed drones have raised “serious questions about violations of international law that could amount to war crimes or extrajudicial executions”. Pakistan too has continually denounced the US over their usage, something which is severely testing the countries’ alliance. This anger is in part because their use breaches international law, allowing the US to wage war across borders and to pick off individuals at will without judicial process or any form of legal mandate. The US after all is not at war with Pakistan, yet has been freely able to kill Pakistani and indeed, in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, US citizens. If allowed to continue, a precedent may be set as to allow any state with the technological capability to conduct state assassinations with no reprisals. A scary thought indeed. And then there is the moral argument, for drones continue to lack the accuracy desired and have instead developed a nasty habit of mistaking family gatherings for insurgents and so have ended the lives of many innocent individuals, who harbour no terrorists and who want to live in peace without fear of the sound of death falling from the sky.
Though few national governments dare to say so, these moral and legal arguments are compelling. However, the question less asked is over their usefulness. This may seem a strange question to ask. If the aim of a drone is to take out a specific target, then success in that aim proves their usefulness no? However, like much of the ‘War on Terror’, this is only one dimension, for it is not just terrorism itself but also the motivation for doing so that must be the focus. A drone attack on innocent people is abhorrent morally, but could it not also breed hate amongst surviving family members and thus push them towards the very organisations the drone has sought to destroy? Violence often breeds violence. The death of Hakimullah Mehsud is an example of how the drone policy places short term desires ahead of long term foresight. Pakistan had been set for peace talks with the Taliban, offering a chance of dialogue which may offer some way forward in the future. Has killing their leader weakened the Taliban’s position? No, they’ve already announced their new leader. Nor has it dented their capability. Indeed, the only consequence is that it has spurred the Taliban to threaten revenge and so more violence. It has also put further strain on Pakistani co-operation with the US and jeopardised this strategy which, though undesirable to some, may be the only way for Pakistan to manage any type of normality.
So where does the UK stand in the drone debate? The government has tended to hold no position. Drones are an American not British policy after all. However, silence coupled with allowing US drones to be based in the UK like at RAF Waddington suggests tacit support at the very least. Britain should not be so welcoming. The moral and legal arguments against the extensive use of armed drones are strong, but even the UK is unlikely to be able to use these arguments to deter the US. America after all has a habit of bending international law to suit its own agenda, as all hegemonic powers have tended to do. Although, it could be worth the UK asking the US whether, in them causing further radicalisation and threatening attempts at negotiations, whether drone strikes can harm rather than help the US and UK meet its shared objectives of reducing violence and building peace. It may fall upon deaf ears, but the effect of the UK vote on Syria shows UK views still matter across the pond. And, rightly or wrongly, questions over effectiveness rather than morality are likely to have more impact; it is military commander’s sort of language. If that doesn’t convince the US to be less reliant on drones, nothing else will.
Backbench Foreign Secretary