Drones are an illegitimate way to wage war

President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan claimed last week that drones are aiding America’s ‘war on terror’

Photo credit: Island-Life

Photo credit: Island-Life

On Saturday a US drone attack killed nine people in Pakistan. President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan recently claimed they are aiding America’s “war on terror”, but he is perpetuating the fallacy that we can defeat an ideology with military force. Pakistani sovereignty is being breached and innocent civilians are being killed, under advantageous legal fiction.

In February the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported between 2,433 – 3,093 Pakistani civilians have been killed by US drone strikes since 2004, and at least 467 – 815 of these casualties were civilians. Dr. Zeeshan-ul-Hassan, who runs an independent research site, alleges as many as 2,179 civilians are amongst the dead. On average, attacks are carried out in Pakistan by American drones every four days.

The Bureau claim that as many as 535 civilians have been killed as a result of drone strikes since President Obama took office. 50 civilians they say were killed in follow-up strikes whilst helping the wounded, and more than twenty were killed whilst attending funerals.

The US is not adhering to the laws of armed conflict and military warfare, as America is not technically engaged in ‘armed conflict’ with Pakistan. America cannot invade the airspace of another country without permission. Whilst America may be pursuing terrorists in Pakistan they are ignoring the country’s requests they stop and civilians are unlawfully dying. America is alienating its ally. If America wants Pakistan to allow them to resume sending Afghanistan-bound NATO supplies through the country they must stop striking.

Pakistan has currently shut its border crossings to NATO, in response to an American airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011. Pakistan has on countless occasions called for an end to U.S. drone strikes, having denounced them on the grounds that they kill civilians and are consequently disadvantageous because they inflame anti-U.S. sentiment and drive dissidents into the ranks of radical Islam.

In Libya, President Obama was able to dodge federal law by claiming America wasn’t in an area of ‘hostilities’ because there was no actual force on the ground. Under congressional authorization, soldiers are legally allowed to engage in combat against ‘belligerents,’ but drone attacks are managed by the CIA and not by military personnel.

The Department of Defence (DoD) and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) do not, on the other hand, have the congressional authority to use drones in Yemen or Somalia. Recently the CIA has reportedly begun operating a drone fleet against Yemen from “somewhere in the Gulf.” In Somalia an investigation by Jeremy Scahill at The Nation revealed the CIA operates from Mogadishu airport.

Drones enable countries to wage war without endangering the lives of their own people. The ease with which countries can kill makes going to war far too easy. Politically the cost of a drone attack is less than sending troops into battle. This weapon of war allows soldiers to target terrorists on a screen thousands of miles away. Any economic development that makes war cheaper is ethically wrong and morally dangerous.


  1. Dear Laura,

    Whilst you are right to say that the Drone campaign is deeply unpopular and often counter-intuitive within Pakistan you are far too quick to assume that the upper political echelons of Pakistan are opposed to the campaign. Pakistan is not Yemen, Somalia or a Libya. It has one of the most sophisticated air forces and air defences in the region, not to mention its own drone capabilities and is hardly powerless to stop the American air-raids. The actual problem is poor intelligence which leads to airstrikes in mountainous regions (where it is difficult for ground-troops to reach) and thus leads to civilian casualties, something that all NATO partners have been guilty of during campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

    The point that is glaringly missing from this article is the role of Pakistan as a US partner and also a supporter of the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is the attempt by Pakistan to hedge its position in both areas in order to assure future US assistance and also to ensure a future Afghanistan that will respond to its needs and not be an ally of India that is dictating this increasingly complicated relationship between the US and Pakistan. Until Pakistan is able to resolve the contradictions within its own foreign policy it will continue to remain trapped between its need to support the insurgency in Afghanistan, leading to loss of life and partial loss of control in Pakistan’s North West and its need to maintain American Military assistance, which until 2011 was worth $800 million dollars.

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  2. “Terrorism is an ideology”

    In what sense? I thought terrorism was about the tactical use of fear as a means to achieve a socio-political end

    “America cannot invade the airspace of another country without permission”

    A hilariously bad reading of internation law. Did NATO have permission from Colonel Gaddafi before it toppled the regime? Did America seek permission from Nazi Germany before the D-Day landings? Not only is there no force to physically stop the USA from invading another country, there is no legal force either since states are sovereign. Speaking discriptively and normatively, states can invade other countries without permission (the question really is when is an invasion is justified/not justified?).

    “The ease with which countries can kill makes going to war far too easy”+”Any economic development that makes war cheaper is ethically wrong and morally dangerous.”

    Bizzare argument. As long as a war is justified how surely technological improvements should be lauded, not condemned. Presumably you would be against the development of radar in WW2 because it made killing Nazis far easier. Police use drones to enforce the law. Are you against this, because it makes catching criminals “too easy?”

    You’re argument should be that America is violating the principle of just war and just practise in war with its enemy in Pakistan. Instead you are trying to argue that it is immoral for countries to defend themselves and make it easier for themselves to defend themselves.

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  3. To the ‘Hilariously’ badly named ‘George Bush’, I would seriously doubt your ability to judge international law because the case here is so glaringly simple. The US uses drone attacks in Pakistan because until some-time in the imminent future, Pakistan used its Sovereign prerogative to allow the US to operate within its airspace. The example of WWII whilst hilariously dated and cliched existed before the establishment of the UN and after the League of Nations and as such the only laws between states were mutually agreed treaties, next to none of which covered air sovereignty because unsurprisingly not many planes existed until the end of the first world war! The next point of Libya is equally poor as you ignored UNSC 1976 allowing foreign aircraft into Libyan Airspace.

    Your other points about the article in general are fair though, the concept of a ‘just war’ is a joke.

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