Drone strikes and US foreign policy

A decade or so of the use of drones as a tool in the targeted killing of persons deemed to be terrorists has provided considerable enlightenment on US pursuit of its interests in the post-Cold War era.

The option of targeting and killing or otherwise neutralizing foreign functionaries ‒ even heads of government deemed to be inimical to its interests – has previously been exercised by the United States, notably during the Cold War era.  ‘Nine/Eleven’ and the refashioning of Washington’s global outlook to focus much more attention on what it calls “international terrorism” has given rise to a search for new ways of combating America’s enemies.

Drones would appear to supersede other weapons in their effectiveness insofar as they can monitor an individual, group or location for several hours before taking immediate and terminal action should what is described as a “strike opportunity” arise. The effectiveness of drones as weapons of choice against groups like al Qaeda in Afghanistan and the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan reposes in the removal of the need to run the risk of either putting a pilot at risk or ‘boots on the ground.’

Drones have drawn attention to themselves – and more particularly to the methodologies employed by Washington in its ‘war on terror’ – primarily because they reflect a posture in US foreign policy the morality of which has been questioned both in that country and elsewhere in the world.  While the technology may be highly sophisticated, drones are not without their considerable drawbacks, particularly in the matter of targeted killings, being only as effective as the communication that guides them.

Other critical questions regarding who or what constitutes a legitimate target, the right of the US to unilaterally determine those targets, under what circumstances drones should be used and of course, the vexed question of collateral damage in terms of loss of lives continue to go unanswered.

The issue of what constitutes a legitimate target and under what circumstances it is legitimate to strike are key questions here for a significant reason. The targeting of persons and installations on foreign soil can, in effect, constitute violations of sovereignty, even acts of war. Recall that Pakistan has responded angrily to the November 1 drone strike that killed Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, its protestations going as far as accusing Washington of deliberately sabotaging planned peace talks between the Pakistani Government and the Taliban.

What is to be noted here is that Washington’s response to Islamabad’s protestations have bordered on studied indifference with one official statement from a US intelligence source asserting that the impact of the killing of Mehsud on the likelihood of the peace talks with the Taliban going forward is a matter that is ‘internal’ to Pakistan; in other words, the fallout from Mehsud’s killing is not a matter with which the US is unduly concerning itself.

Then there is the issue of what a recent newspaper article described as the “net utility” of drones, that is, the specific benefits derived from drone strikes as against “the reality that the strikes often alienate the local government and population” as has been the case in both  Afghanistan and Pakistan.

No less damaging to the governments in Islamabad and Kabul has been the domestic political fallout arising out of popular perceptions that that the local political administrations are complicit in the launching of the drone strikes.

Further questions that have to do with the deployment of weapons arise. These concern the need to fashion an upgraded international legal and regulatory framework to govern the use of drones. Questions have already been raised, for example, as to whether the US should not, first, halt its so called “signature strikes” that target unidentified militants which has a worrying element of indiscriminateness about it. Secondly, there are nagging concerns over the extent of Congressional oversight on drone strikes.

The other concern that Washington cannot afford to overlook is the externalization of the drone technology into other theatres of conflict – like the Middle East for example. For that reason alone Washington would be wise to lead the way in seeking to create internationally acceptable rules to govern the use of drones.

In the final analysis and no matter how the clinical killing of the Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud may cause the drone to seem an attractive tool in the war against terror, one assumes that Washington would be mindful of the longer-term foreign policy implications of drone strikes. In the case of the killing of Mehsud some measure of unsavoury fallout has already been witnessed. Mehsud’s successor ‒ so we are told – is far less disposed to peace talks with Islamabad than was his predecessor. That, presumably, makes him a leading target for another US drone strike. The government in Islamabad must, meanwhile, brace itself for what could be a succession of brutal Taliban reprisals for Mehsud’s killing.

As far as we can tell the November 1 drone strike is unlikely to terminally damage US-Pakistan relations though the government in Islamabad has said that it feels betrayed. That, however, is not an issue which appears to unduly trouble the Obama administration. Washington’s pursuit of the ‘war on terror’ would appear to supersede in importance the unwholesome consequences of the use of drones as weapons of war. That, frankly, is not a reassuring thought.

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