Drones have become a staple of 21st century warfare, particularly in the “war on terror” by the US military. The fundamental rationale for the use of drones rests on their “surgical precision”, believed to be saving civilian lives.
But the headlines suggest that this is not true. A recent US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, accidentally killed 43-year-old aid worker Jemari Ahmadi and nine members of her family, including seven children. This idea of accuracy is one of many widespread myths about drones that I set out to dispel in my research.
Military technology aims to inflict maximum damage to the enemy while minimizing our own losses of manpower and material. Drones have advantages over piloted aircraft, primarily they protect the lives of attackers. This has put us in a false sense of security about the nature of war, suggesting that conflicts can be won from afar, with minimal harm to civilians, in wars that respect moral and international law.
Addressing these myths can reduce the damage done to the unarmed population and the civilian body count from drone strikes to zero.
Myth 1: It’s ‘precision bombing’
Drone pilots – humans remotely wielding weapons – wait for a target to appear and then launch a missile. The process of identifying a target and carrying out an attack is minimized, with pilots potentially making serious decisions “on the fly”.
In Iraq, more than 13,000 civilians have been killed in coalition drone strikes since they resumed in 2014, when Islamic State (IS) occupied Iraq’s territories (they were three years before the withdrawal of US and UK troops). were closed).
As of 1 August 2019, in 1,773 days of 14,570 coalition drone strikes in Iraq and 19,785 in Syria, 13,000 civilians had been killed, 2,300 of whom were children.
Figures from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan show that civilian casualties from US drone strikes increased from 158 in the first half of 2018 to 430 in the same period in 2019. The total number of civilian casualties in the country increased by 39%. 519 by the end of 2019.
Myth 2: Drone warfare is ethical
The objective in drone strikes is to capture not kill. Humans are denied the right to surrender and are instead killed by assassins for being members of a group defined as evil. Drones are believed to appear to swiftly reward justices in a difficult situation and punish the unjust. Those executed are considered “guilty” without arrest, interrogation or subsequent conviction. Targeted killing becomes common, leading to increased human rights abuses.
New York Times journalist David Rohde, who was kidnapped by the Taliban for months in 2008 and 2009, described the discussion of drones during his captivity as “hell on earth”.
Myth 3: If war is legitimate, so is the weapon
According to international law and the Geneva Conventions, all parties to a conflict must distinguish between combatants and civilians – the latter being “protected persons”.
US President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2016 to reduce civilian casualties in all uses of force. That year he published Presidential Policy Guidance on “Direct Action Against Terrorists”, which set out a procedure for authorizing drone targets in line with the principles of war doctrine, a tradition of military ethics that determines who is involved when waging war. C action is acceptable.
Drones were used to respect the law and protect the vulnerable. Yet drone strikes were the method that killed the most civilians per incident in Iraq.
To protect civilians from indiscriminate harm, as required by international humanitarian law, military and civilian policies must prohibit aerial bombing of civilian areas unless this can be demonstrated – by monitoring civilian casualties – that citizens are being protected.
Myth 4: Drones are a victory for technology
If only drones were used, the argument goes, wars would still be fought in far-flung locations, but without thousands of boots on the ground. Yet despite their increasing use, drones have not fully enabled armies to avoid the usual (dirty and expensive) methods of fighting wars.
Iraq and Afghanistan began as high-tech wars, but quickly developed into widespread insurgency. In response, the US and its allies booted hundreds of thousands on the ground, resulting in casualties in the occupied countries and in the West.
Over the past 15 years we have turned to new technologies eyeing the sky – armed drones and long-range strikes, but also special forces and privatized military corporations. Along with this has come a policy of training and providing weapons to local forces, while drones and special forces handle counter-terrorism operations.
Myth 5: Drones are effective
While there has been no large-scale attack on US soil since 9/11, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians have been killed since the 2003 invasion as a result of drone strikes and other military action.
Aerial bombing has not created peaceful states, nor defeated IS, nor prevented the violent deaths of innocents, nor reduced sectarian conflicts, nor eased suffering. These wars have led to endemic chaos, mass exodus of civilians, death, poverty and generations living with the trauma of war. He has contributed to the rise of theocracy and jihadism. Wars are raging, as millions are radicalized, disillusioned and in despair.
The physically remote and hidden nature of drone tactics prevents state transparency about those killed and wounded, deprives individuals of the dignity of recognition and obscures the full human cost of war.