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Azeem Ibrahim

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Drones and Collateral Damage

Posted: 07/05/2012 3:38 pm

Americans are gradually becoming more concerned about the use of drones and the morality and legality of this new stealthy and lethal technology. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAVs have changed the nature of warfare in the last ten years, and one would like to think that the American public is sharing Pakistan's moral outrage over their use when innocent civilians are being killed along with the so-called legitimate targets.

But it is not the deaths in Pakistan causing the outrage. Civil liberty activist groups are protesting the use of the drones' artificial intelligence in seeking out crime in the U.S. homeland. As a surveillance tool, domestic drones are being used increasingly to spy on suspected drug smugglers, illegal immigrants and potential terrorists. The fear is that the next development will be arming them, but fortunately the U.S. Congress hastily passed legislation on June 15 2012, to bar any Department of Homeland Security funding for "the purchase, operation, or maintenance of armed unmanned aerial vehicles." Armed drones are incredibly powerful and dangerous weapons, and troubling new questions arise about the potential militarization of the police and wondering what Americans are willing to accept as collateral damage on their own soil.

Because mistakes do happen. There are endless examples of police raiding the wrong home, shooting the wrong suspect, arresting innocent people. To give the police this dangerous new military technology is unthinkable. Civil rights activists are increasingly speaking out against the use of drones as unethical and an overreach of the Department of Homeland Security and police forces. And they argue that armed drones stretch the definition of the legitimate use of lethal force. Yet the drone attacks continue in Pakistan because, as U.S. counter-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, stated in an April 30 speech, targeted drone strikes are "legal."

"As a matter of international law, the United States is in armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban and associated forces in response to the 9/11 attacks and we may use force consistent with our inherent right of self defense."

Brennan said that the strikes are not for vengeance but "to stop plots, prevent future attacks and save American lives."

As the number of civilian deaths increases in Pakistan, this reasoning seems not only short-sighted but morally wrong. The end does not always justify the means and the case can be made that the "war on terror" needs redefinition. "Terror" cannot be fought and stopped, but criminal acts can be addressed. As the war in Afghanistan winds down and shifts from military action to police action, perhaps the same move will happen in the FATA region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. If the U.S. decides that drones are inadmissible for police action within the U.S., it will be very difficult for them to make the case that they are "legal" in Pakistan.

Traditional laws of engagement stipulate that a human must decide if a weapon is to be fired and should follow the laws of military necessity, humanity, proportionality and the ability to distinguish between military and civilian targets. The more sophisticated drones have the artificial intelligence to make lethal combat decisions without human intervention and the International Committee for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC) is calling for urgent discussions to reduce the threat posed by these systems. There are increasing reports of the ease with which hackers can control domestic drones -- the possibility of armed drones coming under the control of the wrong hands should spur responsible international action.

The latest report from the Pew Research Center released June 27, 2012, shows that Pakistanis continue to hold highly unfavorable views of the U.S., with only 17 percent in favor of drone strikes against extremists. There is also waning support for using the Pakistan Army in the fight against radical groups, although extremist organizations are still unpopular. In the past eight years, drone strikes by the CIA have killed more than 2,400 people in Pakistan including 479 civilians, according to the London Bureau for Investigative Journalism. Armed robots are making killing too easy, and technology is still unable to make fine distinctions and sophisticated judgments about targets. A drone's computer for example, is unable to distinguish between teenage boys looking for sheep and young militants on a mountain side, between a wedding party and a political gathering. The fact that technology is creating smaller and smarter armed drones, able to target a single terrorist, is of little consolation to those who have lost family in previous strikes.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that "no measure is too extreme in the name of keeping our citizens safe." Perhaps when the U.S. takes stock of the drone program, it will recognize that it is feeding radicalization, giving propaganda advantage to the extremists and ultimately undermining efforts to bring peace to the region. As public opinion in Pakistan increasingly sees the U.S. as an enemy and not an ally, President Obama should assert his moral authority regarding the drone program and restore the human element to the use of military force. The unique technology which makes the drone possible should not separate military force from human emotion. Hopefully the U.S. will opt for humanity.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute and a Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.

 

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