Combat Drone Attacks – between Video Game and Real Brutality
Two sergeants of the US Air Force are sitting in comfortable leatherette seats inside an air-conditioned cabinet at Fort Knox in Kentucky, USA. The control panel in front of them looks like the cockpit of a fighter jet. Contrary to regular fighter pilots those two are safe and secure. Their high-resolution screens show live images of their country of deployment Afghanistan from a bird’s eye perspective. Right at this moment they fly their drones over the South-eastern provinces nearby the Pakistani boarder. Their goal: ‘bugsplat’ – currently a common military expression for bombing people within drone operations of the US anti-terror mission ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’.
A same or similar situation could have lead to the drone assassination of the Taliban’s former chief Akthar Mansour, which the Pentagon announced about one month ago.
For quite some time the US have been focusing on Afghan provinces with their drones, attacking them every single week to hunt down enemies like Mansour. The US government hails such ‘strategic hits’. At the same time civil fatalities are accepted as collateral damage.
Currently Afghanistan is the most frequently drone bombed country in the world – and also the most damaged one by drone attacks. Due to its geopolitical and strategic position in the Middle East the country has always been a hub of international conflicts. Thus, for decades the Afghan civil society has been under attack, creating an endless list of victims. The arsenal of already used weapons is beyond our imagination. Afghanistan is still full of land mines – relicts from the Soviet wars – as well as so-called ‘butterfly bombs’ which are weapons perfidiously disguised as toys or pens to attract and wound children.
Targeted? Effective? Successful?
The US – and of course other drone advocates – characterise drones as humanitarian weapons because they allegedly facilitate a very effective and precise killing of single targets.
Now, after generally questioning the ethic legitimacy of any state operated killing, the question remains if in the case of a real attack a terrorist villain can be clearly identified from such a far distance? President Obama’s chasing of terrorists is based on a formal categorisation of certain life patterns after which people are classified as suspects. But, according to his officials, in case of rapid interventions any military-aged male in the strike zone is automatically considered an enemy combatant and guilty until proven innocent. Most of the time the combat drones are faster then military investigations.
With the publication of confidential papers of the drone-based US military strategy the investigative news platform ‘The Intercept’ unveiled the ineffectiveness of the US drone attacks. 90% of the victims of the US drone operation in Afghanistan cannot be classified as military targets. In 2015 within only six months at least 400 people have been killed in drone attacks – most of them were civilians. The high number of civil victims clearly speaks against the targeted precision and effectiveness of combat drone attacks. Moreover the success of the weapon against terror must be put in question – after Mansour’s death the Taliban’s closed the power vacuum quickly by replacing him with his former deputy Haibatullah Achundsada.
Rise of the drones, downfall of the international humanitarian law
Within the US Mission ‘Freedom’s Sentinel’ under Nobel Peace Price winner Barack Obama the deployment of drones has significantly increased. In 2011 drones took only part of 5% of the US military operations, in 2015 they dominated with 56%. The rise of the drones is basically related to one main problem of governments and state officials – the justification of wars is an ethical balancing act. Especially, they struggle with legitimising the insecurities of warfare to the general public. Because of their alleged minimal invasive character drones fit perfectly into the US doctrine of warfare for ‘the Good’ wherein they play the role of the ‘Global Cop’ ensuring law and order world-widely.
Behind the facade we find clear calculations – drones should help outsourcing insecurities. Since they can be controlled conveniently from home, the risks for the state and military are smaller. That is why the US Air Force is advertising the training for drone operators with a video that compares drone wars with video game activities.
Importantly, the reality in conflict areas is different. Often neither the opposite governments nor the attacked societies know which areas are in severe danger of air attacks. Following the French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou, this is how drones transform the whole globe into a war zone. War is becoming potentially ubiquitous. Strictly speaking thereby national sovereignty and the basic principles of international humanitarian law are undermined. Not the protection of civil society but rather the physical integrity of one’s own armed forces is paramount.
Risky remote control
Ultimately, these unmanned weapons are dangerous for their pilots as well because they generate a video game mentality. The extreme geographical distance creates a feeling of personal invulnerability. Physically, this might be true – at the touch of a button people are executed without any real involvement of the operators own body. But, how much the soldiers are mentally affected is not clear yet.
What is clear though is that those attacks from far away result in the alienation of the victim’s societies – they fuel hatred. The increasing vulnerability of the attacked people and absent counter initiatives from the Afghan government under Ashraf Ghani dramatically raise the options of recruitment for the militant opposition – hence, the Taliban. Maybe drones provide an alternative to the total destruction of regular wars. But, the killing of single terrorist leaders will not successfully pave the way into a more peaceful future. The case of Mansour illustrated that he was only one head of the Hydra – he is quickly replaced with a new leader who is maybe even more supported by his followers.
But wait, there is another side of the coin: New projects, like Zipline International, demonstrate how drones can actually serve real humanitarian projects. In the nearby future their drones will deliver vital medicines into war regions like Rwanda.
This is how the unmanned warplanes become peace messengers!