x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

US drone strategy needs clarity

The use of drones by the US in counter-insurgency operations often undermines rule of law and has strategic drawbacks.

Faheem Qureshi was with nine of his relatives in a small village in North Waziristan when the missile struck. Everyone in the building was killed except Mr Qureshi, who suffered the loss of an eye and an ear, and a fractured skull.

In the past month, the UN Human Rights Council has looked at hundreds of cases worldwide, including Mr Qureshi's, of drone strikes that have killed civilians. An estimated 3,000 people, including non-combatants, have been killed over the past decade - mostly by US drones, although Israel and the UK are implicated also. The border areas spanning Pakistan and Afghanistan have been the most heavily targeted, areas where Pashtun culture has deeply embedded traditions of blood-feud revenge if members of a family are killed.

This newspaper has repeatedly argued, in reference to Pakistan and Yemen in particular, that the US drone campaigns are deeply counterproductive in the long term. There is no possible victory by attrition, and where one militant is killed, another 10 take his place. There is also a fundamental moral dilemma as aerial bombing kills, sometimes indiscriminately, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Somalia and Yemen. It makes no difference if the pilot is in the cockpit or behind a computer terminal.

As The National reported yesterday, the use of drones is increasingly coming under fire in the United States as well. The White House insists that the approvals for drone strikes are always in line with international law - but refuses to provide supporting details. Even in staunchly hawkish circles, the ambiguity has raised concerns about vague standards, possible criminal culpability and the long-term consequences.

In most cases, US drone attacks on foreign soil have been carried out with the approval, tacit at least, of host governments. Although both Pakistan and Yemen have recently criticised strikes, the extensive bombing campaigns have more often than not relied on intelligence from local sources. That is another level of ambiguity in a military strategy that seems to be widening its targets.

The US appears unlikely to change its strategy - all-but oblivious to the ill will it fosters - and the technology is certainly here to stay. The appeal of remote-controlled killing, at almost no immediate risk, will appeal to almost every country. Washington would be wise to formulate clear standards of remote-controlled warfare, while it is still mostly US drones in the sky.