Breakthrough in drone-debate white noise

droneWhat once was a rather loud drone of debate over the use of armed, remote-controlled, aerial attack vehicles seems recently to have receded into background noise. Perhaps that’s in part because of newly perceived threats like ISIS — threats that many Americans, tired of U.S. ground-troop casualties, would rather see addressed by Reaper and Predator drones. (photo credit) Perhaps it’s because criticism of U.S. counterterrorism practices has muted since the days of the Bush Administration, or because reports of any such criticism now are relegated to the back pages of a few national newspapers.

A recent New Yorker article deserves to break through this complacent fog: “The Unblinking Stare: The drone war in Pakistan,” by Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prizewinning reporter on national security issues and dean of the Columbia Journalism School. It’s a great synthesis of reportage on the origins and evolution of the program, coupled with commentary that raises questions all ought to be asking.

Of particular note:

► The recognition that the practice of “‘signature strikes'” — drone-killings of “armed military-aged males engaged in or associated with suspicious activity even if their identities were unknown” — stands at odds with settled law. Coll cites a 2013 report by Christof Heyns, U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, for the proposition that such strikes do not fall under either “proper standard for attacking a person under the laws of war … ‘continuous combat function’ or … ‘directly participating in hostilities.'” (Coll might’ve gone a step further, and acknowledged that “continuous combat function” is a concept not established in written international humanitarian law, and thus itself still subject to challenge.)  Concern over legality seems to have contributed to President Barack Obama’s tightening of drone-killing standards a year or so ago. The result? Since that time, “there has not been a single documented civilian casualty, child or adult, as a result of a drone strike in Waziristan.

► The role that children play in the story. Coll reports that a Pakistani documenter of human rights violations soon realized that data on drone-killings of adults stirred little interest; “if a drone missile killed an innocent adult male civilian, such as a vegetable vend[o]r or a fruit seller, the victim’s long hair and beard would be enough to stereotype him as a militant.” The documenter’s solution? “[F]ocus on children.” Thus were recorded, via photographs, the harm done to children in the course of drone attacks. Such photos helped fuel “a social-media contest,” Coll wrote, a contest that includes widely varying statistics about just how many civilians, of any age, have perished in U.S. strikes. The disparity makes it hard to evaluate — and thus hard to challenge — U.S. administration claims that drones are more humane, more precise than other sorts of aerial attacks.

Even if the claims are true, Coll questions whether that matters in the end. He cites a recent Foreign Affairs essay in which scholars Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps argued that the promise of precision “may create more war.” And he writes of meeting in Islamabad with young men who acknowledged the upside of more precision, then added: “But they also talked about the suffering their families had endured — kidnappings, homes under pressure — and their own struggles to obtain an education. In their telling, the relative precision of the aircraft that assailed them wasn’t the point.”

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