In the Australian media the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq no longer make the front page. Less attention still is given to another war: a “drone war” which the Unites States is fighting in Pakistan. War, however, is a misleading term, because it implies a conflict between nation states. In the “drone war,” America is intervening in Pakistan with the stated intention of fighting terrorists. War also connotes casualties on both sides, whereas here all of the dead are Pakistanis; you can’t kill drones by definition.
Drones are unmanned vehicles. The drones which have been used by America in Pakistan are operated by pilots who are thousands of kilometres away. Each of the “Predator” drones which are used by the United States is armed with two “Hellfire” missiles. These drone strikes have been carried out on Pakistan since 2006. After the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007, George Bush authorised an expansion of these attacks.
The attacks are a covert program run by the CIA Because of this, there is a lack of accountability. When a soldier kills someone, as investigative journalist for The New Yorker Jane Mayer notes, “there’s a very obvious chain of command”. However, “this program is ‘invisible’,” and “[t]here is no such transparency at the CIA”. There is also a democratic deficit, because it is difficult for the people to know what, precisely, are the policies of their government regarding Pakistan.
The Obama Administration has continued this drone war. Obama, as we all know, won the Nobel Peace Prize. But, to quote Jane Mayer again, “[t]oward the end of the Bush Administration, the drone program in Pakistan ramped up, but when Obama became President, he accelerated it even faster ... the Obama Administration has carried out as many unmanned drone strikes in its first ten months as the Bush Administration did in its final three years.” Indeed, on Obama’s third day in office, two strikes were carried out. The first killed four people, who were probably linked to al-Qaida. But the second strike destroyed the wrong house. According to Jane Meyer, the strike killed a pro-government “tribal leader’s entire family, including three children”.
The drone attacks have a very low success rate; they have killed many civilians. This is partly why The New York Times has argued that “the costs outweigh [the] benefits”. In carrying out these attacks, the CIA is clearly using tactics which it knows will kill civilians. As The New York Times notes: “Press reports suggest that over the last three years drone strikes have killed about 14 terrorist leaders. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 per cent.”
US officials contest these figures. According to Foreign Policy magazine “Since 2006 ... 82 US drone attacks in Pakistan have killed between 760 and 1,000 people. Among them were about 20 leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban and allied groups.”
The Brookings Institute, a Washington-based US think-tank, estimates that for every militant killed by a drone, 10 civilians are also killed. So the death toll of these drone strikes is disputed; but all sources seem to agree that the drones kill far more civilians than they do militants.
The official rationale of these drone attacks is to fight terrorism. But, to quote The New York Times, “The persistence of these attacks ... contributes to Pakistan’s instability”. Moreover, the situation “is similar to what happened in Somalia in 2005 and 2006, when similar strikes were employed ... While the strikes did kill individual militants ... public anger over the American show of force solidified the power of extremists.” So it is certainly arguable that the attacks will only increase the risk of terrorism.
If there is a democratic deficit in using the CIA to carry out drone attacks, there is also a democratic deficit in corporate sponsorship of politicians. The company which manufactures these drones is General Atomics. The New York Times noted a study on corporate donations. According to the study, General Atomics “spent more - $660,000 - on Congressional travel than any other corporation on lone-sponsor trips ... General Atomics seemed to favour trips for Congressional staff members and aides. Among those on trips ... were aides to Representative Randy Cummingham, a California Republican who has since been convicted of bribery and other crimes.”
Gary Hopper, a Vice president for General Atomics’ Washington offices, said: “We wouldn't mix any kind of sales situation with Congressional staff there. I know that's a bone of contention with a lot of people out there but there was not in any way a quid pro quo.” The mere fact that someone goes to such trouble to deny such a “quid pro quo” relationship is a reason to wonder if such a relationship exists.
Unsurprisingly, the drone strikes are unpopular in Pakistan. A Gallup poll in August, 2009, found that only 9 per cent of Pakistanis favoured the strikes, and two-thirds opposed them. It is United States policy not to officially acknowledge the drone strikes are taking place. Therefore, when asked about the strikes, Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, “stopped short of directly acknowledging the missile strikes, but he said that ‘operational efforts’ focusing on Qaeda leaders had been successful.”
Panetta continued “[i]t is for that reason that the president and the vice president and everyone else support continuing that effort.” “Everyone else” does not include the Pakistanis.