By Boris Volkhonsky
On Monday, U.S. President Barack Obama for the first time ever confirmed that unmanned drones regularly strike suspected militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Previously, the U.S. administration had been avoiding any public comments on the practices that are little more than an open secret for the rest of the world outside the U.S.
Pakistan has constantly been raising this issue, as well as the issue of other U.S. covert operations on its territory. Iran recently downed one of the drones, which again has not led to any official confirmation by Washington.
Then why did Obama acknowledge the fact publicly right now?
First of all, most probably things have gone too far to keep silent on a matter that has caused an unprecedented deterioration of U.S. relations with its one-time staunchest ally in the region, Pakistan. Obama was very careful in his wording.
The drone strikes, he said, were a “targeted focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.” They target “al-Qaeda suspects who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” said President Obama and added, “For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the ones we’re already engaging in.” Needless to say, he neglected references to the large number of civilian deaths due to the drone attacks. “I want to make sure the people understand, actually, drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” he said.
He also made no reference to politically harmful effects the drone strikes have had on U.S. – Pakistani relations.
What is probably more significant is that this confirmation, along with the new war plans and the military budget revealed last week by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicate that the U.S. is ready to review its military doctrine shifting the focus on unmanned operations, like drone strikes, conducted with minimum risk to American soldiers. In fact, a drone can be operated through computer network, and the operator may be sitting in a safe location somewhere in Virginia, sipping Jack Daniels. Thus, maximum effect is achieved with minimum risk and maximum pleasure for the operator.
More so, as Reuters columnist Bernd Debusmann has put it, “Sometime in the next three decades, the U.S. military will be able to field robots that can make life-and-death decisions, operating without human supervision thanks to software and superfast computers.” But he also poses a question, whether “the technology to get to that point is running far ahead of considerations of the ethics of robotic warfare,” and refers to Isaac Asimov’s statement that “science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
What is interesting, though, is that this voice of reason was probably that of one calling in the wilderness among many loud voices lauding the new strategy. An op-ed piece in The New York Times by co-founders of the Genocide Intervention Network Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis is one of the most characteristic ones in this respect.
The opening remark of the article speaks for itself, “Drones are not just for firing missiles in Pakistan. In Iraq, the State Department is using them to watch for threats to Americans. It’s time we used the revolution in military affairs to serve human rights advocacy.”
The logic is clear. Human right advocacy is equaled to watching for threats to Americans. Therefore, protecting human rights means protecting Americans, and for that end any means are justified. If drones cause civilian casualties in the “tough terrain” – who cares! Those people are not Americans.
In this respect, it would probably be appropriate to refer to another science fiction writer Robert Sheckley and his “Watchbird”, which, although written in the early 1950s, resembles the drones too closely to be a pure coincidence.
Remember, the Watchbird was invented to put an end to all violent crimes, but eventually turned on everybody, including its creators. Maybe this is something the U.S. administration should remember before embarking on the unmanned warpath – however noble the initial proclaimed cause might be.
Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies