Drone warfare: Not an answer, but a problem.
Just who is doing the killing? That was the question that came up when the U.S. and sometime ally Pakistan got into a war of words over who was responsible for air strikes that killed up to nine people — including two purported al-Qaeda senior commanders — in Pakistan’s restive tribal belt early last month. While the strikes were reported as typical American assassinations by drone, three American officials assured the New York Timesthat they were likely “carried out by the Pakistani military and falsely attributed to the CIA to avoid criticism from the Pakistani public.”
The Pakistanis denied that the strikes were theirs and the story created a minor stir without ever being resolved in the media. Nonetheless, when it comes to Washington’s drone wars, this little tiff, with its associated deaths, fits a longstanding pattern of lies, half-truths, and shadowy, hard-to-attribute killings. In the early days of the CIA’s drone war in Pakistan, when that country was run by military strongman Pervez Musharraf, for example, the general provided cover, claiming his armed forces were actually responsible for the CIA’s robotic air war. “We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the U.S.,” one of his aides subsequently told London’s Sunday Times. Only later did the Pakistanis admit the truth.
On the Arabian peninsula, the same pattern emerged. After a 2009 U.S. air strike killed 12 civilians, the Yemeni government took responsibility for the carnage. “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh told then-U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus, according to a classified document leaked by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
Similarly, the New York Times reported that in 2006, according to three current and former intelligence officials, an American drone fired missiles at a jungle camp in the Philippines in an attempt to kill an Indonesian terrorist named Umar Patek. According to the Times, the strike — which missed Patek but killed others — was “reported at the time as a ‘Philippine military operation.’” A Filipino military spokesman subsequently denied that the strike ever took place. Last year, a reported U.S. drone strike in the Philippines was met with similar denials from a U.S. official.
Despite the murkiness of America’s drone program and the many disclaimers, disavowals, and outright lies in which it’s enwreathed, U.S. officials continue to tout robotic assassination as a cure-all for the country’s ills abroad — a precise, efficient, and above all clean brand of warfare. In his latest offering, TomDispatch regular and retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel William Astore takes on these modern myths by placing drones and the outsized claims made for them within the long, sordid history of air warfare. Since the dawn of air power early in the last century, supporters have advanced fantasies that, again and again, have failed to pan out (while civilians died in often staggering numbers). As armed drones become ever more ubiquitous, it’s high time that Americans got real about the grim realities of air war, American-style. Nick Turse
Drone Warfare is Neither Cheap, Nor Surgical, Nor Decisive
The Ever-Destructive Dreams of Air Power Enthusiasts
By William J. Astore
Today’s unmanned aerial vehicles, most famously Predator and Reaper drones, have been celebrated as the culmination of the longtime dreams of airpower enthusiasts, offering the possibility of victory through quick, clean, and selective destruction. Those drones, so the (very old) story goes, assure the U.S. military of command of the high ground, and so provide the royal road to a speedy and decisive triumph over helpless enemies below.
Fantasies about the certain success of air power in transforming, even ending, war as we know it arose with the plane itself. But when it comes to killing people from the skies, again and again air power has proven neither cheap nor surgical nor decisive nor in itself triumphant. Seductive and tenacious as the dreams of air supremacy continue to be, much as they automatically attach themselves to the latest machine to take to the skies, air power has not fundamentally softened the brutal face of war, nor has it made war less dirty or chaotic.
Indeed, by emboldening politicians to seek seemingly low-cost, Olympian solutions to complex human problems — like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the sky to skewer puny mortals — it has fostered fantasies of illimitable power emboldened by contempt for human life. However, just like Zeus’s obdurate and rebellious subjects, the mortals on the receiving end of death from on high have shown surprising strength in frustrating the designs of the air power gods, whether past or present. Yet the Olympian fantasy persists, a fact that requires explanation. . . .