For many Americans, the use of armed drones is a necessity of our times. According to survey data, most see them as an integral part of the war on terror launched more than a decade ago in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. On a global scale, however, Americans supportive of armed drone use, represent a minority viewpoint that is being increasingly challenged by those questioning both the ethics and the legality behind the use of such aircraft.
Officially defined as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones have many applications, including civilian, but are today primarily associated with their military purpose of targeting and killing those whom the U.S. government defines as terrorists or their supporters in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Armed drones were also in use in Iraq, but after American troops withdrew from the country late last year, the U.S. has reportedly limited the application of drones there to surveillance activities.
Unmanned aerial vehicle technology has been in the works for decades but became more refined in the 1990s. The first use of a drone in a targeted killing was recorded in Afghanistan in 2002.
Since then, armed drone use has multiplied exponentially. According to a study by the Middle East Policy Council, the frequency of U.S. drone strikes has increased from two instances during the period of 2002 and 2004 to 161 between 2009 and 2010. Growing with the numbers were the casualties of these operations. The strikes conducted between 2002 and 2004, according to the same study, resulted in the deaths of two high value targets and killed eleven others. The strikes between 2009 and 2010 killed seven high value targets, causing the deaths of 1,029 others. The report does not specify whether “others” killed in these strikes were also intended targets or untargeted victims.
Armed drone use by the U.S. has risen so sharply that it has recently drawn condemnation from the United Nations. The topic is also prominently featured in international media, with leading outlets such the British Guardian or the U.S. Huffington Post devoting special pages and blogs to the subject.
Among the main issues raising concerns over drone strikes are resulting civilian casualties, the unilateral nature of the operations, and perceived violations of sovereignty by countries in which the strikes are conducted.
US stands alone
Given these factors, a recent international study found that out of 20 countries surveyed, support for drone strikes is prevalent only in the U.S. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Project poll, 62 percent of Americans are supportive of drone strikes, while 28 percent disapprove of them. In 17 of the surveyed countries, more than half of the respondents disapproved of them. The poll, conducted as part of a global survey on U.S. policies, found that in none of the 20 countries, except for the U.S., did an absolute majority come out in support of drone strikes. Support was highest in Britain (44 percent) and lowest in Greece (five percent).
The United States government has been relatively quiet on the subject of drone strikes. President Barack Obama did acknowledge strikes in Pakistan in January of this year calling them a targeted effort.
“This is a targeted focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on.”
Obama added that his administration is going after very specific targets and is exercising utmost caution in how the strikes are carried out.
“For the most part, they’ve been very precise precision [sic] strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates, and we are very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”
- Nathan Freed Wessler, National Security Fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union and Thomas Lynch, distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University spar over the legal and ethical ramifications of the US drone program with VOA's Carol Castiel.Download
While proponents of drone strikes argue that they are effective tools in the war of terror, opponents stress that they sometimes kill innocent civilians, are a general public safety concern and raise the ethical question of whether targeting and eliminating people without formally declaring a war on a foreign country’s territory is legally and morally justified.
Even among U.S. lawmakers, there is skepticism. Twenty-six congressmen have recently sent a letter to President Obama expressing their concern over his administration’s use of armed drones. Pointing to the fact that such strikes carry the risk of “killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to the attacks on the United States,” they also complained that the campaign has “virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight.” Calling on the president to “ensure that such killings are legal,” the lawmakers requested for “civilian casualty numbers [to be] collected, tracked and analyzed.”
Criticism from countries directly affected by U.S. drone strikes was more blunt.
Earlier this month, Pakistan’s foreign affairs ministry lodged a protest with the U.S. government to “officially convey [Islamabad’s] serious concern regarding drone attacks in Pakistani territory,” claiming that the strikes were “unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” Meanwhile, Pakistani political groups have called on their government to shoot down U.S. drones whenever they are spotted in the country’s air space.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, bound by a strategic partnership agreement with the United States, has been more guarded in his criticism of U.S. drone strikes on Afghan territory, but did reportedly express frustration when asked about such strikes in neighboring Pakistan. “I can never talk in favorable terms about planes that are shooting people or bombing people.”
In Yemen, where there seems to be some official backing of U.S. drone strikes, the country’s Nobel Peace laureate Tawakul Karman has vociferously spoken out against them. “We are against drone strikes because they will not kill the real al Qaeda, they will only target women and youth.”
With the use of armed drones by the U.S. showing no sign of slowing, where do you stand on the issue? Vote in our poll, check out comments in our social media stream and add your own opinion below.
Patrick deHahn is a junior reporter and intern at VOA. He is a rising junior at Pace University New York City majoring in communication arts and journalism. For his internship, he has chosen to focus on the Middle East by working on online community engagement and covering the news through social media with the Middle East Voices team.