Saleem Qamar Butt
Immorality of Remote Warfare
American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001/02 greatly relied on strategic bombing of Tora Bora mountains thought to be hideout for OBL, and subsequently put even greater dependence on drones’ strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and other parts of the world under American unrelenting blitz for mostly false pretexts. For the targeted opponents, it was a reminder that ‘a dagger which in medieval warfare was used by the foot soldier to remind an unhorsed knight that he was a mortal’. The 9/11 tragedy in New York attributed to OBL led Al-Qaida had created a Spartan revenge mentality similar to the one experienced by Japanese after their misadventure on Pearl Harbour that resulted in the US’ strategic bombing of Tokyo followed by nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. As for Afghanistan and rest of the ME countries that suffered from American rage since 9/11, US’ administration and Armed Forces thoughtlessly followed a state of mind given by Daniel Pipes, “to me, every fundamentalist Muslim, no matter how peaceable in his own behavior, is part of a murderous movement and is thus, in some fashion, a foot soldier in the war that bin Laden has launched against civilization”. However, two decades later, USA and allies got convinced that ‘nobody has yet found a way of bombing that can prevent foot soldiers from walking’.
The point under discussion here is to highlight not only the immorality of remote warfare that causes hard to hide thousands of civilian casualties, but also the snowballing pusillanimity shrouded in high-tech military gadgets, advanced weaponry and addiction to use of strategic bombers, satellites and armed drones taking on uncertain targets with questionable accuracy, while sitting thousands of kilometers away. A U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Lushenko and Sarah Kreps has recently analysed the pitfalls of use of drones with particular focus on Pakistan in a paper titled, “A More Just Drone War Is Within Reach”: ‘The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 brought an end to a 20-year war. But as a series of recent investigations by The New York Times has underscored, and also marked the beginning of postmortems about what the United States did right and, in some cases, did wrong. Drawing on Pentagon documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the Times revealed that U.S. drone strikes killed an alarming number of civilians in Afghanistan—likely hundreds more than the 188 the Defence Department has acknowledged killing in such strikes since 2018—a pattern that appears to be consistent with U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria. Targeting decisions were sometimes marred by confirmation bias: Pentagon analysts saw what they expected to see, often identifying civilians rushing to help those hit by U.S. strikes as terrorists and striking them, as well. This reporting is an important first step toward accounting for the shortcomings of the drone war that Washington launched after 9/11, one that President Joe Biden’s administration should build on as it concludes its own review of drone strikes outside conventional—or declared—war zones'.
Without any clear views on the moral and soldierly side of the issue, the said paper underscores that no accounting of the drone war would be complete without determining whether policies intended to reduce civilian casualties from U.S. strikes ever worked. To answer that question, they studied strike data from Pakistan, where the Pentagon and the CIA reportedly conducted nearly 400 strikes in the ten-year period before President Barack Obama’s administration tightened its targeting requirements. That began in the backdrop of Pakistan-USA bilateral relations experiencing its nadir during 2011 as a consequence of CIA’s contractor Raymond Davis killing innocent civilians in Lahore, assassination of OBL in Abbottabad Pakistan and massacre of 26 Pakistani troops including officers on Silala border post on Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Mohmand Area; all due to Langley and Pentagon’s recklessness based on undue indignation, lack of trust, misperceptions, faulty intelligence and over reliance on remote warfare. The surge in civilian casualties, which amounted to three civilian deaths per strike in 2009, also drew criticism from the United Nations and from watchdog groups such as Amnesty International. It was against this backdrop that Obama adopted a set of more stringent requirements for U.S. strikes in undeclared theaters, including Pakistan. Subsequently, in 2013, the U.S. administration officially shifted its standard from “reasonable certainty” of zero civilian casualties to “near certainty.” The policy change dramatically reduced civilian casualties in Pakistan without giving perceived terrorists an appreciable advantage, suggesting that similarly stringent targeting standards might save innocent lives in theaters such as Iraq and Syria, too. According to the nonprofit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which collects data from news reports, official statements, press releases, and other documents, U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen from 2002 to 2020 killed between 10,000 and 17,000 people. Between 800 and 1,750 of the dead are thought to have been civilians, the highest percentage of them in Pakistan.
Beginning in 2011, consequent to Pakistan’s strong protest and stiffness in bilateral relations, strikes in Pakistan began to be conditioned on near certainty of no collateral damage under Obama’s instructions. As a result, civilian casualties from U.S. strikes in Pakistan markedly decreased. On average, analysis of strike data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that the deliberations and subsequent policy shift resulted in a reduction of 12 civilian casualties per month or two civilian casualties per strike. Had Obama not changed the policy, perhaps the U.S.’ drone strikes in Pakistan would have resulted in several hundred more civilian deaths between 2011 and the end of his second term in 2017. Obama’s ultimate goal was understandably to encourage commanders and intelligence officials to conduct more precise strikes, which would also help rehabilitate the United States’ image abroad following the public outcry over civilian deaths. Nevertheless, by 2017, the question of the effectiveness of Obama’s policy appeared moot, since President Donald Trump returned to the more permissive reasonable certainty standard. All the same, without any moral or military ethical pangs, the American experts conclude that reducing civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes doesn’t have to come at the cost of effective counter terrorism. A tighter threshold for U.S drone strikes can reduce civilian casualties without emboldening the enemy. That proves U.S.’ continued obsession with debauched remote warfare and killing of innocent civilians termed collateral damage reduced under stricter scrutiny.
The issue of use of armed drones in non-war zones resulting in a lot of civilian casualties needs to be raised by all national and international think tanks, print, electronic and social media, by all human- rights organisations, and by the diplomatic channels at UNO and other multilateral diplomatic forums. The psychologists and psychiatrists treating thousands of American and allies’ combat soldiers suffering from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a backlash of depraved use of remote and excessive military high-tech muscles, may also make their respective governments and societies more cognizant of millions of civilians suffering from PTSD, besides thousands being maimed forever. Let some humanity prevail in U.S. self-created war theatres and let not UNO become a defunct League of Nation and let the blue berets be deployed on the principle of saving humanity rather than mere Western Interests.