Military drone programs should be put to an end

Published in the Daily Illini November 1st, 2011

Dec. 31 marks the deadline for the remaining 41,000 combat troops in Iraq to come home. The Iraq war was waged under false pretenses and should have never happened, but this “withdrawal” is misleading because our military’s presence abroad continues to expand through an undisclosed proxy-war of drone air strikes in unstable regions of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Last Sunday the Washington Post revealed that the Air Force, working closely with the CIA, has secretly invested millions into upgrading a small airport in Ethiopia to conduct counterterrorism missions with Reaper drone aircrafts. These unmanned fighter jets are loaded with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs whose purpose is to target and kill rogue militants. These operations continue to expand, with bases revealed to be in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen.

The CIA has a long history of stirring the cauldron of violence around the world through undeclared wars, and since 9/11, the agency’s counter-terrorism staff has doubled. Although the drone program has never been officially recognized by the CIA, “20 percent of its analysts are now ... targeters (that) scan data for individuals to recruit, arrest or place in the crosshairs of a drone.” The CIA’s authority to freely conduct high-tech aerial warfare is seriously problematic, but they have not publicly offered any legal guidelines or restrictions for its operations.

Unstable governments, preferably in a constant state of political and/or ethnic conflict, are what the CIA preys upon to build its drone facilities, and nowhere has suffered more than Pakistan. The number of civilian Pakistani deaths since the program began in 2004 is widely disputed: The CIA said that between May 2010 and August 2011, 600 militants and zero civilians had been killed, but the Brookings Institute says that for every militant killed, 10 civilians are murdered.

The imprecise nature of the video game-like targeting software used by the controllers from the base have easily confused terrorists with unarmed locals, often children: On March 1, nine Afghan children gathering firewood were killed because they were mistaken for militants with rocket launchers.

One of the most horrific examples of undifferentiated killing took place on June 22, 2009, when a “suspected militant hideout” in Pakistan was bombed, leaving the inhabitants buried inside. When others rushed onto the scene, another missile was fired, leaving 13 innocent civilians dead. At the funeral the next day, the U.S. struck again with the hopes that one militant leader was amongst the onlookers. But he wasn’t there, and another 80 civilians were killed.

The responses to drone attacks have caused overwhelming humanitarian and diplomatic backlashes against the United States with political observers noticing further anti-American sentiment seeding into the Pakistani and Afghan populations. The U.S. public’s response hasn’t nearly been as negative, but that difference can probably be attributed to the lack of a realistic, daily threat of a bomb being dropped on our homes. The impersonal nature of the killing, and thus diluted sense of moral culpability, should be highlighted because the person pulling the trigger is sitting comfortably miles away from the victims.

Despite Nobel Peace Prize-winner Barack Obama’s carefully timed illusion that “the tides of war are receding,” his administration is escalating wars in several other countries. More attention needs to be given to the dramatic loss of life and physical destruction he has overseen as president.

The drone program needs to be critiqued and ultimately put to an end because it is strategically ineffective — it increases the hatred and militarization of populations it is supposedly aiming to reduce — and for its profound disregard for preserving the sanctity of human life. But working to put an end to this atrocious program cannot gain momentum without pressure from U.S. citizens in solidarity against our government’s policy of unending warfare.