The CIA has finally come clean about their unmanned drone operations in the Arabian Peninsula. With the support of the local government, drone attacks have frequently been launched from covert bases in Saudi Arabia, targeting Al-Qaeda training camps in the rural areas of neighbouring Yemen.
The White House has defended the operation, claiming that it “saves American lives” and is a more effective method of eliminating the leadership structure of terrorist organisations. On paper, drone strikes seem to be a fairly decent method of conducting warfare; they minimise human casualties on both sides due to the lack of a pilot and the increased accuracy of the weapons systems that can pinpoint individual houses where terrorist suspects are hiding. They are also significantly cheaper than fighter jets, with a unit cost of around $4m.
However, I can never get past the inherently disturbing nature of the military drone, with its windowless control dome and single 360 degree rotating camera. The method with which drone warfare has been employed cannot really be considered ethical. Civilian casualties still occur, and because these strikes are not the same as manned operations, there are different protocols about obtaining permission to carry out drone attacks.
The orders come straight from the White House, signed off by Obama. They do not need to go through the channels of the Afghan, Pakistani or Yemeni governments, whose people are generally the targets. Obama does not need congressional approval, and he has until recently shown little interest in garnering international support for his tactics.
The decision to disclose the CIA operations in the Arabian Peninsula is likely part of an effort to ease pressure from civil liberties unions in America who claim that the administration is operating without the knowledge or consent of the electorate. After American citizens in Yemen were targeted and killed by drones, it looks a lot like extra-judicial assassinations of protected individuals, something which previous presidents have shied away from.
Obama came to power in 2008 amidst praise that he was bringing “change” and “hope”. I suggest that the use of drones, particularly against US citizens, some as young as 16, is not congruent with the image he has garnered for himself. Even President Bush baulked at extra-judicial killings in such a manner.
Modern warfare should attempt to exclude civilian casualties, yet repeatedly drones have destroyed property and killed innocent people, and specific cases of civilian deaths rarely receive much news coverage. Dehumanising acts of conflict to this extent further remove the reality of the situation: a man on the ground presses a button, people die in a remote location. If we continue to wage war in this manner, we have little chance of gaining the vital support needed amongst the communities we are supposed to be “defending” and “liberating”.