Just over a decade ago, US President Barack Obama went to Norway to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. While accepting the award, he made a moving speech about war and peace. Noting the absurdity of receiving the prize while still "the commander-in-chief of a nation in the midst of two wars," he laid out his ideas on how to build a just and lasting peace in the world. At the same time, he defended his continued use of military force in the Middle East, arguing that "the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace," even if we "must also think clearly about how we fight [wars]."
Looking back, there's no doubt about the eloquence of his words; unfortunately, though — for him, for me and for the world — he didn't take his own advice. Instead of preserving the peace, he quickly embraced the latest instruments of war, such as unmanned aerial vehicles — known to us all as drones — and so helped usher in a new era of warfare that, as Obama's successor Donald Trump's actions abroad make clear, is likely to haunt us for decades to come.
On 23 January, 2009, for instance, just three days after Obama's inauguration, a CIA drone strike in Pakistan ripped through a house filled with friends and family sitting down to dinner. Nine civilians were killed. As Faheem Qureshi, a teenager who barely survived the attack, told the Guardian, "I am the living example of what drones are… They have affected Waziristan [the district of Pakistan where he lived] as they have affected my personal life. I had all the hopes and potential and now I am doing nothing." More than a decade later, Faheem has still not been given an explanation for what happened to his family, even though the president was told almost immediately that a mistake had been made and innocent civilians had been killed.
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Six months after that attack, a US drone strike took out a mid-ranking Taliban commander in Pakistan. At his funeral, attended by 5,000 people, another drone fired missiles into the crowd in an attempt to kill Baitullah Mehsud, the founder of the Pakistani wing of the Taliban. Forty-five civilians would die, but not Mehsud; he was targeted seven times before eventually being killed on 5 August, 2009. The drone pursuit of him would leave at least 164 people dead, including eight-year-old Noor Syed who was playing in a house near one of Mehsud's suspected hideouts when a piece of shrapnel hit him.
According to outside monitoring groups, by the end of his second term in office, Obama had authorised 528 drone strikes with a death toll of between 380 and 801 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen alone. And that's believed to be a conservative estimate.
Soon after Trump took office, his administration began to quietly dismantle the safeguards Obama had just created around the US drone programme. His administration would subsequently expand the battlefields on which drones would be used; ease combat rules in Somalia intended to protect civilians; rescind most aspects of Obama's executive orders; and stop publishing civilian casualty data entirely, while telling the public even less about the programme.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the numbers that we do have access to are extremely alarming. By the middle of his first year, a Daily Beast investigation showed that Trump's air war had already killed more than 2,000 civilians in Iraq and Syria. The Coalition's own confirmed casualty numbers — while much lower than other estimates — also showed the same trend. Forty per cent of the 603 civilians admitted to have been killed by the alliance died in just the first four months of Trump's presidency.
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None of this was exactly shocking from a commander-in-chief who had once asked a CIA official why he didn't kill a terrorist target's family during a drone strike. In the first half of last year, US and Afghan air and drone strikes killed more civilians than the Taliban for the first time ever. Those strikes hit wedding parties, farmers, pregnant women and small children. In Somalia, drone strikes decimated entire communities, destroying not only lives, but crops, homes and livelihoods. And as the new decade began, President Trump not only carried out a drone strike so drastic and rare that many experts believed it was a straightforward declaration of war, but also threatened to bomb non-military targets ("cultural" sites) in Iran, a move which is generally considered a war crime under international law.
"The United States military successfully executed a flawless precision strike that killed a number one terrorist anywhere in the world," Trump told reporters concerning the strike that killed Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani on 3 January. The false notion that drones are precise — and therefore effective — gained traction in the Obama era, and has continued to pick up speed under Trump.
After analysing documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act related to drones, previously unpublished court documents, dozens of engineering and technical studies, and contract data, CorpWatch's Pratap Chatterjee and Christian Stork came to a conclusion: "Planning for drone operations was handicapped by a fog of numbers and raw data derived from flawed technology marketed by contractors, the military and the intelligence agencies."
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Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US government developed a specially designed, secret missile for pinpoint air strikes that kill terrorist leaders with no explosion, drastically reducing damage and minimising the chances of civilian casualties. If that sounds too good to be true, that's because it is.
Discussing the so-called "knife missile", drone researcher Arthur Holland Michel warned that, "We should take care not to be over-sold on the technology's precision. After all, it's still a missile. One official likened it to 'a speeding anvil' falling from above."
So, why do we still consider these weapons precise? Because the companies making them want us to. Looking at the website of Raytheon, the manufacturer of this secret missile, the first thing they advertise under precision weapons is: "Avoiding casualties. Reducing risk. Minimising collateral damage. In a new era of warfare, our precision weapons are meeting the mission — hitting the target and nothing else." By describing weapons systems like this, they present the claim as true and beyond dispute, transforming them into agents of good and making people feel that they are an effective tool to keep us, and civilians near the target, safe.
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A recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll even found that Americans are "now more likely to say that drone strikes against suspected terrorists are a very effective way to achieve US foreign policy," with 35 per cent saying that drones are effective; that figure was 23 per cent in 2015. Drone strikes now rank ahead of international agreements, sanctions and military interventions as effective ways to achieve foreign policy objectives.
When political scientists Micah Zenko and Amelia Wolf did a careful analysis of the "precision" claim back in 2016, they found that: "The White House is deeply misleading about the precision of drone strikes. They are, in fact, roughly thirty times more likely to result in a civilian fatality than an air strike by a manned aircraft." There is also little evidence that they are effective, in part because congressional oversight has mainly been limited to specific strikes, instead of questioning the overall utility.
"We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend," said Obama in his Nobel Prize speech. "And we honour those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard." In its recklessness and brutality, Trump's escalating drone war should remind us all of just how dangerous it is when a president claims the legal authority to kill in secret just because he can.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.