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In this Jan. 31, 2010 file photo an unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on a moon-lit night.
Image: picture alliance/dpa

Remote-control war

June 6, 2012

The Obama administration has stepped up its drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen in a bid to cripple al Qaeda once and for all. Analysts are concerned that the loss of civilian life could fan political instability.


The United States has stepped up its controversial drone campaign in Yemen's south and along the Afghan-Pakistan border over the past month, launching 14 confirmed strikes and killing at least 70 suspected militants, according to a tally by DW based on media reports.

The airstrikes make good on US President Barack Obama's campaign pledge to wage an expanded war against al Qaeda while winding down America's politically and economically costly land campaigns in the Middle East and South Asia. Although US troops withdrew from Iraq in December 2011 and are officially set to do so in Afghanistan by 2014, Washington's remote-controlled drone war has jumped precipitously since Obama entered office in January 2009.

Obama's top counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, described the administration's expanded drone campaign at length for the first time in an April 30th speech before the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, calling such strikes "ethical," "legal" and "just." Brennan argued that the right to self defense under international law and the congressional authorization of force against al-Qaeda and the Taliban served as the legal foundations of the campaign.

"It's hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft," Brennan said during his speech. "There is absolutely nothing casual about the extraordinary care we take in making the decision to pursue an al Qaeda terrorist, and the lengths to which we go to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life."

Counterterrorism chief John Brennan
Brennan called the program "just"Image: AP

'Guilt by association'

But a May 29th report by the New York Times reveals that official casualty figures may whitewash a more complicated reality. President Obama has embraced a disputed method of counting civilian deaths that could potentially distort the actual numbers. The metric effectively brands all-military age men in a strike zone as militants unless evidence proves otherwise after the fact, according to the NYT, citing one unnamed former senior intelligence official who called it "guilt by association."

"This is a program where the targeting assumption is basically if you're an adult male of Pakistani, Somali, Yemeni, really any Arab descent and you're hit by a drone you're de-facto guilty of something," Tom Parker, a terrorism and counterterrorism expert at Amnesty International USA, told DW.

"That alone makes this … a dirty little program that frankly doesn't distinguish sufficiently between innocent civilians and individuals who the administration believes - and that's an important word, believes not knows - might be involved in militant activity," Parker said.

Remote-control war in Pakistan

Unable to convince Pakistan to launch a ground offensive against Islamic militant redoubts in the federally administered tribal areas, Washington has intensified its campaign in semi-autonomous North and South Waziristan, arguing that the strikes prevent attacks against coalition forces operating in neighboring Afghanistan.

The non-partisan Washington-based New America Foundation reports a low-end estimate of 1,819 individuals killed by drone strikes in Pakistan from 2004-2012, with around 80 percent of those deaths occurring during the Obama administration. Some 293 of the dead were reported as civilians. According to the Long War Journal, around 2,300 militants and 138 civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan since 2006.

A Pakistani parliamentary committee demanded an end to the US drone program last March, saying that the strikes violate Pakistan's sovereignty and result in unnecessary civilian casualties that fuel anti-Americanism. But Washington says that the campaign is justified under America's inherent right to self defense, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) shakes hands with Pakistan's Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani during their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul March 27, 2012.
The drone strikes are contributing to rising tensions between the US and PakistanImage: Reuters

"We were attacked on 9-11 and we know who attacked us, we know al Qaeda was behind it," US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Bloomberg Television in a May 4th interview. "We are going to do everything we can, use whatever operations we have in order to make sure we protect this country and make sure that kind of attack never happens again."

Growing front in Yemen

In Yemen, Washington has pushed south to roll back the gains that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) made in the wake of a popular uprising that led to the ouster of long-time president Ali Abdullah Saleh, an American ally in the war against al Qaeda. AQAP, considered al Qaeda's most active branch by the Obama administration, exploited the political turmoil to capture key towns in the south of Yemen.

Some 242 militants and 56 civilians have died there due to US drone strikes since 2002, the Long War Journal reports. The strikes have doubled every year since 2009, rising to 22 in 2012.

"The administration is playing with fire here," John Bellinger, a legal advisor to both the National Security Council and the State Department during the Bush administration, told DW. "They have an effective counterterrorism tool that they have become very enamored of because it's become effective in killing terrorists outside the public eye and it doesn't result in the problems of detention that the Bush administration faced or risks to US soldiers."

"There is a growing restiveness in the human rights community and potentially in the international community that could result in opinion turning against the administration on its use of drones," Bellinger said.

International legal divide

Anwar al Awlaki
US citizen and alleged al Qaeda operative Anwar al Awlaki was killed in a drone strikeImage: dapd

The US views itself as legally involved in a state of armed conflict with al Qaeda across multiple countries around the world. Washington has adopted this position as a matter of necessity, said Bellinger, who currently works at the international law firm Arnold & Porter LLP. He argues that it is not feasible to try to extradite terrorist operatives in remote lawless regions in foreign countries such as Yemen and Pakistan.

"Europeans and human rights groups and much of the rest of the world expected that the Obama administration was simply going to jettison all of these Bush administration policies, the entire war paradigm and revert to a criminal justice model," Bellinger said. "There's been a good deal of surprise and disappointment that the Obama administration has not done that."

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International maintain that traditional intelligence and police work is the legal and more effective way to pursue suspected terrorists.

"What the United States is trying to claim is that its in an international armed conflict with a non-state actor, no state in history has ever made that claim before, so to say it is contentious is an understatement," Parker said.

Pakistani protesters burn representations of US and NATO flags during a demonstration to condemn U.S. drone strikes in the tribal areas, in Multan, Pakistan.
The political costs may be outweighing the potential benefitsImage: dapd

"Osama bin Laden could have no more declared war on the United States than I can," he continued. "He's just a person. Wars are fought between states. That's the legal standard and has been ever since there's been international law."

The cost-benefit analysis

Beyond the legal debate, the drone campaign's political value may boil down to a cost-benefit analysis that weighs the negative blowback of civilian deaths and political turmoil against the damage done to al Qaeda's senior leadership.

"The strikes have been very effective in knocking out the very dangerous senior leadership of al Qaeda who were in fact planning additional attacks on the US, and its allies," Bellinger said. "But we may be reaching the point of diminishing returns where the value of the individuals being targeted and killed is not as great."

Although the drone campaign has had some tactical success by killing top al Qaeda operatives, Parker argues that the long-term strategic damage done to the United States as well as nations like Pakistan and Yemen far outweigh any benefits.

"At the strategic level they've paid quite a high reputational cost for doing this," Parker said. "They've destabilized regions that were teetering but not wholly destabilized before these programs started, and I think they've killed a lot of innocent people."

Author: Spencer Kimball
Editor: Rob Mudge

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