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American anti-terrorism drone strike program ineffective

20:13 | 23.11.2015 | Analytic

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23 November 2015. PenzaNews. The American anti-terrorism drone strike program is ineffective and illegal, takes a heavy toll on civilians and forces certain people to join the extremists, state four ex-drone pilots who took part in several campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and other conflict zones, in a public letter addressed to the US President Barack Obama, the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, and the CIA Director John Brennan.

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The former military officers claim that the drone strikes serve to increase the outrage against the United States and bolster terrorist groups such as Islamic State. They also urge to review the US drone strategy that, in their opinion, does nothing but fuel the feelings of hatred and serve as a fundamental recruitment tool for the extremists.

Moreover, the authors explicitly link the drone strikes with the terror attacks in Paris that took place on 13 November 2015.

“We cannot sit silently by and witness tragedies like the attacks in Paris, knowing the devastating effects the drone program has overseas and at home,” reads the open letter written by the former military officers.

From the onset, the American program of proxy war on terror in African and Middle Eastern countries drew international criticism due to frequent violations of international law and unalienable human rights. According to information that was not confirmed officially, as many as 90% of people killed in drones strikes are in reality “accidental victims” of poor target acquisition.

The issue recently has returned into the public eye worldwide in October after The Intercept published a series of leaked documents related to the 2011-2013 US drone strike program, including in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

According to the information the journalists obtained, any person could become a target based on information on their suspicious behavior condensed into a brief “baseball card.” Each candidate required an approval of several high-ranking officials before being added to the kill list. Among those who had the authority to approve of these measures were such people as the ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. In each case, the final decision was made personally by the United States President Barack Obama.

After being added to the kill list, the de-personalized target would be placed under surveillance and later targeted with an air-to-surface missile strike, after which other civilians struck along with the original target would be regularly labeled “enemies killed in action” (EKIA) in the official statistics.

The predominant majority of lethal drone strikes was based on SIGINT data that included intercepted mobile and Internet communications, as well as episodic photo and video surveillance using the same network of drones. However, as The Intercept points out, this intelligence was neither complete nor accurate.

In addition, according to information from the leaked secret documents, the US military itself admitted the drone program was faring very poorly. In particular, Operation Haymaker that took place in Afghanistan between January 2012 and February 2013 resulted in over 200 casualties, with as few as 35 potential terrorists killed by strikes. Moreover, according to certain sources in the US military, the prevalence of lethal strikes further hampered the intelligence gathering process.

The leaks caused an outburst of critique from human rights activists. One of them, Naureen Shah, director of Security with Human Rights at Amnesty International USA, said the Obama administration still treats the world as a global battlefield while evading full public accountability.

“This warrants an immediate congressional inquiry into why the Obama administration has kept this vital information secret, including the real identities of all those killed,” she stressed.

At the same time, Dixon Osburn, Adjunct Fellow at American Security Project, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and Accountability, also criticized the White House officials for the violations committed during the drone strike program.

“There have been numerous reports, including strikes against wedding parties. These strikes are a failure of human intelligence, an overreliance on drones to conduct military operations, and a misinterpretation of what is required under international law,” the expert said in an interview to PenzaNews agency.

The use of military force can be seen as justified only after declaring a war against the opposing nation, he reminded.

“In a non-international armed conflict, which is the best description of US actions against Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other non-state actors, the US may use lethal force only if the target poses an imminent threat,” Dixon Osburn stressed.

In his opinion, the question about whether the US drone strikes comply with international law still remains without a definite answer.

In the meantime, Michael Kugelman, Senior Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, pointed out that the international community as a whole has concerns over the drone program due to the lack of accountability for those who are instigating and executing the strikes.

“The opacity and lack of accountability will make it very difficult for anyone with any credibility to launch an investigation. And I doubt the US would support or cooperate in an outside investigation,” the expert said.

From his point of view, the American authorities have shrouded the drone program with a level of impenetrable secrecy that borders on obfuscation.

“We simply don’t know what is going on, and the US has never been forthcoming. This certainly has the effect of suggesting a level of US’ callousness, and particularly when there are accusations of civilian casualties,” Michael Kugelman explained.

At the same time, he added that the US drone strikes caused less innocent casualties than indiscriminate Pakistani air strikes, while certain terrorists knowingly tried to hide in densely populated areas to increase civilian death toll.

Michael Kugelman explained that the drone strikes do work from a tactical perspective, while the same cannot be said about their effect on the long-term counterterrorism strategy in Africa and the Middle East.

“Some argue that drone strikes create more terrorists, because the drones stoke outrage that then leads to radicalization. Others, however, argue that many people living in communities targeted by drones actually support drones because they eliminate militants that terrorize these communities,” he said.

However, the expert pointed out that the ever-present threat of drone strikes caused a notable part of adult and children population in affected residential areas develop post-traumatic stress syndrome.

In turn, Inge Hoeger, Bundestag member, representative of the Left Party of Germany, claimed she opposes any and all “kill lists” on principle per se, and compared this measure with death penalty.

“Whatever good they may be, it is still outside of any kind of a judicial system,” the politician emphasized.

From her point of view, the use of American drones in African and Middle-Eastern countries is another example of the double standards policy in Washington.

“This policy divides those into so-called civilized regions, in which things like killer drones or night flights are not being done, and interventionist zones like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen, in which no rules, no humanitarian standards are applied,” said the Bundestag member.

An international investigation of the US drone strike program is unlikely to bring forth any significant results, she suggested.

“Maybe you remember that as the result of orders [in 2009] given by the German general on bombardment of Kunduz [capital of the eponymous province in Afghanistan], about 140 people died. There has been an investigation of lawyers and NGOs in Afghanistan, but the German government was not willing to accept the outcome of this investigation. I think there may be the same problem with the US drone strikes,” Inge Hoeger explained.

In her opinion, all world nations, including Germany, must speak out, publicly denounce Washington’s activities and introduce a universal ban on killer drones.

“They should be outlawed, and it should be very clear that this is not a way that international conflicts should be carried out,” the politician urged.

The United States is creating a dangerous international precedent and stretching the boundaries of what is regarded as acceptable, said Anthony Dworkin, ECFR Senior Policy Fellow working on human rights, international justice and international humanitarian law.

“It shows disagreements about what should be regarded as sufficient information to order a drone strike. Because the United States regards itself as being in an armed conflict against these groups, and seeing a strong military cause for striking members of the groups,” the expert said, noting that observers and human rights activists worldwide do not support such an approach.

Having said that, noted there was an effort in the US over the most recent years to reduce the number of strikes based on poor or limited intelligence data and follow more closely the principles which had been described in public statements.

“But nevertheless, I think it shows that the practice falls short of the standards that the [Obama] administration is sending forth,” Anthony Dworkin pointed out.

Tighe Barry, member of “Codepink” anti-military human rights organization, expressed a similar point of view.

“These are not pinpoint-accurate tools that take out an individual: they take out people in an area. The Hellfire missile is a very powerful missile, and people within hundreds of meters are murdered by these weapons,” the activist emphasized.

According to him, a system where the White House is ready to allow thousands of foreign citizens die to neutralize only several dozen potential terrorists is a dire violation of the current legislation and moral norms.

“On a regular field of battle, the opposing soldiers are allowed to surrender, allowed to become POWs. This circumvents the rights of the Geneva Convention and international law, and our own national laws in the United States,” the American human rights activists stated.

He also highlighted the grave issues related to holding anyone responsible for the lethal strikes, while the whistleblowing by some of the drone pilots makes it possible to argue that the guilt system could have been orchestrated.

At the same time, the activist suggested that any attempts to condemn the US for violations related to drone use would fail, as Washington remains a very influential member of the UN Security Council, while the Middle-Eastern and European states prefer to stay quiet on the issue in order to avoid losing the military, equipment and political support their overseas partner provides.

He also reminded that one of the possible evolutions of the remote-controlled UAVs are autonomous lethal weapons, which is a sufficient reason for the world nations to join forces in order to stop the proliferation of new deadly technology.

“There should be an end to the drone program, and the United States should review its use of this very powerful weapon that will eventually be used against the United States itself,” the expert concluded. 

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