The United States is expanding its fleet of killer drones, President Barack Obama’s favorite weapon of war, despite widespread international resentment of assassinations by air and unanswered questions on the legality and long-term utility of the practice.
In his first term, Obama sharply increased the number of targeted killings, Washington’s preferred term for assassinating Al-Qaeda leaders and “militants.” Obama’s first four years featured more than six times as many drone strikes in Pakistan alone as his predecessor, George W. Bush, ordered in eight years. This is according to an analysis by the New America Foundation,  a liberal Washington think tank.
The president’s second term is likely to see a further escalation of attacks by missile-laden drones on targets in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and other places.
Unarmed drones are already in operation over Mali, where French forces are fighting Islamist rebels , and there is speculation that unmanned reconnaissance aircraft will soon be joined by missile-laden Predators.
Leon Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary, has talked about expanding the U.S. fleet of Predators and Reapers – missile-carrying drones – without specifying details. Specialist publications have pegged the planned increase in killer drones operated by the military at 30 percent over the next few years. The CIA is said to want an additional 10 drones, bringing its fleet to 45.
How many people have been killed by drone strikes and how many of them have been civilians is a figure shrouded by the difficulty of independent reporting from remote areas and by a veil of secrecy drawn, in particular, over operations conducted by the CIA. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism,  a London-based group that tracks drone strikes, estimates that they have killed close to 3,500 people in Pakistan, 891 of them civilians.
Drone warfare is popular in the United States but viewed with concern elsewhere. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center last summer showed widespread opposition to Obama’s remote-control war. In 17 out of 20 countries, majorities opposed drone strikes – even in traditional U.S. allies like Japan, Germany and Poland. A series of surveys in the U.S. showed support between 62 and 83 percent.
Misgivings in the U.S. have largely come from human rights activists, legal analysts and think tanks.
However, a few days before Obama’s inauguration for his second term , the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, sounded a note of skepticism rarely heard from the military. The drone strikes contributed to a “perception of American arrogance that says, ‘Well, we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.’
“What scares me about drone strikes,” he added in an interview with Reuters, “is how they are perceived around the world ... They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
Even critics of Obama’s remote-control war – military drones are operated from a base near Las Vegas, CIA drones from northern Virginia – concede that drone strikes have depleted the ranks of the leadership of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But they question why the legal justification for the program is treated as a state secret and say that Washington’s assessment of the utility of drone strikes is short-sighted.
In an analysis for the British think tank Chatham House, Michael Boyle, a member of Obama’s counterterrorism group during his election campaign, writes that the drone war had “an adverse strategic effect that has not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with terrorists.”
In the latest issue of Chatham House’s journal International Affairs, Boyle adds: “Over time, an excessive reliance on drones will deepen the reservoirs of anti-U.S. sentiment, embolden America’s enemies and provide other governments with a compelling public rationale to resist a U.S.-led international order which is underwritten by sudden, blinding strikes from the sky.”
The Obama administration has not responded to a Freedom of Information request filed some two years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union demanding details of the drone program. A similar request from the New York Times was also greeted with silence.
Last week, the United Nations announced it had launched an investigation into drone warfare to look into charges of unlawful killings and to help put into place “appropriate legal and operational structures ... to regulate its use in a manner that complies with the requirements of international law,” in the words of Ben Emmerson, special investigator for the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Obama has said that the decision to target someone for assassination involves “an extensive process, with a lot of checks.” But judging from what has been leaked about the secret process, it takes place entirely within the executive branch which functions as judge, jury and executioner. New rules have been under review for several months.
The U.N. investigation will look into 25 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories (where Israel has used drones) and present its findings to the U.N. General Assembly in October. To what extent the Obama administration will cooperate remains to be seen.
By Bernd Debusmann