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Drone attacks boosting terrorism

29 August, 2012

By S M Hali


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The controversial drone strikes by the US spy agency, CIA may have eliminated a number of militants but simultaneously, they are contributing to swelling the ranks of terrorists. The US and its allies have been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 but the first drone strike was not executed till 2004. They remained sporadic till 2008, when President Obama accelerated the number of attacks and 2010 became "year of the drone" when a total of 118 drone strikes were launched, resulting in a maximum number of 993 lives lost.

The controversy regarding the drone strikes is on two accounts, their legality and the number of civilians being eliminated as collateral damage owing to the strikes. The second aspect is being exploited by terror mongers for fresh recruitment, urging the relatives of victims to avenge the death of their loved ones by joining the terror organizations.

As far as the legality of the drone attacks is concerned, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken the position that the administration`s programme of targeted killing outside of armed conflict zones was unlawful. Judicial experts expressing their views before a key congressional committee opine that US drone attacks were illegal because the CIA was using civilian contractors to launch them. Another lawyer argued before the US House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs that while the United States had the right to use the drones, the CIA personnel actually launching the attacks could be guilty of war crimes. A third expert tried to draw parallels between the killings in Fata and targeted killings of bandits loyal to Pancho Villa along the Mexican border in the 19th century. He insisted that current intelligence laws "implicitly" gave the US president the power to launch targeted killings.

Renowned columnist Bill Quigley reminds that assassination by the US government were declared illegal since 1976, when US President Gerald Ford issued Executive Order 11905, Section 5(g), banning them. Drone killings are acts of premeditated murder, which is a crime in all fifty states and under federal criminal law. Quigley quotes a May 2010 report by NYU law professor Philip Alston, the UN special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, who directly questioned the legality of US drone killings, stating that drone killings may be lawful in the context of authorized armed conflict (e.g. Afghanistan where the US sought and received international approval to invade and wage war on another country).

However, the use of drones "far from the battle zone" is highly questionable legally. Referring to Richard Falk, professor emeritus of international affairs and politics at Princeton University, Quigley brings out that the widespread killing of civilians in drone strikes may well constitute war crimes. According to the current US Military Law of War Deskbook, the law of war allows killing only when consistent with four key principles: military necessity, distinction, proportionality, and humanity. These principles preclude both direct targeting of civilians and medical personnel but also set out how much "incidental" loss of civilian life is allowed. Retired US Army Colonel Ann Wright squarely denies the legality of drone warfare, commenting in "Democracy Now": "These drones, you might as well just call them assassination machines. That is what these drones are used for: targeted assassination, extrajudicial ultimate death for people who have not been convicted of anything."

Coming to the more ominous aspect of boosting terrorism, Gareth Porter has carried out research on the real level of civilian casualties in US drone strikes in Pakistan, based on data gathered by a Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar for the families of the victims of drone strikes, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London founded on their interviews with eyewitnesses and others in the areas where the strikes take place. He concludes that the US has been tremendously underplaying the level of civilian casualties by as much as 84 percent.

Porter also concludes that the drone war in Pakistan has created enormous anti-American sentiment throughout the country, particularly, in the areas where the strikes have taken place, they generate not just anger, but the Taliban and al-Qaeda and other groups have been able to generate more enthusiasm for support for the jihadist sentiment that they represent. Pakistan's repeated requests to cease the drone attacks have not only fallen on deaf ears, but to rub salt in the wound, have actually resulted in an acceleration of the frequency of strikes, thus aggravating the issue. The drone attacks is thus boosting terrorism.


The writer is a political and defence analyst.

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