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The prevalence of drone attacks marks not only a moral outrage, but also a crisis of strategy in the so-called war on terror, argues Alistair Cartwright in a review of Medea Benjamin’s Drone Warfare

Medea Benjamin, Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control (O/R books 2012), ix, 241pp.

Medea Benjamin’s book comes at a time when drones are increasingly in the headlines. The last few months have seen revelations about Obama’s ‘Kill List’, the list of targeted killings signed off directly by the president, as well as a high profile case in the British High Court against the UK government’s role in assisting drone strikes in Pakistan.

The book is a useful collection of key facts, and for anyone who had doubts about the benevolence of drones, the moral arguments are convincing. While arms companies and defence departments laud the technology for its precision, the picture on the ground tells a different story, with each strike almost inevitably causing scores of civilian casualties. The buzz of propellers as ‘predators’ and ‘reapers’ circle overhead has become a ubiquitous source of terror in North West Pakistan, among other places. Moreover, as Benjamin points out, the very notion of drones as an efficient or cost-free mode of warfare only serves to reinforce the brutal instrumentality, and ultimately the moral irresponsibility, of those wielding the technology. At this level the book is effective, but it misses the opportunity to analyse the full political implications.

With drones substituting more and more for boots on the ground, the conflicts become even more obscure. The paradox is that while the US military is engaged in more and longer conflicts than ever in our history, fewer people are involved, touched, concerned, or engaged. The public is barely even aware of these conflicts. It’s like a low grade fever that the body politic has learned to live with and basically ignores (p.148).

Add to this the nightmare of war turned into a computer game - the player isolated in an air-conditioned bunker somewhere in the Nevada desert - and you have a pretty terrifying vision of the future. It is tempting to use drones as the perfect illustration of our contemporary societies of surveillance and control. Although Benjamin does not succumb to pessimism, she has something in common with such tendencies in that the picture she paints of contemporary imperialism and its latest technologies is homogenous, linear and basically inadequate.

As a feature of the twenty-first century’s ‘long war’, drones reflect the underlying tensions and overriding setbacks of that war, as much as the devastation and misery it has created. In order to understand this we have to look at the context in which the technology is being used.

Shifting patterns in the war on terror

Drone technology has been available since at least the 1980s, but as Benjamin shows, its use skyrocketed during the war on terror. Between 2001 and 2010 the flight hours of drones used by the US Air Force went up by 3000 percent (p.21). However, just as significant as this sheer quantitative increase is how and where they have been deployed. Drones were used in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside more conventional weapons and tactics. Yet, their most significant or ‘cutting edge’ use was not so much in the major centres of the war on terror, but in its peripheries: Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and recently - less a periphery than a new front - Libya.

The key to the increasing pattern of drone strikes is this shifting relationship between centre and periphery. Pakistan offers the clearest example. Over 80% of all recorded drone strikes have been concentrated in the north-western regions of the country, along the border with Afghanistan. These strikes have killed about 3000 people. The first one was recorded in 2004. They were used sparingly up until 2007 but this changed in 2008. From then they increased rapidly, from an average of one a year to one every four days. If you were to plot the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the pattern of drone strikes in Pakistan would follow the same curve, trailing it with a slight delay. The first drone strikes coincide with renewed resistance to the occupation in Afghanistan, fuelled by resentment at the continued presence of western troops. The heart of this resistance is in the Pashtun south and extends across the porous border with Pakistan. Resistance based in this area explodes in 2006 and the strikes escalate some one to two years later. And, like resistance to the occupation, they continue strongly until today, reaching their own peak in 2010, soon after the Obama troop surge.

It is the occupation’s failure to control Afghanistan and the spiralling violence of the war which drive the drone strikes in Pakistan. Resistance explodes in Afghanistan; drone strikes are increased in Pakistan. The troop surge fails in Afghanistan; drone strikes reach a peak in Pakistan. Rather than being simply a component in an all powerful military apparatus, drones are a response to the crisis of the war on terror.

The September 11th attacks were the pretext for the war in Afghanistan. Since then, imperialism has provided people throughout the region with plenty of reasons for hating the west. The CIA estimates that there are less than 100 Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Meanwhile militants adopting the Al Qaeda label in Somalia and Yemen number in the tens of thousands. The war on terror has carried us from the illusion of terrorist bases in Afghanistan to a very real situation where two of the poorest countries in the Middle East are devastated by civil war.

In Somalia, the hysteria surrounding the threat represented by Al Qaeda led the US to perceive the Islamic Courts Union, a relatively moderate government which came to power in 2006 with hopes of unifying the war-ravaged country, as a new base for terrorism. Two US-backed invasions by the Ethiopian army shattered the ICU, leaving its youth wing, Al-Shabaab, controlling much of the South. The US began drone strikes in 2011 to try and finish the job that the proxy invasions had begun. The people targeted by these drones have been radicalised by the experience of foreign intervention and the general climate of western aggression embodied by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.    

Yemen was officially incorporated into the Afghan theatre in 2002, when the country was designated a ‘combat zone’ as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Since then, drones have been used to target militants identified as ‘Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula’ (once simply ‘Al Qaeda in Yemen’). One of the effects of the Arab Spring taking hold in Yemen has been to increase the pressure for military action. Between 2010 and 2012 drone strikes in Yemen increased tenfold. The regime has colluded with the US to step up attacks in the south, where militants took control of several cities in the midst of the revolution. The presence of British special forces has been noted in the mainstream press several times; it is hard to believe they are not involved in the drone attacks. The use of drones is part of a wider package of military aid that the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, provide to the regime. The alleged aim is of course to combat terrorism. However, this extra military weight has equally served to try to crush the uprising, as elite forces equipped and trained by the US and UK have been set loose on peaceful protesters.

The scope of the war on terror has been displaced southwards. In Asia, from Afghanistan to Pakistan; and in the Middle East, from Iraq to Yemen and Somalia, from the Persian Gulf to the ‘Bay of Tears’. As the original centres of the war have fallen into crisis, its outlying areas have been targeted with renewed vigour. On the military front, drones have been at the forefront of this process.

Ideologies of precision

It is not just in Yemen that the dynamic of the War on Terror collides head-on with the Arab Spring. Following the fall of Ben Ali and Mubarak, the west began to look for ways to regain its grip on the region. Whereas in Bahrain it simply moved to crush the movement (the US giving the green light to Saudi Arabia), in order to intervene in Libya it had to give the impression that it was doing so on the side of the uprising. This involved rehabilitating the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, twice disgraced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones fit the bill perfectly. They were supposed to be precise, clean, and relatively low-key. If Bush and Blair favoured shock and awe, Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy would talk in terms of ‘targeted killings’, ‘surgical strikes’ and ‘no-fly zones’. As a spokesperson from the State Department’s Democracy and Human Rights Bureau put it, ‘there’s a war going on, and drones are the most refined, accurate and humane way to fight it’ (cited on p.146).

As Benjamin points out, drones are one of the reasons why the intervention in Libya happened so quickly, and with such apparent ease. A report by the Obama administration argued that ‘US operations [in Libya] do not involve sustained fighting or active exchanges of fire with hostile forces, nor do they involve the presence of US ground troops, US casualties or a serious threat thereof’ (cited on pp.149-50). The intervention fell within the remit of the War Powers Resolution, allowing Obama to bypass Congress.

The book comes into its own where it tackles the legal and moral implications of drones. Benjamin shows how the Obama administration has not merely altered the rhetoric of the war on terror, but its procedures as well. The heavy use of ‘targeted killings’ is a distinctive policy response to the scandals of the Bush/Blair years, in particular the shocking images broadcasted from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib:

‘Noah Feldman, a constitutional and international law professor at Harvard University, put it this way: “Obama’s team observed that holding terror suspects exposed the Bush administration to harsh criticism (including their own)”. By contrast, “Dead terrorists tell no tales - and they have no lawyers shouting about their human rights” (p.133).

However there is a serious weakness in Benjamin’s approach. It stems again from her tendency to substitute a combination of undigested facts, moral arguments and legalistic thinking, in place of a concrete analysis of the situation. The idea that the intervention in Libya was ‘supporting a popular uprising’ (p.151) passes unchallenged. More worrying still, Benjamin suggests that deploying drones in Syria to spy on the regime would be a potentially positive use of the technology (p.213). Far from a harmless, merely hypothetical proposal, this is a very real possibility. As the conflict in Syria spirals out of control, the chances of a conflagration involving Turkey, Lebanon, or Israel are becoming more likely. If this happens, the US, UK and other western powers will be dragged in whether they like it or not. A major new war in the Middle East, eventually spreading to Iran, will be the likely outcome. Surveillance drones may well be the west’s first direct intervention. The intervention in Libya led to tens of thousands of civilian casualties. In Syria, the consequences would be far worse.

Drones should be seen in part as a technological/ideological fix for the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, the main occasion for redeploying this doctrine being the west’s attempts to intervene in the Arab Spring.

Arms and austerity

Drones are seen as politically cost-free by the governments that use them. A similar view holds when it comes to financial costs. Again there is something of a discrepancy with reality.

As Benjamin shows, the relatively low price-tags of the drones themselves are misleading. Compare for example drones and fighter jets: an F16 costs $55 million, while a Predator drone costs $5 million, an F22 is worth $150 million, a Reaper drone just $28.4 million. Nonetheless, the real cost is keeping them in the air, servicing them and processing the vast amounts of video footage and other data that drones produce. These costs come in at $2,000 to $3,500 per hour (p.21). Bear in mind that flight hours are growing exponentially.

The upfront costs of drones are relatively small but the secondary costs are huge. The first version of the Predator, the most popular drone currently in use, was built by an Israeli engineer in his garage (p.14). Some of the leading companies making drones today, such as General Atomics, which employs only a handful of engineering staff, are tiny compared to giants like Boeing and BAE Systems. Meanwhile, however, a vast network of support staff has grown up around the technology. Most of it is employed directly by the state. The aptly named ‘Gorgon Stare’ surveillance drone requires 2000 analysts to process its data; this for a single drone. In order to meet the demand, the US has converted seven national air guard squadrons into intelligence units to analyse drone footage (p.22).

It is then not quite accurate that Benjamin should compare the drone industry to the military-industrial complex of Eisenhower’s day. Today’s military-industrial complex is significantly one-sided. While the interlocking of state and industry, centred on arms production, helped to sustain the long boom of the 1950s and 60s by stoking productivity and at the same time getting rid of excess capital, the same unholy alliance today is helping to run the US economy into the ground. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes famously calculated the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as three trillion dollars. The US currently spends over $100 billion on wars per year, about 13% of the deficit. This is only a fraction of the more general military budget, which is closer to $1 trillion, about the same as the deficit (see David Swanson http://davidswanson.org/node/3552 ). For the UK, the war in Afghanistan costs over £4.5 billion per year, about the same amount the government plans to cut from public sector pensions, or a third of the deficit.

Drones are the apogee of an economy based on austerity and war. They bring in huge profits for a few individuals without creating growth or jobs. When Aberporth in Wales was ‘slated to become a “UAV centre of excellence”’ 1,000 new jobs were promised. Only about 30 were ever created (p.190).

What drones have helped to achieve is rather a growth in the essential repressive functions of the state. Hence in the US the expansion of drone technology has involved the interlocking of different departments like the CIA, JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) and the State Department. This cuts against the usual discourse of austerity programmes that talk about downsizing the state. In fact what we see is a thickening of the state’s repressive functions at the same time as its democratic cushioning is hollowed out from the inside. We should see the militarisation of society as the flip side of unpopular austerity measures and a political culture eaten away by the effects of a system-wide democratic deficit.

Drones are the perfect expression of this situation. In the US they are already being used domestically:

‘In 2005 Congress authorised Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to buy unarmed predators. By the end of 2011, CBP was flying eight Predator drones along the southwestern border with Mexico and along the northern Canadian border to search for illegal immigrants and smugglers. By 2016, CBP hopes to have two dozen drones in its possession, “giving the agency the ability to deploy a drone anywhere over the continental United States within three hours …” ’ (p.73).

And Texas (of course!) now plays host to the first police department to acquire its own crime-fighting drones, unarmed for now but designed to be equipped with stun batons and tasers (pp.77- 8).    

The UK is not far behind in terms of the creeping militarisation of society. In many ways we are less subtle. We are well known as the country with the greatest density of CCTV cameras. We may not have drones patrolling the streets (yet) but the decision to place antiaircraft missiles on the roofs of flats in South and East London during the Olympics takes things into the realm of the absurd.

Drones and the anti-war movement

Towards the end of the book Benjamin makes an allusion to the movement against nuclear weapons, raising the question of whether drones are a similar kind of issue. It is a useful comparison as it highlights some of the distinctive features of the situation we are in now. Undoubtedly there are similarities, to do with the terrifying possibilities of destructive new technologies. Despite this, the height of the movement for nuclear disarmament occurred during the cold war, representing the catastrophic potential underlying those tensions, whereas today’s drones are a feature of the various hot wars raging on the surface of the system.

The issue of drones therefore has to be treated as part of the broader antiwar movement. It cannot be so easily separated from its political content, which includes: the spread of the war on terror to Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen; the interaction between imperialism and the Arab Spring, and the ideological importance of humanitarian intervention in this context, as in Libya and Syria; and the combination, both contradictory and complimentary, of vast military spending at a time of economic austerity.  

The tendency of imperialism to split into lots of smaller channels - from Iraq and Afghanistan to a total of at least six different countries today - is not a one way process. The crisis of the war and its diversification also increases the risk of new wars, on a scale above and beyond the war in Iraq (i.e. the prospect of a war with Iran, or a new war in the Middle East sparked off by the Syrian conflict, or both).   

Again, making comparisons with anti-nuclear politics, the assets of the two movements are also different. Whereas in Britain in the 1960s, CND’s mass base had extensive roots in the Labour Party, as well as thriving in the radical counterculture of the time, today there is disenchantment with mainstream political institutions (although social democracy and trade unions are still a major force), counterbalanced by the weight of broad movements on the streets (from the antiwar movement to anti-austerity demonstrations).

One cannot help feeling that the direction Benjamin sketches for campaigning against drones is drawn from another decade, relying as it does on a combination of lobbying and small-scale direct action. But if this is meant to reproduce the CND model, it is a very selective memory of events. There is no sense of building a mass movement or of taking up the challenges of new wars, as CND did with the war in Vietnam.

The issue of drones has to be connected with the specific nature of imperialism today. Campaigning against them should be linked to a mass movement against war and austerity. In this context the issue of drones can play an important part in countering arguments for humanitarian intervention, demonstrating the backward nature of austerity policies, and halting the spread of war in Asia and the Middle East.  

At the same time there is the possibility that as the technology becomes more widespread, in foreign wars and ‘homeland security’, it will begin to take on a life of its own. Again the situation will be shaped by the dynamics of imperialism, but in this context we may well see drones become a touchstone issue in a way comparable to nuclear weapons.

Drone Warfare is available from O/R Books.

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright edits Different Skies, an online magazine and collective for experimental writing. He writes about cinema and the city. Alistair is a stalwart of Stop the War and a member of Counterfire.

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