These days global military powers, like the United States, typically fight wars not through direct combat with other countries or groups but more through technological strikes designed to eliminate targeted individuals—often with a disregard for innocent casualties. Drones are the most stark example of this shift.
The increased number of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes has created controversy about their use among lawmakers, media, and political experts. While the U.S. government has defended drone attacks as a legal, ethical, and wise strategy, the practice is inhumane and violates both international law and human rights principles.
According to a recent UN report, drone strikes have killed hundreds of children in Afghanistan. The report, which was issued by the UN Committee on the Rights of Children, found that poor precautionary measures and the indiscriminate use of force doubled child victims in 2010-2011.
Conventional airstrikes can also have dangerous consequences. In June 2012, 18 civilians were reportedly killed during NATO’s anti-Taliban air-strike in Afghanistan’s Logar province. A month earlier, several members of an Afghan family were killed in an airstrike in Paktia province. The worst incident occured when 91 civilians died as a result of a U.S. drone attack in Kunduz province in September 2009.
Most recently, during a night operation jointly undertaken with Afghan forces in Eastern Kunar province, a NATO airstrike resulted in 10 civilians deaths. In the aftermath of the incident, President Hamad Karzai ordered Afghan forces to cease calling for air strike support from international troops.
President Karzai has repeatedly warned that the Afghan government’s efforts to coordinate with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led security mission established by the UN Security Council, could be undermined by these incidents. If the airstrikes and drone attacks continue, Afghanistan will also be unlikely to sign a security agreement providing international troops with immunity from prosecution in Afghan courts.
The United States and its allies, such as Britain, have used drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, arguing that the technology is very efficient, carries a low risk of collateral civilian damage, and effectively targets the appropriate individuals and groups.
History has, however, revealed the technology’s many failures. Most attacks have led to the death or injury of innocent civilians. Beyond physical injuries and death, drone strikes have also caused emotional trauma within affected civilian populations. People in impacted areas fear being hit by either intentional or mistaken targeting.
U.S. President Barak Obama has said the attacks counter imminent threat and are launched in “self-defense.” Given the overwhelming evidence on the loss of innocent lives caused by the strikes, Obama’s policy on drones seems akin to Lyndon Johnson’s decision to bomb targets in North Vietnam – a policy of wholesale violence with the stated purpose of “eliminating” America’s enemies notwithstanding the very little real threat, imminent or otherwise, to the United States.
In speaking of the Obama administration’s position, Naureen Shah, Associate Director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights project at Columbia University Law School, has said, “[t]his becomes a possible war crime when the US is killing civilians who pose no danger to the United States.”
The United States has argued that the drone program should be protected from ‘democratic accountability.’ According to Reuters, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions Philip Alston has urged the Obama administration to be transparent about the number of civilian lives taken by the use of this deadly technology.
Reuters quotes Alston on U.S. failures to hold American soldiers, intelligence agents, Pentagon officials, and private contractors accountable for all types of unlawful killings. In a statement delivered to a 47 member-state forum in Geneva, Switzerland, Alston noted that “the [U.S.] government has failed to effectively investigate and punish lower-ranking soldiers for such deaths, and has not held senior officers responsible under the doctrine of command responsibility.”
Violating international law and human rights fuels hatred against the United States and motivates residents in targeted areas to sympathize with groups like the Taliban. In September 2008, after the United States announced an intention to increase its military presence in Afghanistan to fight the “War on Terror” and began implementing drone strikes, Pakistani factions of the Taliban organized under a common slogan of resistance.
To facilitate this “solidarity,” a group of 40 senior Taliban leaders from 27 militant groups established Pakistan’s Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) as an umbrella organization. As the drone strikes continued to increase, the TTP was further strengthened and its strongholds in the country grew larger. On Sept 1, 2010, TTP was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. State Department.
Drone killings are a death penalty without trial. They violate national sovereignty, increase resentment of the United States and its allies, undermine ISAF’s strategy to “win the hearts and minds” of Afghan civilians, and negatively affect the partnership between the U.S and the Afghan government with which it hopes to work.