By Kumar Ramanathan
They’re almost like something out of a science-fiction film. Slender, aerodynamic, and minimalist, they have a curious aesthetic appeal, like a massive metal hawk flying at a distance. Designed for endurance and stealth, the Predator drone is the United States military’s prime unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Their use in the “war on terror” began in 2004, as a small and mostly unnoticed piece of the war in Afghanistan, managed by the CIA’s Special Activities Division. In 2008, as the situation in Afghanistan grew more complicated by the day, military strategy underwent significant change and began a drone strike escalation. By 2011, there were over 118 individual strikes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) region.
This escalating drone war is the United States’ great open secret. Information has been published and rationales have been written, but it was not until earlier this March that an Obama administration officially addressed the legal ramifications of drone strikes.
Attorney General Eric Holder himself made a legal defense, citing these “targeted killings” as “an indicator of our times … not a departure from our laws and values.” President Obama has repeatedly pointed out that “other means” of carrying out these strikes would result in increased American casualties and collateral damage. The drone war is central to the military’s “counterterrorism” strategy, designed to avoid a sprawling ground war. As drone attacks reached a peak in early 2011, the White House called it “the most precise weapon in the history of warfare.”
Drones are certainly effective. And if that is our only concern, then we should have no qualms with this escalating third war. But to do so would not address unsettling moral implications about ourselves that this terrifying war on terror reveals.
I do not harbor illusions about the harsh realities of war. President Obama is right when he claims that conventional strikes on the same targets would probably result in more causalities on both sides. But the scale has shifted: as the war in Afghanistan scales down, the drone attacks are becoming a war of their own, with collateral damage to spare. In their extensive research into the drone war in February of this year, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that out of 316 total reported strikes, there were at least 467 civilian deaths, including 178 children.
The drone war reveals an ease with which the United States is willing to stay at war outside battlefields and often in civilian areas against unarmed individuals. Holder’s detailed rationale for the killings states that “it does not require judicial approval before the president may use force abroad against a senior operational leader of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is at war.” The CIA claims to screen targets thoroughly, but no definition of “senior operational leader” has ever been given.
The worst of these attacks has barely gained a mention in the media. Perhaps the most famous casualty of a drone attack was Anwar al-Awlaki, a man commonly referred to as “al-Qaeda’s YouTube preacher,” whose death raised controversy as he was a Yemeni-US dual citizen. But more chilling was the concrete evidence that emerged in October last year on the similar killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the dead preacher’s 16-year-old son. Abdulrahman’s grandfather’s words are echoed in my own thoughts— “Why? Is America safer now that a boy was killed?”
The echoes of silence surrounding this chilling shadow war reach all the way into our own borders. We are in part culpable for the drone war’s escalation. It is easy and feels useless to watch and complain, but public pressure does play a role. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending, for which the political uproar towards the end of the Bush administration is at least partly responsible. Where is the debate over the drone war?
This indifference is pervasive throughout the population. A Washington Post-ABC News poll this February found that 83% of Americans support the drone attack campaign. Avaaz, the bastion of liberal online petitioning, tried to foster a movement questioning the drone war. They came up with an imaginative campaign to send drones over the White House dropping photos of attack victims per 100,000 signatures on an online petition. The 10-million member organization had to drop the campaign two months after it went up, citing a lack of interest.
In Holder’s rhetoric, he mentioned how the drone attacks were an important part of the “global war on terror.” It is 2012, and we have shuffled through politicians, moved towards ending two grossly mismanaged wars, and changed our policy on foreign intervention, but that phrase, “the global war on terror,” remains from the dark days just after 9/11.
And it shows that Americans, for all of the distaste we have developed for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, still buy into the paradigm of this “global war on terror.” We are willing to implicitly endorse our own campaign of terror in response, fraught with self-righteousness and brutal civilian deaths. Drones, to be sure, are excellent strategic tools. But they have been used to foster and escalate a war for which no one has made an adequate defense. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may be coming to an end, but a new war is with us still.
The drone war raises a central question about our role in an endless, undefined conflict. If we are to end this madness, we must ask our politicians why they continue to support this silent war that seems to exist only for the sake of existing. We must ask ourselves if this campaign of terror is really the means we endorse to fight terrorism. The war on terror still haunts the collective conscience of the United States, and we must decide as a people whether to keep ignoring it. We may have lost a bumbling president and overt hubris on the international stage. But this war still moves forward today with little rhyme or reason, flying over vast countries without a sound, killing more each year, and leaving behind only echoes of silence.