World

US drone attacks undermine the rule of law

Nick Hopkins

US use of drones has soared during Obama's time in office, with the White House authorising attacks in at least four countries.

US use of drones has soared during Obama's time in office, with the White House authorising attacks in at least four countries  Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. (AP)

The United States' use of drones is counter productive, less effective than the White House claims and is "encouraging a new arms race that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent", according to Michael Boyle.

Boyle, who was on Obama's counter terrorism group in the run-up to his election in 2008, said the US administration's growing reliance on drone technology was having "adverse strategic effects that have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists".

Civilian casualties were likely to be far higher than had been acknow-ledged, he said.

In an article for the Chatham House journal International Affairs, Boyle said the conventional wisdom over the use of unmanned aerial vehicles needed to be challenged.

He said there was an urgent need for greater transparency because most Americans remained "unaware of the scale of the drone programme ... and the destruction it has caused in their name".

US use of drones has soared during Obama's time in office, with the White House authorising attacks in at least four countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It is estimated that the CIA and the US military have undertaken more than 300 drone strikes and killed about 2500 people.

Tipping point
Administration officials have argued that their use is lawful, though the Pentagon's most senior lawyer, Jeh Johnson, recently admitted that the US was heading for a "tipping point", beyond which it should no longer pursue terrorists by military means because the organisation that Congress authorised the military to pursue in 2001 had in effect been destroyed.

In his study, Boyle said Obama had pledged to end the "war on terror" and to restore respect for the rule of law in US counter-terrorism policies.

"Instead, he has been just as ruthless and indifferent to the rule of law as his predecessor ... while ... Bush issued a call to arms to defend 'civilisation' against the threat of terrorism, President Obama has waged his war on terror in the shadows, using drone strikes, special operations and sophisticated surveillance to fight a brutal covert war against al-Qaeda and other Islamist networks."

Boyle, who teaches at La Salle University, Philadelphia, said the government claim that drones were an effective tool that minimised civilian casualties was "based on a highly selective and partial reading of the evidence".

He argues that one of the reasons for why the US has been "so successful in spinning the number of civilian casualties" is that it has reportedly adopted a controversial method for counting them: all military-age men in a strike zone are classed as militants unless clear evidence emerges to the contrary.

"The result of the 'guilt by association' approach has been a gradual loosening of the standards by which the US selects targets for drone strikes," his study says.

Debilitating effect

"The consequences can be seen in the targeting of mosques or funeral processions that kill non-combatants and tear at the social fabric of the regions where they occur. No one really knows the number of deaths caused by drones in these distant, sometimes ungoverned, lands."

Boyle questions the claim that drone strikes have been effective in killing so-called high-value targets, saying records suggested lower-ranked foot soldiers were the ones who had been hit in greatest numbers.

And he also said the strikes had a debilitating effect on local populations and their governments.

"Despite the fact that drone strikes are often employed against local enemies of the governments in Pakistan and Yemen, they serve as powerful signals of the regimes' helplessness and subservience to the US and undermine the claim that these governments can be credible competitors for the loyalties of the population," he writes.

"The vast increase in the number of deaths of low-ranking operatives has deepened political resistance to the US programme in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries." – © Guardian News & Media 2013

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