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Drone strikes are police work, not an act of war?

July 6, 2011


Launching an air strike in another nation would normally be considered an act of aggression. But advocates of America’s rapidly expanding unmanned drone programme don’t see it that way.

They are arguing, as Tom Ricks writes on his blog The Best Defense over at Foreign Policy, that the campaign to kill militants with missile strikes from these unmanned aircraft, is more like police action in a tough neighborhood than a military conflict.

These raids conducted by sinister-looking Predator or Reaper aircraft in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen – and since last month in Somalia – should not be seen as a challenge to states and their authority. Instead they are meant to supplement the power of governments that are either unable to or unwilling to fight the militants operating from their territories.

They are precise, limited, strikes aimed at taking down specific individuals, and in that sense are more like the police going after criminals, rather than a full-on military assault. Ricks writes:

“Police work involves small arms used precisely. Drones aren’t pistols, but firing one Hellfire at a Land Rover is more like a police action than it is like a large-scale military offensive with artillery barrages, armored columns, and infantry assaults.”

It is a bit of a stretch, though, to compare a police action in a rough part of town with the kind of devastation that the laser-guided Hellfire missile can rain down when fired from unmanned aircraft as scores of Pakistani civilians in the troubled northwest region  discovered in the initial days of the programme launched by the Bush administration.

Civilian casualties have dropped off since then as ground intelligence improves and drone controllers, whether they are sitting in the CIA headquarters in Langley or out in air-conditioned trailers in Nevada, acquire more experience in this type of warfare which outgoing CIA director Leon Panetta once said was the “only game in town”with regard to disrupting and destroying al Qaeda in Pakistan.

Under the Obama administration there has not only been a surge in strikes since it came to office in January 2009 but there has also been a diversification of the targets of the missile attacks as reported out of Pakistan.

Under President George W. Bush, the drone attacks were largely directed against al Qaeda and its associates, including the Afghan Taliban. Under Obama, they have also been targeting the Pakistani Taliban and its associates — particularly after their involvement in the killing of CIA officers in a suicide bombing in Khost area of Afghanistan in December, 2009. The pace of strikes against the Pakistani Taliban picked up further after it was found to have given training to Faisal Shahzad, a US citizen of Pakistani origin, to carry out a strike in New York’s Times Square last May. The car bomb failed, and Shahzad is serving a life sentence.

The idea that the United States can arrogate to itself the right of life and death of people around the world can set off a dangerous precedent.  What happens if India decides to do a bit of police action of its own in next door Pakistan. Unlike the CIA, India has actually built up a legal case against the founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafeez Sayeed, for involvement in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. Given the lack of action by Pakistani authorities, should India take the law into its hands and target Sayeed and his associates for the assault ?

Or as Greg Scoblete says in the Real World Compass blog, what if Iran develops the capability to fly drones of its own and blows up the suburban Virginia home of a CIA official that is suspects is  instigating violence in Iran, how will America react ?

Surely it is not going to say this is police action, but an act of war, or at the very least a terrorist strike on the homeland.

The U.S. leads the world in the use of unmanned aircraft for warfare by a distance, but it can’t be very long before other nations scale up their capabilities in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as they are also  known.

The drone technology may be sophisticated, but it can be reverse-engineered and replicated (the Chinese are reportedly already doing it). Forty countries already have UAVs in their arsenals, as do reportedly non-state actors such as Hezbollah. Today the U.S.  is able to fly its drones over Waziristan and Yemen, but it is not inconceivable that in the future others too might be able to fly their drones over New York and Washington.

Indeed, Pakistan – which has taken the highest number of drone strikes in recent years – is itself asking for these aircraft both for surveillance and to carry out covert warfare.  America has so far refused.

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