Is the drone war coming home?

On July 1st, President Obama signed an executive order intended to reduce civilian casualties in US military operations outside the theatre of war. It specifically mandated that the US Government “reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, take appropriate steps when such casualties occur, and draw lessons from our operations to further enhance the protection of civilians”. It also demanded in exquisite legalese the release of data on the number of strikes undertaken by the U.S. Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities and the resulting death toll.

There are significant limitations to this data. They are, as Open Briefing point out, broad estimates. They only cover strikes conducted under the Obama Administration, including Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Former drone pilots argue that “there is no standard methodology for counting the dead.” Significantly, the ‘best practice’ approach to avoiding civilian casualties mandated in the Executive Order is unlikely to work if there is no contextual data available on the strikes, much less a methodology for counting casualties.

The official numbers count 473 drone strikes between January 2009 and December 2015 conducted by the US military and the CIA. These killed between 64 and 116 civilians, and some 2,581 militants. There are gaping discrepancies between these official estimates and independent studies. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism records 373 strikes during the Obama Administration in Pakistan alone, resulting in 424-966 civilian casualties. (For the record, the UK flew 1427 Reaper missions in Iraq and Syria from September 2014 to the end of June 2016, launching 448 weapons).



The American Civil Liberties Union insists that every independent estimate of US drone strike casualties is higher than the official numbers. Its attorney, Brett Max Kaufman, writes:

“the government’s newly released information continues to conceal the specific definitions that guide its judgments about who it can kill, where, and why. In a May 2013 ‘fact sheet’, the government explained that before it uses lethal force, it must determine that a target ‘poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons’; that there is a ‘[n]ear certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed’; and that capture of the target is not ‘feasible’, among other requirements. But it has never provided definitions of these terms, or the evidentiary standards required to meet them, making it all but impossible to evaluate whether they are sufficient under the law.”

This also means that the legal edifice of the War on Terror – that the United States is “at war” even if it’s acting outside a war zone – is preserved.  In this sense, the drone wars present a problematic weakening of the concept of war itself, as the French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou and his reviewer Audrey Borowski recognise. They “hover somewhere between the law of armed conflicts – which requires sustained, persistent fighting occurring in a theatre of conflict – and law enforcement – whereby the use of lethal force is used as a last resort.” Some saw the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen who became a leading member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, killed by drone in 2011, as the point where extrajudicial execution became an policy option.

A US Department of Justice white paper returned that the president’s decision to kill in this situation, or his deputy’s, was “a lawful act of national self-defense.” This distinction between acts of war and national self-defence was reinforced in the first line of Obama’s executive order last month. What are the consequences of this doctrine? In Dallas last month, Afghanistan veteran Micah Johnson, furious at the killing of black people by US law enforcement, fatally shot five officers and wounded seven. He was “killed by a Remotec Andros F5 robot, built by weapons-maker Northrop Grumman, carrying a pound of C4 plastic explosive, and typical of robots that police departments now possess.” The drone wars are coming home.