The Battlefield Follows: The Reality of Drones

The Battlefield Follows: The Reality of Drones

Soldier with drone. Photo By: The Christian Science Monitor
Soldier with drone. Photo By: The Christian Science Monitor

When George Bush launched his War on Terror after the 9/11 attacks, those highest on the "Most Wanted" list were the terrorist networks al Qaeda and the Taliban. From these organizations, high-ranking leaders were identified and their faces were broadcasted on almost every media outlet. These were the men we wanted Dead or Alive. Two simultaneous objectives were carried out: the first, a process of decapitation whereby the leader is killed or captured leaving the body without guidance much like a chicken with its head cut off. Secondly, although the leaders were high-value targets, thousands of low-level militants were considered a threat to US combat forces. Still, these less influential and amateurish militants were not a priority. The New York Times reports, “the State Department has argued, the United States may — as a matter of self-defense — lawfully kill high-level militants who are involved in plots to attack the United States, but not low-level militants who are focused on parochial concerns.”

Media reports of IEDs and suicide bombings showed a new face to the unpredictable and precarious nature of the War on Terror. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai describes the WOT as a "quotidian war, war as an everyday possibility, waged precisely to destabilize the idea that there is an 'everyday' for anyone outside the space and time of war." In his book Fear of Small Numbers, he calls terrorism the "nightmarish side of globalization" given the diffusion of ideas and materials in a rapidly-expanding technological world. What may be equally as nightmarish is the technology produced in the name of national security . The Predator and Reaper drones emerged as this nightmare.

Predator drones were used sparingly in both Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush Administration. Primarily engaged in reconnaissance, the Predator could give valuable data to "customers," ground troops, or locate an enemy position for a manned aircraft to neutralize. Even as the Predator was modified in 2002 to carry two 100-lb Hellfire missiles, it was primarily used in active combat zones. With the entrance of the Obama Administration, drone procurement and proliferation have skyrocketed. In the justification and pursuit of this War on Terror, the United States has arguably committed "acts of terror" in authorizing extrajudicial assassinations inside the boundaries of allied countries. The blatant lack of concern for civilian life in areas is the largest concern for human rights groups. As Appadurai mentions, terrorism brings a daunting unpredictablity to the everyday norms of war and peace, militants and civilians, life and death. The US has brought this unpredictability to the civilians of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere.

As of October 24, 2012, the Obama Administration carried out 298 strikes in Pakistan alone. Some attacks have successfully killed high-ranking members of terrorist networks known as "personality strikes." Such was the demise of Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki who was targeted by a US drone in Yemen. Other attacks target suspected terrorists who display patterns of behavior or actions designated and classified by drone operators. These are known as "signature strikes." Living Under Drones, a collaborative report between the NYU and Stanford Clinics, suggests the methodology of selecting signature strike behavior is flawed. In the FATA region of Pakistan, the Taliban is interwoven in the daily lives of the villagers. How much sense does it make to concentrate targeted drone strikes in an area with a mixed civilian population? Supporters of unmanned aircraft systems argue that the threat of collateral damage and civilian injury is minimized by advanced precision targeting systems. White House Counterterrorism adviser John Brennan spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center affirming the use of drones: “There is absolutely nothing casual about the extraordinary care we take in making the decision to pursue an al-Qaeda terrorist and the lengths to which we go to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life.”

However, the civilian death toll suggests such statements are not true. Even if we recognize the drone to be a weapon of pinpoint precision, errors in human intelligence, data overload, and the cruel nature of signature strikes prevent drones from reducing civilian casualties. The current administration seems perfectly okay to accept the loss of civilians. Time and time again, military officials have supported the use of drones when they have faced substantial criticism regarding civilian deaths. One can only imagine how Pakistanis view this assault on their everyday lives. Pakistan is not at war with the United States; they are allies. Yet, the United States has  waged an unprecedented war where the battlefield follows the so-called terrorists. From Afghanistan to Yemen, drones engage targets who are on Obama's infamous, yet secret, kill list.

With drone technology advancing ever so rapidly and lack of congressional oversight (especially among strikes carried out by the CIA), the Obama Administration commands a lethal power that few Presidents have obtained.

Glenn Daniels Jr is a senior at Towson University majoring in Anthropology and Cultural Studies. His interests include audiovisual and multimedia production, visual anthropology, social movements, tackling issues of race, and "organizing and agitating." He can be reached at glenndanielsjr[at]gmail.com and on Twitter @lemonsandkiwi.