Ever since the attacks of 9-11, Western governments have been focused on fighting the seemingly endless “war on terror.” This war has led militaries to far corners of the world where they try to stamp out terrorist threats while managing to shed plenty of blood and over a trillion dollars in the process. As terrorist groups unconfined by state boundaries are able to easily hide amongst the clutter of cities, the West has realized traditional military tactics are less effective and has resorted to a new weapon; one that is equally sneaky and deadly.
Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), seem straight out of science fiction. Armed with hellfire rockets and state-of-the-art cameras, drones kill targets as though in a video game, with operators even using controllers almost indistinguishable from those used for an Xbox 360. President Obama’s new nominee to head the CIA, John Brennan, praises drones for their “astonishing” and “surgical” precision, which allows the drones to efficiently kill terrorists while avoiding risks to civilian and American lives. Yet eyewitness and independent news agencies claim this is far from the truth.
According to a study by New York University and Stanford University, the CIA allegedly carried out the first targeted drone killing in Afghanistan in 2002. Today, this secret program has expanded to include Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. In 2011, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that in Pakistan, drone strikes were occurring on average every four days.
Under President Barack Obama, the drone program has dramatically escalated to include “signature strikes,” which, according to Daniel Klaidman, author of Kill or Capture: the War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency, target “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t necessarily known.” American officials claim to have killed over 600 militants (including 24 terrorist leaders) in 2011, yet distinguishing between militant and civilian is almost impossible. In 2012, the New York Times reported many in the White House joke that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” they assume it is a terrorist training camp. More frightening is the use of a technique known as a “double tap,” where drones wait for rescuers to reach the scene and strike a second time. This has forced rescuers to wait hours before daring to help victims. Legal experts including UN special rapporteur Christof Heyns have noted such actions constitute war crimes.
Suspected militants are not the only drone casualties. In total, drones have killed at least 3 061 people since 2004 in countries not formally at war with the U.S., with over 200 of these victims being children — and that’s a conservative tally. Rather than destroying terrorist threats, these strikes have bred new hatred toward the West. People living under drones in Pakistan claim that before, most didn’t even know America existed, but now, according to one Pakistani interviewed for the NYU/Stanford study, “almost all people hate America.” Drones have given many people in the region a new reason to fight, making it easier for terrorist groups to recruit more followers.
It seems to me drones create the very conditions of terror that the U.S. is trying to eradicate. These covert operations lack any system of accountability, directly breaking the 1976 executive order banning American intelligence forces from attempting assassinations. Drones create the perception that war can be costless in terms of American lives, but the long-term costs are significant. Drones have developed into a $94-billion industry with over 50 countries, including Iran and Syria, in possession of their own versions. Who knows what the conflicts of the future will look like, with researchers working on nano-drones (equally lethal weapons the size of insects). Governments are also using drones in more environments, such as patrolling borders and aiding the police force. I cringe at the possibility of drones one day monitoring our every move and enabling dictatorships to further oppress their people.
Though drone strikes will not go away any time soon, we need a system of transparency and legal accountability to ensure they are used only when absolutely necessary. Many terrorist-inhabited areas lack access to basic health care and education. Only if we help develop rather than bomb these areas can we have a hope of killing the terrorist ideology. The world we live in will always contain threats and problems — waging fear against fear and terror against terror will solve nothing.