If you live in a place where unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, fly overhead, bombing living targets that are enemies to a foreign country thousands of miles away, you might be concerned for your safety—and more than a little angry.
“This is not just about protecting the United States,” said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. “It’s also about protecting Pakistan.”
You might be Pakistan, where officials are irate over years of aerial strikes. On Monday, an attack by unmanned U.S. drones reportedly killed al-Qaeda deputy leader Abu Yahya a-Libi in a remote part of North Waziristan. Pakistani leaders angrily reiterated their demands to the United States to end the practice of flying robotic killing machines into its territory unnaounced and slaying suspected militants. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called the attacks illegal, claiming they violated the country’s sovereignty.
U.S. officials disagree. On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta defended the aerial assaults, saying that the U.S. had a responsibility to continue its use of fly-by justice in the region. “This is not just about protecting the United States,” said Panetta, who was in India in hopes of lessening tensions between the two nuclear neighbors. “It’s also about protecting Pakistan. And we have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves.”
In Istanbul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton echoed the sentiment. Speaking to the Global Counterterrorism Forum, a U.S.- and Turkish-chaired group, Clinton said: “We will always maintain our right to use force against groups such as al Qaeda that have attacked us and still threaten us with imminent attack. In doing so, we will comply with the applicable law, including the laws of war, and go to extraordinary lengths to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life.”
One problem with drone strikes is that the payload is delivered by a faceless enemy. In 2009, the Brookings Institute estimated that for every militant shot down, 10 civilians were killed. The anonymity of these attacks leaves a vacuum of responsibility.
Clinton’s assurance that “extraordinary lengths” are being taken to “avoid the loss of innocent life” is also a point of contention. A May 29, 2012, New York Times report detailing President Obama’s process of selecting targets for the drone “kill list” revealed that Obama’s rule of thumb for triggering a drone “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
Around the world, mounting evidence indicates that drone warfare is viewed as unethical and psychologically damaging. This week, The Guardian reported that a senior U.N. official has recommended Pakistan’s prime minister begin an official U.N. investigation into the legality of the practice.
Said the U.N.’s high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, at a press conference in Islamabad: “Drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law.”
Pakistan is up in arms for other reasons as well. By most accounts, its military felt slighted by the strike by American forces that killed Osama Bin Laden last year. In November, when an American aircraft killed 24 Pakistani soldiers on the border of Afghanistan in a “friendly fire” incident, the country demanded an apology, one that the U.S. has yet to issue. In response, Pakistan shut down its southern supply route—considered vital to the planned withdrawal of coalition troops from Afghanistan—leading President Obama to refuse a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, last month in Chicago.
For years, the U.S. denied its drone activities. Now that the information is very much public, it’s trying to justify the program any way it can. But very real collateral damage to civilians caused by these robo-bombings, and the toll on America’s international reputation, may ultimately outweigh the benefits of anonymous strikes.
Should drones be discontinued? Let us know in the COMMENTS.
Oliver Lee has been covering social justice and other issues for TakePart since 2009. Originally from Baltimore, he lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn. Email Oliver | @oliverung