US drones strategy

US drones strategy relies ‘too much on killing people, too little on solving the problems’
29 အောက်တိုဘာလ 2013

US policymakers don’t even claim that all the targets of their drone strikes are posing a threat to the US, Phyllis Bennis, director of the Institute for Policy Studies, told RT.

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Using drones in Pakistan and elsewhere is part of the US anti-terrorism strategy that relies way too much on killing people, and way too little on solving the problems, Bennis said. 

Amnesty International has issued a report claiming US officials responsible for carrying out drone strikes may have to stand trial for war crimes, listing civilian casualties in the attacks in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch issued a similar report on Yemen.

Polly Truscott, the head of South-Asia program at Amnesty International and co-author of the report on the use of US drones in Pakistan, says the US doesn’t even have a legal explanation to its actions. 

“It is such a secret program, the US does not even really explain its legal rationale for the drone strikes and the killings, let alone acknowledge the killings. So we’re calling for independent investigations through the Congress of those strikes and particularly whether they were unlawful killings,” Truscott told RT.

Phyllis Bennis, director of the Institute for Policy Studies says the US has consistently refused to allow its highest officials to be held accountable for the consequences of wars “that are themselves fundamentally violations of international law.”

RT: The report says elderly people and children not involved in any fighting fall victim to drone strikes. What is in your opinion the justification for killing them?

Phyllis Bennis: There is no justification for killing children, old people, and non-combatants; there is no legal justification, there is no moral justification. The fact that these are the actual victims of the US drones strikes goes to the heart of what is wrong with drone strikes.

The idea that they are somehow ‘surgically accurate’ is simply demolished. That argument is demolished by the Amnesty International report, by the initial report by the UN special rapporteur who looked at the question of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan and in Yemen.

All the experts from everywhere who looked at this issue have said “it doesn’t work”. It is not surgically accurate; it doesn’t identify only the targets. And the notion that the decision ultimately is made by people thousands of miles away, who cannot see, who have no sense of the consequences on the ground. Are people gathering under a certain tree terrorists because once a known terrorist was under that tree? That’s not a basis for how you wage a war. It is an inherently illegal action, it seems to me.

RT: Known US officials have to be held accountable for killing civilians in Pakistan with drones. Why does Washington refuse to admit to this?

PB: I think that the US has a consistent position in refusing to allow its highest officials, whether political or military, to be held accountable for the consequences of wars that are themselves fundamentally violations of international law. 

The reality is that in the US international law is dismissed if it contradicts something that someone says is national law. So, if the US says “we have determined that it is legal to use drones strikes in Afghanistan, or to use drones strikes in Pakistan or Yemen, where we’re not at war”, the fact that it is maybe a violation of the international law is simply dismissed as irrelevant. 

International law in the United States unfortunately is too often only applied to other countries and not to ourselves. 

‘Rising tide of concern about US drone strikes’

RT: Do you think this report would have any impact on US drone policy?

PB: I think what we’re seeing right now is a rising tide of concern about the drone policy. The Amnesty International report would be very important because Amnesty is a very influential organization with a great deal of international and US credibility. It falls right at the time there is also have been a UN report, there is a growing movement against drone strikes, there is a big anti-drone conference planned in the United States in mid-November.

So there is already a rising tide of opposition to these strikes across the US and this report would help that.

RT: It’s claimed some of the drone killings amount to war crimes. Isn’t it our responsibility to bring those who committed them to justice?

PB: I think that there is a serious lack of information. One of the big problems with the drone war is that we don’t have good information. It may be that there are war crimes involved if there are decisions made to use drone strikes when other options are available. If decisions are made to use drone strikes against settings where there are known civilians, if drone strikes are used in a host of circumstances, they may well be illegal under the international law, they may well be war crimes. 

There needs to be a thorough investigation. And what we’ve seen is that the US government is not prepared to investigate itself. So the question of international investigations – whether it’s in the context of the international criminal code, to which of course the US is not a member or whether it’s in the context of the Amnesty International, the United Nations, other agencies – all of these need to be explored and used.

RT: Despite using drones, Washington still puts boots on the ground to fight terrorists in countries, most recently, like Libya and Somalia. Does it mean that drones are ineffective?

PB: Before we can talk about what is ‘effective’ we have to talk about what the goal is of using military force at all. Is it to make Americans safer? Is it to keep Afghanis, Pakistanis or Yemenis safe? What’s the goal?

The question of being ‘effective’– if you’re asking do drones work to kill people? Absolutely. Does that help anyone? That is a different question; we need to start with that.

We also have to recognize that the rise in drone strikes certainly does not mean that the US has given up other forms of warfare. This idea that we can use drones instead of troops is only possible when you think about it in the context of large-scale, hundreds of thousands of troops deployed as we have previously seen in Iraq and currently see in Afghanistan, where there are 65,000 or so troops now together with a 100,000 US-paid mercenaries.

In that context drones are one part of an anti-terrorism strategy that relies, in my view, way too much on killing people, and way too little on solving the problems that cause people to turn desperate enough to turn to violence.

So we see the continuation of drone strikes, we see special forces operations, we see assassination squads, we see night raids, we see a host of military action still being carried out by the US forces along  with the drone strikes that are so much on the rise.

‘US doesn’t even claim that drone targets are a threat’

RT: The US claims it uses drones against terror suspects posing imminent threat to the United States. But Pakistan is on a different continent. Isn’t it a way too broad a definition for an imminent threat?

PB: I don’t think anyone in the US believes, and I’m not even sure that policymakers really make a claim in a serious way, that all of the targets of their drone strike are actually engaged in something imminent as a threat to the US.

Many of these people, even what is known about them, even when they get a person they are trying to get, who maybe not a legitimate target – and in many cases they are not, but even when they get a person they are trying to get – it is very rare that that person at that moment is engaging at any kind of military activities.

Usually these are people gathering somewhere, in a house, in a car – they are not an imminent threat to anyone, let alone to the US half a world away.

So the notion of claiming that they are an imminent danger and there is no possibility of arresting them flies in the face of the current policy as we do see attempts to arrest people, though sometimes it amounts to kidnapping rather than arrest, still that is an alternative to killing them.

And when we see a choice – we know that the US has an option. The problem is sometimes they are not willing to take any risks, a risk to US soldiers.

And the problem is that when you start saying that the lives of Afghani, Pakistani or Yemeni civilians are somehow worth less than the lives of US soldiers – that is a completely untenable position, both morally and in terms of the international law.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.


photo by Meesh