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Thursday, November 08, 2012

President of the drone

As the world celebrated the Obama win over the geographically challenged Romney, news comes from Sana'a in Yemen of the first drone strike since his election, within 24 hours of announcing his win.  The Obama Presidency has seen an increase in military spending, the widespread use of drones and a shift away from the Shock and Awe military approach to the use of such technology and smaller military units to destabilize governments, as well as wars largely invisible to the public in Yemen and Somalia.  The attack appears to be American, and has been corroborated by various sources.

The uprising against Ali Abdullah Saleh did not make much news at the time, although this was hardly surprising considering that the journalist syndicating much of the news for Reuters, Mohamed Sudam, was exposed as working not only as a journalist, but as Saleh's public relations adviser in November last year.  The politics around the use of drones and US alliance in Yemen is complex. Saleh is alleged to have offered his support to the drone strikes in 2009, and when replaced by his Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi in February this year as interim President for a two year term amidst the instability, al-Hadi promptly offered his support for the US drone programme and said that he would personally oversee each attack against al Qaeda.

However, al-Hadi's was the only name on the ballot, so it is difficult to tell whether public support is actually on the side of the use of the drones. Rebels controlled Zinjibar for much of last year, and the US alliance appears to be backing an internal division in the population.

2012 has been year of the drone for Yemen with a steady escalation in their use. In fact, a drone attack a day for the first half of June leading more than 40,000 people to leave Abyan province. However, its critics argue that the drones are actually providing the violent grounds for destabilization. As Reuters reports:

The Shi'ite Islamist Houthi movement and influential Sunni cleric Abdul-Majeed al-Zindani - on a U.S. terrorism list - have stepped up criticism of drones in the past month.

"At first people didn't talk, but after Radaa, things have changed, said Ali Abd-Rabbu al-Qadi, a parliamentarian from Maareb where many attacks have taken place. "These air strikes prepare the ground for al Qaeda and terrorism."

Yemenis complain the U.S. focus on militants is a violation of sovereignty that is driving many towards al Qaeda and diverting attention from other pressing issues such as unemployment, corruption, water depletion and economic revival.

A revealing New York Times article from June this year revealed Obama's psychology behind the use of the drones (well worth a read if you have the time). His former Chief of Staff argues that Obama is inspired by the work of St. Augustine and the notion of personal moral responsibility for his actions.

If we take Pakistan as a comparative example, the rise in drone strikes is clear. As Bill Roggio and Alex Myer argue in the Long War Journal, excluding the data from 2004 and 2005 (which was not available), there have been 2431 suspected operatives killed in drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, with drone strikes increasing from 5 in 2007 to a whopping 117 in 2010.

While some analysts, such as Joshua Jones of the National University Centre for Defense Operations, have argued that the advantages of drone strikes are that they allow for less casualties than all out war, the dangers are obvious. In essence, they are promoting a form of warfare that is difficult to monitor and often dire in its outcomes of destabilizing populations. Just like the suspected Israeli drone attack on a Sudanese factory suspected of being munitions supplier to Iran's Revolutionary Guard last month, governments often deny responsibility leaving populations left wondering who just attacked them. In Afghanistan, Karzai has pleaded repeatedly for a stop to the drone attacks as it is making it difficult to rebuild the country. This is leaving aside the obvious ethical implications of having people sitting in Nevada playing with their remote controls that are so removed from the conflict that killing becomes no longer a dangerous activity.

Like a lot of people, I am pleased we didn't get Romney due to his overt calls to bomb Iran. But I think there needs to be further ethical discussions and greater awareness of the complex machinations that are occurring right under our nose. In essence, Obama's foreign policy is marked by overt diplomacy, as in his involvement and aid, and covert drones. I do not believe that this is necessarily just a result of the election of the Democrats - it is not that simple, and it is a movement that has been occurring with the development of technology and also a longer change in military policy and advice. But it is clear that there is a shift occurring within the Obama administration as Obama veers further towards the advice of his Counterterrorism Chief John Brennan.


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