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US drone policy: Little prospect of rethink

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COMMENTS

3 July 2014 15:47

A new report on the consequences of America's increasing use of drones as a counter-terrorism tool caused quite a stir in US national security circles last week, largely because it was written by a task force made up of many individuals who formerly reported to the Obama Administration.

Most prominent among them was the study's co-chair John Abizaid, a former US Army General and leader of Central Command in a region where the vast majority of President Obama's — and before him President Bush's — drone strikes have occurred.

The major criticisms in the paper, published by the Washington-based Stimson Center, differ from previous investigations. The focus is less on the human rights implications of employing drones (more properly named remotely piloted aircraft), and more on their questionable efficacy in creating peace and stability for the US and its allies. Its major conclusion is that the Obama Administration's heavy reliance on drone technology risks escalating, rather than mitigating, security threats:

While tactical strikes may have helped keep the homeland free of major terrorist attacks, existing evidence indicates that both Sunni and Shia Islamic extremist groups have grown in scope, lethality and influence in the broader area of operations in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia...Furthermore, US targeted strikes also create new strategic risks. These include possible erosion of sovereignty norms, blowback and risks of a slippery slope into continual conflict.

The report is framed as a response to President Obama's recent pronouncements on drones, including an address to the National Defense University in May 2013, where he promised to ensure the use of drones was strategically sound as well as consistent with commitments to concepts such as state sovereignty and the rule of law. It also follows the President's much discussed West Point address of this year, in which he pledged to launch 'strikes only when we face a continuing imminent threat, and only where…there is near certainty of no civilian casualties.'

Given the identity of the authors and their more pragmatic focus, it is tempting to think Obama will listen to the new criticism when he has largely ignored previous questions over his counter-terrorism policies. These include a 2013 UN-backed investigation that found many drone killings may have violated international law, and earlier, more trenchant, criticism from Stanford and New York University researchers who found US drone strikes killed up to 881 civilians in Pakistan alone between June 2004 and September 2012, including 176 children.

It was of course too early for the President and his advisers to have digested the findings of the latest report, but the confirmation that armed drones had already been introduced to the burgeoning crisis in Iraq will have dashed some of that new hope.

More to the point, it remains difficult to see how the broader vision outlined at West Point (pulling the US back from its supposed obligations to police the world while still acknowledging that 'American isolationism is not an option') is achievable without widespread deployment of drones. It is almost impossible at a time when the US defence budget and troop numbers are being significantly reduced. The cognitive dissonance of Americans proclaiming to want a retreat from the global theatre of conflict while also disapproving of Obama's supposedly weak-willed foreign policy also limits the counter-terrorist options available to this and future administrations.

For now, the greatest hope might be for the President to increase some of the transparency around the US drone program, which, despite recent White House disclosures, remains worryingly thin. Until such a policy of openness eventuates and makes improved evaluation possible, the Stimson Center report and others that follow will continue to carry an air of pointlessness.

Photo by Flickr user Jake Setlake.

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