Before we begin, you might be wondering where I stand on the issue. I understand the need for it, but I also understand its concerns. To say it is right or it is wrong will mean that I have the answers. I do not. I neither promote nor condemn it, because it is not a black and white issue with clear cut answers. I could think of ways to reduce its usage and make everyone happy in the process, but it’s not that easy. Every one of us should deeply think about its place in today’s warfare and come up with at least a little bit of understanding on its usage. My article seeks to do that by expounding on its use in today’s global political climate.
In the light UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ review of American Military’s usage of Drone strikes, I think it’s apt to understand why modern warfare has changed. The inquiry was sponsored by Russia, China and Pakistan.
In my opinion, the 2003 invasion of Iraq will be the last time we will see a “traditional war”. Even though Russia, Pakistan and China have launched the anti-American policy inquiry, we will never go to war with them. Iran and North Korea are the only two countries on earth that are still remaining in our “Axis of Evil” list created by President George W. Bush. Despite the war cries from the likes of Sen. John McCain, there won’t be an Iran invasion partly due to the realization of drain on the economic health of a country, but mostly due to globalization. In the past 30 years, the world has become more open due to commerce, diplomatic efforts and citizen journalism. The last bastion of dictators has been wiped from South America, Eastern Europe and now Middle East, which always hosted some of the most ruthless rulers in modern history. Apartheid has failed. The walls have been shattered, revolutions have sprung, democracies incubated and voices heard. This era of transformations will continue our Global Village Project forward.
Moving forward, the greatest challenge the west faces is not sovereign countries, but non-state actors. Though there is always the possibility that a fringe group could successfully attempt a coup d’etat on a country like Russia or Pakistan and start a traditional war, the likelihood of that happening has been shrinking due to shared intel and joint operations between countries. Now I’m not saying that we will never ever see a large-scale war. We will, at some point in time. But it will be something like Operation Allied Force or more recently, Operation Unified Protector.
The biggest non-state actors in our present time are the militants with warped and dangerous political views of Islam and society, popularly known in the media as “Islamic Extremists”, “Radicals”, “Jihadists” or just plain “Terrorists”. These are all either misleading terms given by the media or by the people committing the crimes themselves as badge of honor. We will (and should always) refer to these folks as Hirabists, which is the correct applicable term to describe their activities. So we have a clear enemy, but no nation to attack. The Hirabists operate in countries that clearly do not want them, like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia and now Mali, and America has a clear and present interest in going after them. But if you notice, the countries I just listed are hardly stable, have low GDP, are corrupt democracies, or have some military rule. They leave a power vacuum which allows the Hirabists to plan, design and execute their terror activists and the state’s police and military often is unable to combat them effectively.
One of the more memorable engagements against a terror network by a US President was the ill-advised campaign by President Bill Clinton in 1994 to send a group of US soldiers to fight a Somalian warlord Mohammad Farah Aided, whose fighters overthrew the Somalian President and hurled the country into chaos. The lesson was learned tragically when 18 US soldiers were killed, and their bodies dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Now would President Clinton have used a drone strike against Aided had the option been available to him? The 18 US soldiers would have been still alive had he done so.
President Obama’s strategy in engagement is: Drone strikes against Hirabist elements in countries that are unable to effectively fight them. We will never see a Drone strike in Saudi Arabia due to the Kingdom’s surprisingly well structured military and police authority, which the Kingdom has effectively used in the past decade to eradicate these terror networks from its soil. But we will see Drone strikes in Yemen due to obvious reasons, which is just south of the Kingdom’s border. We will also never see President Obama invading Yemen due to the reasons I described earlier. Similarly with Pakistan, the largest recipient of Drone strikes of a semi-stable country, the citizens do not need to worry about US forces invading their country from Arabian Sea. These elements (terror cells) have been coordinating efforts to strike against US military interests and personnel in neighboring Afghanistan, or are planning an attack against America or their own country, and the only way for US to retaliate is strike them without causing much political, economic damage and also less casualties (relatively).
There are valid criticisms of Drone strikes. The strikes are surgical yet still have splash damage that often results in the deaths of nearby bystanders. Due to faulty intelligence or human error, the strike can hit wrong targets like a wedding procession mistaken for something entirely different. The result is unfortunate deaths of innocent men, women and children. These negative outcomes are used by Hirabists to spread propaganda against US and the west as means of uniting people against them. The ardent critics on the left point to Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize and scoff at his Drone strategy, with the intent of the drone strikes becoming completely lost in the process. My process in murky conflicts and morality arguments is to draw a red line on intent, otherwise defined by Just War Theory as the right to engagement used to ease suffering without material gain. Intent matters. I’m sorry critics, but President Obama is not a terrorist, no matter how many knee-jerk posters you come up with and march around Pentagon, and that is exactly the reason why no one takes your arguments seriously.
President Obama’s strategy is simple: We will kill your bad guys if you don’t kill them for us. The Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad by the Seal Team 6 is the extension of that doctrine. So the solution to ending Drone strikes for Pakistan is to set its priorities straight, which is no easy process at all. The ISI (Pakistani Intelligence) has duplicitous relationship with the US where it will provide one hand to the US and provide the other to Taliban. These are complex and very long winded inter-state problems that are not going to resolve any time soon. Until then, the Drone strikes will continue. So will the morality arguments. In general, this applies to every country suffering from America’s drone strikes. Before setting priorities, these countries need grassroots level bottom-up transformation all the way to the political sphere. This process can take years, even decades, not unlike the Arab Spring revolutions that spread in the middle east 2 years ago. These transformations have lot of complex problems in their path and often the road is treacherous, which Algeria and Libya have taught us recently. In effect, you will get a faster solution to the drone strike problem if you direct your anger at Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. He understands the destabilizing factor of Pakistani Taliban, but also does not want to get into bad favors with the vocal Clerical class, who are instrumental in demonizing neighboring India for all of their problems. Mr. Zardari also understands the importance of ISI, which can make or break presidents. Mr. Zardari allows America to do it’s dirty work, then go on TV and lambast it. Two birds (eradication of Hirabists yet still in favor with the Mullahs and the powerful ISI) – one stone. Complications such as these are specific to Pakistan, so you can understand how complicated and deep the problems these countries face.
So the answer to stopping Drone strikes is…development of poorer, unstable countries? In a nutshell, yes. Poverty is the mother of all problems. Lack of formal education goes along with it. Lack of economic development, sustainability, education of young girls, political transparency and eradication of corruption all seam lofty ideals but if 19th century was marked with wars and aggression, then 20th century should be marked with cooperation and global development. It is the only sure fire way to remove ignorance and help solve all the major global issues in post-Operation Iraqi Freedom world. As you can understand, this is a long term solution. A very long term solution. As a short term solution (actually more of a prescription), I advocate US recompensating the families of Drone strike victims. If US taxpayer money was used to inadvertently kill an innocent bystander, then the US taxpayer money should also be used to help alleviate some of the suffering caused to the victims’ kin. Although this won’t bring back the lives lost or help improve America’s image, it will go a long way in helping families that are often poor and have no means of stable income.
In conclusion, the criticism of Drone strikes has merit but it is nuanced and complex. I am pretty confident that UN will weigh the issue properly, like it usually does. I’m actually one of the few who has faith in the global conference that is the United Nations, permanent member seating and veto power arguments not withstanding. The ardent critics of the Drone strike program need to recalibrate their message to properly reflect what is realistically achievable (and redirect it to proper culprits) without shouting Warcrimes Tribunal. The die hard supporters need to deeply examine the moral peril in the conflict and the humanity quotient. The rest of us who fall somewhere in between have already understood that nothing is as simple as it seems, and answers are tough to find.