Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Against drones - a riposte to Philip Hammond

In an article published in the Guardian on 18 December, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond outlined his case for the use of drones in the war on terror. Hammond claims that contrary to the belief of what he calls "drone activists", drones are in fact a sensible and totally legal way of reducing casualties in warfare, and it is a "myth" that drones indiscriminately kill civilians.

Hammond begins by arguing that the word "drone" is misleading, giving connotations of a machine out of a science fiction story beyond human control. In fact, we are told, drones are manoevered by highly qualified people, applying the ultimate precision to avoid casualties. Mr Hammond concedes that he is aware of one terrible case in which a drone strike killed four Afghan civilians by mistake, but it's "hardly the picture of devastation so often painted by activists who so vociferously oppose their use." Other than this one exception, Hammond would have us believe, drones help to save "the lives of our personnel, our Afghan allies and Afghan civilians on a daily basis."

While insisting that his defence of drones is based "on the fundamental facts", Hammond's only recognition of civilian casulties is the aforementioned incident in Afghanistan. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, drone strikes carried out by the CIA in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013 killed between 2534 to 3642 people. Meanwhile a report carried out by Al Jazeera found that drone strikes on Yemen have killed nearly 800 people, mostly civilians since 2002. Drones have killed more civilians than 9/11. This goes to show that the high precision technology is hardly impressive. Despite rejecting the idea that drone warfare is shrouded in secrecy, Hammond has no inclination to recognise or explain the civilian death toll.

The legal justification for drone warfare relies on the conflict being defined as between two state entities. But Al Qaeda isn't a state. British and American drones are terrorising civilian populations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. Hammond's talk of "saving lives" applies more to British troops than to innocents on the ground, who continue to be viewed as "collateral damage".

Barack Obama has claimed that in order for a drone strike to be authorised there must be a "near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured." And yet time and again "military intelligence" has proved incapable of distinguishing villages from training camps, leading to carnage, such as the killing of 45 women and children in Yemen in 2009. As Simon Jenkins points out, ground troops would face severe punishment for an atrocity such as this but "air forces enjoy such prestige that civilian deaths are excused as a price worth paying for not jeopardising pilots' lives."

US Congressman Alan Grayson quoted an American official based in Yemen as saying "every drone death yields 50 to 60 new recruits for Al Qaeda." Drone attacks are the worst possible PR for Britain and America, and a gift to extremist groups seeking to recruit volunteers. Eliminating terrorist leaders is useless if the attack inspires many more to take their places.

It is difficult to point to any progress achieved by Philip Hammond and his drones since he became Defence Secretary in 2011. The war on terror continues and drones have not yielded any reduction in Al Qaeda attacks. Beyond this, drone warfare has jeopardised Western relations with both the Afghan and Pakistani governments, who have both condemned the use of drone strikes. Meanwhile as Tom Engelhardt observes, the supposedly invaluable data gathered by spy drones has not given the US or Britain the upper hand.

Antagonising governments and civilian populations in countries around the world does not make us safer. Flouting international law only further erodes our moral credibility. Philip Hammond's defence of drones continues the long tradition of prioritising the safety of our troops and pilots over the lives of foreign civilians. This flawed logic will only serve to unnecessarily prolong the war on terror.

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