Send in the drones

Obama administration's use of unmanned drones in Yemen, Pakistan receives too little attention.

US predator drone_311 (photo credit: Reuters)
US predator drone_311
(photo credit: Reuters)
The US wars in Yemen and Pakistan are escalating, without much public acknowledgment or criticism, thanks principally to the Obama administration’s growing reliance on unmanned drones.  Use of remote-controlled aircraft in combat situations has increased five-fold since President Barack Obama took office.
Despite reports that the US would cut back drones, American attacks in Yemen and Pakistan continued this week.  Both attacks targeted al-Qaida affiliates deemed threats to US interests.
Yemen teeters on the verge of civil war.  The recent resignation of President Ali Abdullah Selah has done little to convince armed militants to put down their weapons and pursue a negotiated solution to their grievances.  The White House has repeatedly said that the US will not be sending troops into Yemen.
That said, American forces have conducted extensive airstrikes aimed at al-Qaida militia groups in the southern Yemeni provinces of Abyan, Bayda, and Shabwa.  With Saleh’s resignation, the use of drones has increased significantly in Yemen.  His successor, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, has sanctioned more extensive US military involvement in his country.
Drone attacks in Yemen occur under the direction of either the Joint Special Operations Command or the Central Intelligence Agency.  Each have their own drone arsenals, which are overseen and targeted separately.
US officials will not confirm the extent or frequency of their drone activities, so it is difficult to get an accurate measure of their effectiveness.  It is equally hard to collect data on the number of civilian deaths that have accompanied drone attacks.
Foreign press have labeled Obama’s actions in Yemen a “secret war.”  Given the administration’s reluctance to inform the American public of its intentions and goals, such criticism is difficult to dismiss out-of-hand.
US drone attacks have also been a recurring feature of the administration’s strategy in Pakistani tribal areas.  The drone campaign is much more extensive in Pakistan than in Yemen, and involves the CIA’s controversial “pattern of life” targeting, where drones are deployed on the basis of direct surveillance of an individual target’s activities.
In Afghanistan and Iraq, drones fly over 50 combat patrols every day, and the Pentagon plans to further increase their use.
Behind every drone, however, is a human being.  These highly-trained individuals pilot their high-tech weapons from a secure base that can be hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  Many drone pilots are stationed in the US and effectively telecommute to the front line each day.
Drones are primarily used for surveillance, but they are also very effective at targeting and killing enemy combatants.  Interestingly, the US Air Force now trains more new pilots for drones than for manned aircraft.
The argument in favor of drones is obvious and compelling.  Americans troops do not have to be deployed on the ground in areas where local and international resentment might be raised.  Equally important, drone use has domestic advantages as well. Their deployment doesn’t lead to politically inconvenient anti-war protests in city streets across the country.
Even the United Nations is rumored to be looking to expand its drone capacity.  They would initially be used for surveillance purposes to support UN peacekeeping missions.  Although Obama has been a vocal supporter of the UN since he entered the White House, it is unclear whether he will publicly back the UN’s use of drone or share the country's drone technology with UN peacekeeping teams.
Drones are essential to President Obama’s current military strategy, even though critics argue that they lead to significantly more deaths of innocent bystanders. A recent study by the British military raised concerns over the moral and legal issues of increasing reliance on unmanned aircraft.  One unresolved issue raised in this report is whether increasing the distance between human decision-maker and the intended (or unintended) targets will actually make war more likely.
The Obama administration, however, appears untroubled by these risks.
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder mounted a personal defense of the use of drones in warfare.  Unfortunately, his remarks did little to clarify the basis on which targeted killings would be conducted.
After making a touching reference to former US president John F Kennedy’s Cold War concept of the “hour of maximum danger," Holder went on to lay out a stunningly broad scope for future presidential action.  He said the killing of US citizen Anwar Awlaki without due process or judicial oversight would not be a unique or one-off occurrence.  Holder expressed his full confidence in the ability of the president to make these life-and-death decisions on the basis of secret evidence – at least when a Democrat occupies the White House.
What remains most striking about President Obama’s extensive use of drones in the face of important, and still unanswered, constitutional and legal concerns is the stunning silence from those on the Left who spent so much time and effort criticizing the morality and legality of the prior administration’s decision making.
It is hard to imagine a Republican president pursuing the same military strategy without meeting a chorus of vitriolic disapproval.
These policies deserve to be debated, critiqued and ultimately vigorously defended by President Obama and his advisers.  It is a shame instead that these questions are being dismissively swept under a rug.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.