2014 Review (Part One) – Drone Wars: The New Normal

arming predatorAs 2014 opened mounting criticism of the US use of drones for targeted killing gave way to a long and significant pause in drone strikes in Pakistan. This together with the imminent withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan gave rise to the possibility that the use of armed drones that we have seen over the past five years might perhaps become a thing of the past, an aberration to be looked back upon and wondered at.

As 2014 comes to a close however, nothing could be further from the truth. The pause in drone strikes in Pakistan came to an end in June and US strikes continue there as well as in Yemen and Somalia. In addition the US vowed to continue to use its armed drones in Afghanistan after the end of combat operations; the UK doubled its armed drone fleet;  US and UK drones are fly over Iraq and Syria and Israeli drones regularly fly over Gaza, Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere following the pounding Gaza received from its drones and military aircraft in the late summer.

Far from being a five year ‘blip’, it seems to campaigners, columnists and academics alike that the drone wars could be here forever. In future years we may look back on 2014 as the year the drone wars stopped being novel and became normal.

As if to emphasis this, other nations made significant advances in their own drone programmes this year. France began operating its unarmed Reaper drones over Mali in January and is pressing the US to acquire the armed version. Perhaps even more significantly France remotely operated its Harfung drones over Mali from 5,000km away in France for the first time, a substantial increase in capability.

Iran, which has made many uncorroborated claims to have armed drone capability flew unarmed drones over Iraq and Israel during the year, while China reported that it had deployed an armed drone during a multi-national military exercise. Germany meanwhile continues to debate whether the country should acquire armed drones with the Defence Minister calling for their introduction above opposition from other parties.

Secrecy vs. Transparency

Two significant reports looking at the ethical, legal and operational issues associated with the use of armed drones were published during the year. Firstly in June the US Stimson Center released their the Recommendations and Report of the Stimson Task Force on US Drone Policy, and secondly in October the UK Birmingham Policy Commission published The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK.  Both reports, while coming from thoroughly establishment positions, (both commissions were stuffed with ex-military and ex-intelligence officers with a scattering of academics) generally approved of the use of armed drones but nevertheless made important criticisms.

The Stimson Center report argues that the existence of armed drones has “enabled a significantly expanded US campaign of targeted cross-border strikes against suspected terrorists… We believe that this campaign of targeted killings raises numerous questions, some strategic, some legal and ethical.” They also acknowledged that the so-called ‘risk free’ nature of drone wars may simply mean more warfare:

“The increasing use of lethal UAVs may create a slippery slope leading to continual or wider wars. The seemingly low-risk and low-cost missions enabled by UAV technologies may encourage the United States to fly such missions more often, pursuing targets with UAVs that would be deemed not worth pursuing if manned aircraft or special operations forces had to be put at risk.”

The Birmingham Report sidestepped this vital aspect of the debate simply stating they were “not persuaded” that the threshold for use of force would be lowered by drones “as long as Parliament plays its proper oversight function.” Accountability and transparency are crucial elements here and both reports as well as multiple civil society groups and legislators in the US and the UK called for much greater transparency and accountability for the use of drones throughout 2014.

The Obama administration finally released a redacted version of the infamous ‘drone memo’ after a long legal battle. The memo, written in 2010 by the US Justice Department gave approval for the assassination of US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki . The content of the memo brought scorn from many legal scholars and others including the editors of the New York Times who wrote in an editorial that it was “a slapdash pastiche of legal theories — some based on obscure interpretations of British and Israeli law — that was clearly tailored to the desired result.”

In the UK, we (Drone Wars UK) lost our long Freedom of Information fight to reveal in which Afghan provinces UK drone strikes were taking place and the breakdown in percentage terms of UK drone strikes pre-planned and those undertaken ‘on the fly’. The courts accepted the MoD argument that such information would assist enemy forces. In a similar vein while UK forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan the MoD will not say how many UK Reaper drones have moved to the Middle East to strike targets in Iraq.

Drones vs. Democracy

After a burst of media interest when airstrikes began in Iraq and Syria, there is now little mention of them by politicians or the press. As Western military forces fire missiles and bombs around the globe, the population on the home front barely notices. Such remote wars have become mundane it seems. And if there are any objections, mainstream media will parrot pro-war nonsense – such as the US Global Ambassador for Women stating that women of Iraq plead “to be killed in airstrikes rather than be brutalized by ISIL” – as Rania Khalek points out in her article ‘Drone-Strike Feminism.’

Throughout 2014 there have been numerous ceremonies to mark the centenary of the First World War with fine words intoned by our political leaders about the glorious sacrifice to uphold democracy. But one hundred years on are we really upholding the legacy of those who died?   In his excellent New York Times essay ‘Drones and the Democracy Disconnect’  Firmin DeBrabander argued that “with less skin in the game – literally – we can be less vigilant about the darker tendencies of our leaders, the unintended consequences of their actions, and content to indulge in private matters.”  He concludes that this new way of waging war, far from spreading it as it is often claimed, in fact undermines it:

“Drones represent the new normal, and are an easy invitation to enter into and wage war — indefinitely. It is antithetical to a democracy for its voting public to be so aloof from the wars it fights. It is a feature, I fear, of a democracy destined to lose that title.”

One hundred years on from the ‘the war to end all wars’, war seems to have become a permanent, normal, almost unremarked on feature of our political landscape.  Rather than paying tribute to those who lost their lives in 1914-1918 we have spent the centenary mocking them.

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