Over the last weekend 55 people were killed by US drone strikes in Yemen. As the fact that this got barely any news coverage shows, these strikes aren’t exactly uncommon. For years now, in Yemen and Pakistan, American drones (unmanned aircraft) have been firing missiles at suspected al-Qaeda targets on the ground. It seems like a surgical form of conflict, but this secret war is a lot murkier than it first appears. So who’s being targeted? What happens when things go wrong? And is this all actually legal?
These drones, flown by pilots thousands of kilometres away, are the US’s latest weapon against al-Qaeda in Yemen and Pakistan. In Pakistan they hover above the loosely controlled tribal areas, flying low enough that their buzzing can be heard by people on the ground. In Yemen they’re much subtler, appearing out of nowhere. When a target is approved – an al-Qaeda leader, a gathering of Taliban elders, or even just a group of low-ranking foot soldiers – they strike. The Predator and Reaper drones fire Hellfire missiles which tear apart their targets. They are incredibly powerful weapons, and for al-Qaeda there is no defence against this assault from the sky. So if these drones are so undoubtedly effective, what’s the problem?
The ‘problem’ is the huge collateral damage that these strikes so often bring with them. In many place one of the few times cautious al-Qaeda leaders will gather is at a wedding, so these have repeatedly been targeted. In Yemen last December around 15 civilians were killed in a wedding procession; six years ago 47 people were killed at a wedding in Afghanistan by a manned gunship, including 39 woman and children and the bride. With the Yemen airstrike the target was five ‘suspected’ al-Qaeda militants. This suspicion was judged to be worth risking that many civilians. It’s hard to imagine the outcry that would come from a similar terrorist bombing on a wedding in the US.
The other problem with this method of killing is that from thousands of miles away, with often faulty intelligence, it’s hard to know who exactly your missile is hitting. On August 29 2012 a drone killed five men near a mosque in rural Yemen. Three of them were al-Qaeda members – unfortunately the other two were a local cleric and his policeman cousin. Al-Qaeda wanted to confront the cleric because he had repeatedly preached against their violence. With four missiles the US eliminated a respected member of the community who was known for being against al-Qaeda.
Such strikes have been taking place more and more often over the years, and since President Obama came into office the number of deaths has skyrocketed to over 2000. It’s hard to tell exactly how many of these were civilians. The numbers vary hugely depending on who you ask, and part of the problem is the secrecy surrounding the strikes. In Yemen for example the government often takes credit for the strikes – quite impressive considering the fact that their air force is practically non-existent. More vagueness surrounds who’s considered a civilian and who’s not. The US military simply states that any military age man in a drone-strike area is a militant, unless evidence later turns up that he was innocent. This bears unnerving resemblance to the US Army’s creed during the Vietnam War: “If it’s dead and it’s Vietnamese – it’s Viet Cong”.
So how legal are these drone strikes? As with so many things, it all depends on who you ask. According to the Obama Administration the strikes are legal and carried out with the greatest care for civilian lives. According to human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch however, the strikes break numerous international laws and the rules of war. It’s also interesting to note that Pakistan itself has repeatedly asked the US to stop the attacks on its soil, though their government is rumoured to secretly accept the strikes. That the US can repeatedly and openly attack another country who it considers an ally is a testament to how powerful it is.
All debates on legality and effectiveness aside, a good final image to have of drones is that of the “double-tap”. This is a steadily more common practise where a drone fires one missile at the target, waits for rescuers to arrive to pull people from the rubble – then incinerates this crowd of people in a second round of missiles. No matter how effective drone strikes are, such ruthless tactics must be able to be judged in the light of day on just how needed and how brutal they really are.