They are expensive, lethal, and precise in their killing; at least they are designed to be. A creation of the nation's intelligence apparatus, they act as the new soldiers abroad, innately non-emotive machines asked to perform the previous duties of an army combatant more efficiently and free of the inhibitive emotional affects on human cognizance. They kill their enemies but also can miss their targets and a study released last month shows that they miss a lot.
Months after researchers at the University of Texas-Austin successfully spoofed a drone into its own crash landing, proving the enormous security vulnerability of the aircraft, the study conducted by law professors at New York University and Stanford argues that American drones are killing civilians in Pakistan's tribal regions and have had a "damaging and counterproductive effect" on the psyche and social welfare of residents there. Their claims are based on roughly 130 interviews with civilians living in the regions of Northern Pakistan where drone attacks are most frequent.
The evidence, gathered with the financial and logistical support of the activist group Reprieve amongst others, directly challenges the Obama administration's official line that targeted drone strikes aimed at suspected militants in Northwest Pakistan's tribal regions are actually hitting their targets. According to data provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, cited in the study, between 2,593 and 3,373 people have been killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 and between 474 and 884 of those killed were civilians, a figure representing a possible 25 percent of all deaths.
Neither camp in the U.S. presidential campaign has addressed the figures nor has the subject of drone attacks ever been addressed in either of the two presidential debates and there is little reason to believe it will be mentioned in Monday night's debate on foreign policy. Libertarian-leaning members of the Republican Party, such as former presidential candidate Ron Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) have pushed candidate, Mitt Romney, to address the issue in a critique of what they say are President Obama's interventionist and illegal military policies abroad but Mr. Romney has not done so, possibly indicating his own support for continued use of drones under a Romney administration.
President Obama has never publicly addressed the specifics of his administration's covert drone war, using instead his chief intelligence advisor, John Brennan to introduce the program at high-profile talks at Ivy League institutions and policy conferences in Washington attempting to coax the nation's intelligentsia and future elites into supporting the program as the nation's best option to fight the "war on terror" without risking expensive and drawn out military assaults. To some extent, Mr. Brennan and the administration have been highly successful.
A recent Pew research poll shows that 62% of Americans support drone attacks in Pakistan, even though data continues to prove they are highly volatile and a major contributor to rising anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, a key American ally in the region.
But, despite what may appear as promising numbers for the administration, millions of Americans are still unaware of the existence of drones, or unmanned combat aerial vehicles, despite billions of taxpayer dollars spent over the last decade on research, production and perfection of these devices.
It is not difficult to understand why.
Besides only a recent surge in media coverage, the drone campaign, a Bush-era program that conjoins the nation's intelligence and military departments from Langley to the Pentagon, has largely remained under the radar of the American public as a non-issue in this election year, where the economy's tepid recovery continues to consume the airwaves and front pages.
The tech magazine, Wired, produces a blog, Danger Room, on national security that regularly reports on drones and the coverage is comprehensive but the magazine's relatively small niche audience does not constitute a large enough portion of the American electorate to spur a national dialogue on drones that could effectively pressure the Obama administration to answer some uncomfortable questions.
The numbers published in the NYU/Stanford report are staggering but they go beyond the Excel spreadsheets on which they were gathered. They tell a greater and far more tragic story. Behind each statistic is a mother, father, son, daughter killed in the dead of night. Lives unjustly taken, dreams shattered.
These communities are amongst the oldest inhabitants of Pakistan, having survived brutal British occupation and harsh living conditions in the country's most remote areas. For centuries, these tribes have lived amidst the grandiose beauty of the mountainous Northern Highlands in relative isolation from the outside world but now, as Conor Friedersdorf wrote in the Atlantic last month when referencing the report, these residents go to bed each night under the constant sounds of American drones humming through the sky hoping and praying that they may not be the next target.
The Obama doctrine, if it can be defined as such, has relied on stealth power and drones have been a central tenet of that policy. His administration has not shown any reservations about using them to advance American interests in some of the world's most dangerous conflict-ridden states, from Pakistan to Yemen, but has refused to accept responsibility for when they fail. Because drones are not yet recognized under international law, mostly because the legal framework has not been revised since their creation less than a decade ago, the administration has been able to withstand criticisms from human rights groups in the United States and abroad.
This is until the case of Noor Khan. An American drone strike killed his father and more than 40 others as they sat in a village council meeting in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province in March 2011. Only four of the 42 victims were confirmed members of the Pakistani Taliban while the remaining were innocent civilians who had gathered to mediate a mining conflict in Northern Waziristan. Khan's family formally filed suit with the High Court of the country's Peshawar province against the Pakistani government. The plaintiff calls for the government to "pursue and criminally charge" those, either inside or outside the country, involved.
The legal basis for the case can be found in Article 9 of the country's constitution that guarantees all citizens protection of their "life and liberty." The court hearing is set for October 23 and, while few expect Islamabad to move forward with charges against the United States, the case could shape international law on the issue of drones, possibly -- as the UN's chief experts on extrajudicial killings have noted -- classifying leaders who use them against innocent civilians against innocent civilians abroad as war criminals.
Obama, the war criminal?