The Use of Drones: a Local Expert’s Take

Lexington, KY - The use of “Drones”—small model-sized radio- controlled pilotless aircraft—to find, target, and vector weapons to kill Al Quaeda and other terrorist leaders who are attacking U.S. citizens and American allies from North Africa to Afghanistan—is coming under increasing fire from U.S. citizen groups and lawmakers. Some of our foreign allies—Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, support U.S. efforts, but even there, and in many other places, such as Yemen, people protest that innocent civilians are being killed as well.

The U.S. government has been slow in spelling out the legal justifications for these attacks.  A recent U.S. Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) study asserts that U.S. drones are responsible for more than 400 non-battlefield killing since 2004, including the 2011 killing of US born citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, the head of Al Quaeda’s Yemen-based affiliate, and his American citizen son.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee, have recently expressed concern about drone strikes against American Citizens and the administration’s secrecy thus far in laying our the legal justifications.  This issue is likely to come to a head in the next month or so, and the public will have its opportunity to comment.

U.S. counterterrorist officials and other students of the problem point out that drone warfare has been highly effective in breaking down the Afghan Al Quaeda organization.  A distinguished professor of Peace Studies, Amitai Etzioni, surprisingly sides with the government’s position, noting “is it justified to use a drone to kill an American terrorist overseas is best answered if we imagine that the target had acted in the same manner—but wearing a uniform.”  For him, terrorist activities, not nationality is the critical factor.

There have been serious differences of opinion as to whether the drone attacks have created a significant backlash against the United States.

In Pakistan, where Pak authorities claim 60 cross-border predator (drone) strikes from January 2006 to April 2009 killed 14 wanted Al Quaeda leaders and 687 Pakistani civilians, both civilian and military authorities continued to let the drones operate until November 2011, when NATO forces accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.  This incident prompted a two-month stop—but strikes were resumed in January 2012.

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