People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 27

July 04, 2010

Drones ----The New Killing Machine


Yohannan Chemarapally


IN the last week of June, yet another American drone (remotely piloted vehicles) attack on a target inside Pakistan took place. While the international media ignored it, the story did not figure prominently in the Pakistani media either. The drone attacks which were started during the Bush presidency, have only escalated after president Barack Obama took over. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the attacks. Faisal Shahzad, who planted a car bomb in New York’s Times Square has told a US Court that the drone attacks were a major motivating factor for his act.  


The Pakistani foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Quereshi, said that Shahzad’s abortive attempt was a “blowback” for the countless US drone attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan. But it is also a fact that the Pakistani establishment is collaborating in the drone attacks, though the government in Islamabad claims that it is kept in the dark by the American military. The drones are launched from Pakistani military bases by American military operatives.




The American military has been using military drones extensively since the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drone technology was used with devastating effect in the counter insurgency tactics adopted by the US. In both the countries, civilians bore the major brunt of the attacks. In the Iraqi cities of Falluja and Haditha, there were documented cases when the US military used drones to target civilians. Many prominent resistance leaders also were killed in drone attacks but the collateral damage to unarmed civilians and their property had been immense. It was only after the 15th attempt that the drones could successfully target the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud. More than 300 people were killed in the American attempts to eliminate Baitullah Mehsud.


Pakistani authorities have released statistics showing that more than 700 civilians were killed in drone attacks in 2009 alone. The New York Times has reported that since the beginning of 2009, Predators and the larger version of the drone, known as the Reaper, have fired at least 184 missiles and 66 laser guided bombs at militant suspects in Afghanistan. Numerous attempts have been made against Baitullah’s successor, Hakimullah Mehsud. In fact, he was pronounced dead by the American and Pakistani authorities, only to resurface publicly after the abortive bombing attempt in New York in the first week of May.


The indiscriminate killings that have occurred as a result of drone strikes seem to have only strengthened the ranks of the Taliban on both the sides of the Af-Pak border in their struggle against the occupation forces. Militants have used the drone attacks on civilians to justify their recent suicide attacks in Pakistani cities like Karachi and Lahore, which are situated far away from the tribal areas. Hakimullah Mehsud, in his latest statement, has said that the Pakistani Taliban would continue with its suicide attacks until US drone attacks are stopped in the tribal areas.


As the American counter insurgency thrust shifted from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US started using drones even more liberally. The marked increase in the use of the killer drones was noticeable immediately after Obama stepped into the White House. The tactics adopted by the Obama administration have been described as the “remote controlled campaign against terrorism”. American military drones are now proliferating over the skies of other countries, including Yemen and Somalia. America’s ally, Israel had pioneered the use of drones in attacking civilian and military targets in the occupied territories and in neighbouring countries like Syria and Lebanon.


Washington used to formally condemn Israel for targeting civilians with drones. Now, the US itself has adopted the policy of targeted killings. Thousands of civilians have died in these drone attacks in the last decade and a half. Some experts have estimated that up to 90 per cent of those killed in drone attacks are civilians. The Indian home ministry is also reportedly contemplating the use of drones to counter the Maoist upsurge in central India. India has bought drone technology from Israel. The US has promised the Pakistani army access to drones.


The escalation of drone attacks had started in the last years of the Bush administration as American military casualties mounted in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using pilotless drones to bomb targets was a less costly and more effective way to wage war from the Pentagon’s point of view. “Very frankly, it is the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the Al Qaeda leadership”, the CIA director, Leon Panetta recently told the American media. The US now spends $2.2 billion for the purchase of Predator aircraft.


More missiles from drones have been fired in the last fifteen months of the Obama presidency than in the previous eight years of the Bush presidency. Scott Horton, a prominent human rights lawyer and contributing editor of Harpers Magazine wrote that the Obama era drone warfare looks like “the Bush-era drone warfare on steroids”. The US defence establishment is planning to train more drone pilots than fighter pilots. Drone pilots, sitting in an American base, can with a click of their computer buttons, send missiles into thickly populated civilian centres as they hunt for fugitives.




According to reports in the American media, the Obama administration has given “secret permission” to the CIA to attack a wider range of targets in the tribal regions, including suspected militants whose names are not on the wanted list of terrorists. This has led to the dramatic escalation of drone strikes inside Pakistani territory. The number of Predator and Reaper drones put into service over Pakistan has doubled last year. In the last two years unmanned aircrafts have carried out multiple missile strikes on a weekly basis targeting any house or gatherings, which the CIA deems as suspicious and a threat to US security interests. Many analysts and commentators in the US have said that allowing the CIA to kill individuals whose names are unknown raises a lot of ethical questions and the risk of killing innocent people.


“Is it right for a democratic, constitutional state to kill with a click of a mouse”, the German magazine Der Spiegel questioned.  American legal experts recently told the US House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs that though the US may have a right to use the drones, the CIA personnel launching the attacks could be guilty of war crimes. International law experts have stated that the drone attacks were illegal because the US military was using civilian contractors to launch them. The American Civil Liberties Union is of the view that the US administration’s targeted killings, outside of the armed conflict zone, are illegal.


The drones are piloted more than 13,000 km away in the American state of Nevada by civilian contractors. The US also relies heavily on six private contracting firms for information on the ground along the Af-Pak border, much of inside Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province. This is the first time in American history that the CIA has been given paramilitary powers. The White House took such a momentous decision without taking the US Congress and national security establishment into confidence. Horton also emphasised that the CIA is a civilian agency and therefore not entitled to “privileged combatant status” under the Geneva Conventions.


David Kilcullen, a top US counter-insurgency expert and adviser to the Pentagon, told the US Congress in the first week of May that the US drone strikes in Pakistan are counterproductive and should be stopped. Kilcullen has written that for a single terrorist killed in drone attacks, 50 civilians perish alongside as collateral damage. The American use of drone technology has taken the concept of targeted killings to a new and more dangerous level. More and more states will no doubt be tempted to emulate the American example. The United States, according to legal scholars, has to decide now whether it wants to legitimise the rights of sovereign states to assassinate their enemies using drones. The consequences of such a step to the world, they warn, would be severe.