Allan Massie: Drone attacks may come home to roost

Washington could not legitimately complain should other states employ unmanned planes on America, writes Allan Massie

An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. Picture: AP
An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. Picture: AP

SOMEWHERE in the United States, perhaps Arizona or New Mexico, a member of the armed forces is closing down his computer. He has completed a good day’s work, during which he has directed a drone to its target and eliminated someone identified as a terrorist. He may be wearing a ribbon on his uniform – a distinguished American foreign correspondent told me the other day that decorations are awarded by the US government for this work, even though the man at the computer has himself been in no sort of danger. When he goes home, he may tell his wife that he zapped an enemy of the US. She may ask, shyly, if there was any “collateral damage”, which is a way of asking if he happened to kill any innocent bystanders as well as the designated target, and he, being a decent chap, will reply: “I hope not.”

Unfortunately, there often is such collateral damage, and this is why Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are suggesting that the drone operators, and those who authorised their actions, may be guilty of war crimes. Now, the legal position seems to be murky. Much depends on whether the attacks take place in what may legitimately be regarded as a war zone. Everybody, after all, recognises that civilians as well as enemy combatants are likely to be killed in war. With modern weapons, however narrowly targeted, this is unavoidable, and nobody denies that civilians have been killed by American drone strikes in north-western Pakistan and Yemen. For the Americans, these deaths are regrettable accidents. It is fair to say that the regret is sincere – to some degree anyway. Killing civilians is “counter-productive”.

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There is something repulsive about killing by remote control, deaths directed from the safety of a military base on the other side of the world. The repugnance one feels may be illogical; it might even be dismissed as aesthetic rather than moral. Is there any essential difference between a strike from a manned aeroplane and a strike from an unmanned remotely-controlled drone? The victim is just as dead in either case, and the claim that the drone is more accurate, more capable of pin-pointing its target precisely, may well be true. Nevertheless the feeling won’t go away; it is occasioned by the reflection that killing is more justifiable if the killer is, or may be, in some danger himself. You may deplore the area bombing of German cities during the Hitler war, but you can’t deny that Bomber Command suffered heavy losses, and the men who flew in bombers over Germany risked their lives every time they took off. The man directing a drone risks nothing, except perhaps an uneasy conscience.

US president Barack Obama sidelined his predecessor’s phrase, “the global War on Terror”, but the war goes on. Terrorists and suspected terrorists are seen as legitimate targets, whose elimination is justified because of the danger they may pose to the US or to American interests. We are assured great care is taken in the identification of these targets, and this is doubtless true. Nevertheless, mistakes happen. Sometimes the wrong person is identified.

Last May, Obama said that, to be legitimate, a target must pose an imminent threat to the US, cannot reasonably be captured and can be attacked without putting civilians at risk. This is so much hogwash. The “rules” have been repeatedly ignored or broken. Civilians have not only been put at risk, but also killed, and this has happened in countries where America is not at war. In breaching the president’s own guidelines, it seems probable that Americans have indeed committed war crimes.

Even those of us who deplore targeted assassination have to concede that Islamist terror is a reality, and that governments are not only entitled, but also obliged, to take measures to prevent terrorist attacks. Here in Britain, we rely on the security services and the police to do just that – and we are quick to blame them if they fail. But we also accept that there are proper limits to what may be done in our defence. Assassination of suspects is beyond the limit. The same is true in the US itself, at least when the suspect is an American citizen.

Yet abroad, in Pakistan and Yemen especially, the idea of what is permissible has been stretched. The US administration and its security services have appointed themselves judge and executioner. The verdict is delivered, with no right of appeal, and the sentence of death carried out. This is disturbing, and would be disturbing, even if there was no “collateral damage”. When there is such damage, in the shape of the killing of civilians, it may properly be termed a war crime – all the more so because no war has been declared.

It is wrong, and it is foolish. Every drone strike is resented. Every drone strike intensifies anti-American feeling and causes it to fester. Every drone strike make things more difficult for political leaders, such as Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, who want to remain America’s allies. Every drone strike may serve as a recruiting instrument for the Islamists. Human Rights Watch notes that “al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has issued statements accusing the US of fighting a war not just against al-Qaeda but against all Muslims”. This isn’t true, but many will believe it is.

There is another consideration. America has no monopoly of drones, or at least soon won’t have any such monopoly. Other states, some hostile to the US, will soon acquire what is euphemistically called “unmanned aerial vehicle strike capability” – if they haven’t already done so. They may one day employ this against Americans. Moreover, if targeted assassination – by drones or other means – is regarded as legitimate by the US (and also by Israel), then how can it be deemed illegitimate if practised by others?

The American administration may regard such killings as acts of legitimate self-defence because its targets are people who want to harm America. But what is self-defence in American eyes is aggression in the eyes of others, and may be answered in kind. That is the dangerous path on which America is set. When you kill those you judge to be “bad men”, you are inviting retaliation. And so it goes, on and on, and on.