US Drones, the Empty Aerial Assault

US DronesJudy Bachrach

Sherry Rehman, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, wants the US to (a) apologize for a NATO attack on Salala and (b) halt drone attacks on her native soil, neither of which demands—let’s face it, Sherry—is going to happen anytime soon. Always a bad idea to apologize to governments and security agencies run by certain officials who want you dead, and besides, the really tall bearded guy hanging out in a seriously ugly compound in Abbottabad? With the wives? And an office full of plaintive missives to his followers? Whom nobody in Pakistan noticed or observed?

But let’s leave apologies aside. These days, the question on everyone’s mind is—or should be—are drone attacks anywhere a good idea? Meaning, if we get right down to it: do they create more enemies than they kill?

Since 2004, according to an analysis by New America Foundation that drew on major newspapers and other reputable media organizations for its research, there have been almost 300 drone strikes in northwest Pakistan alone. Between 1,800 and 2,800 individuals have been killed by these strikes: of them, 17 percent were non-militants. In 2009 alone, according to CNN security analyst Peter Bergen, an early chronicler of Osama Bin Laden, 700 civilians were killed by drone attacks—the result of 51 strikes.

More intriguing still, Bergen and a co-author concluded in a policy paper written two years ago that, despite these serious flaws in targeting, “drone strikes are likely to remain a critical tool for the United States to disrupt al Qaeda and Taliban operations and leadership structures. Though these strikes consistently kill civilians, which angers the population and prompt revenge attacks from the militants, Pakistani and US strategic interests have never been more closely aligned.”

Well, that was then.

A recent article in Aerospace America claims that US spending on unmanned aerial system has increased almost tenfold in the past decade—and we have seen the results. In the first 15 days of June last year, there were exactly 15 drone attacks on Yemeni soil. “The US is turning Yemen into another Pakistan,” a Yemeni defense official said at the time.

Cut to today and Ambassador Rehman, who isn’t feeling quite as closely aligned as predicted. In fact, she has amped up her grievances. In March, she met with US Vice President Joe Biden to deliver a semi-ultimatum: Pakistan forbids all drone attacks on Pakistani soil—except maybe if the US starts sharing intelligence. Since Pakistan’s military intelligence service, known as the ISI, is famous for aiding and abetting terrorists, most notably those who attacked the American Embassy in Kabul, the ambassador’s wishes for harmonious cooperation will likely never come true.

But from a moral, rather than a practical, perspective, the ambassador has a point. War has always been a messy and muddled arena for determining what is right or wrong when you’re killing strangers. But the notion of dispatching an unmanned vehicle to kill faraway men, some who hate you, some who are too young or too ignorant or too small to even realize you exist, is particularly unnerving. And there is worse to come.

In the Wall Street Journal over the weekend comes this revelation from Ronald Arkin, the director of the Mobile Robot Lab at Georgia Tech. Arkin has been working, with support from the US Army, to create robot drones: machines capable, the scientist believes, not only of killing, but of making certain ethical decisions in remote countries that have incurred US displeasure, based on preprogrammed directives that would follow the demands of the Geneva Conventions. It is the machine that will decide, in other words, whom to wipe out and whom to spare.

These robots, Arkin told the paper, are “lethal autonomous systems.” They “will not have the full moral reasoning capabilities of humans, but I believe they can—and this is a hypothesis—perform better than humans.”

In other words, there will come a time, in this age of the empty aerial assault and empty aggression, when it will be very hard for ambassadors or intelligence agencies or presidents to protest anything at all. Apologies, however, are a different matter, surely—perhaps the killer robot can deliver them as well, after it’s decided to kill.

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