Drones and the Burden of Proof: The release of the White House guidelines for the use of drones

Drones and the Burden of Proof: The release of the White House guidelines for the use of drones
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When the White House recently released its 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance for the use of drones in its bid for greater transparency, it gave a glimpse into the secretive process of how the US employs its deadly drones against targets around the world. The release of the report was the culmination of years of legal back and forth following a Freedom of Information Act request by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The redacted document with its highly technical and bureaucratic language, however, provided little insight into how individuals are actually placed on the government’s “kill list” and find themselves on the receiving end of a drone’s missiles. The only guidance provided in the document for identifying future targets is whether an individual or other targets “pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.” Such ambiguity belies the document’s precision in describing the procedures necessary to authorize a strike through the chain of command. The document also states that the use of lethal force is authorized if there is “near certainty that an identified HVT [high-value target] is present” or “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”

Despite these guidelines, it seems the government too often relinquishes the burden of proof when conducting its strikes, especially when using what are called “signature strikes”—where drone operators target the suspicious behavior of any “military-aged males” in designated areas, such as Waziristan in Pakistan and Abyan Province in Yemen. Warren Weinstein, a U.S. aid worker kidnapped in Pakistan, was accidentally killed in such a strike last year, along with Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto.

The use of signature strikes makes it impossible to fulfill the criteria outlined in the guidelines given the fact that the U.S. government doesn’t know who is on the receiving end of such attacks, is unfamiliar with the culture and traditions of the societies under scrutiny, and is often unable to concretely verify who was killed after the fact. The fog of war and misinformation often lays particularly thick over these areas. The precision of these weapons is a constant theme cited by its supporters yet it is not the technology itself that is at issue but how they are used.

There are countless stories coming from targeted regions within Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia recounting the tragic deaths of innocent people, some mere children, by these strikes. Interviews from affected communities by international aid workers speak of a lingering fear for who will be next. People in the FATA region of Pakistan, for example, are afraid to gather for meetings or funerals, or even for families to sleep together within the same room, in fear that such actions will be misconstrued as suspicious behavior in the eyes of the drone. The U.S. shows no signs of abating its use of this tactic, given recent drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen.

In an interview for The Thistle and the Drone, a book project by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed which I worked on, Brigadier Abdullah Dogar, who was Brigade Commander of Pakistani military forces in North Waziristan, told us that there was very little coordination between the U.S. and the Pakistani military on the ground in relation to drone strikes. In the interview, he shared with us the story of a March 2011 drone strike on a tribal jirga in Datta Khel, North Waziristan that killed 44 people. At the time of the strike, Brigadier Dogar was a mere ten kilometers away and knew that the meeting was taking place, in order to resolve some business disputes, ten days in advance. He then said to us, with bitterness and emotion in his voice, “They were totally innocent. I could name each one.” This contradicts the June 2011 claim of John Brennan, then Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, that drone strikes over the previous year had not been responsible for a single collateral death, given the weapon’s precision.

The U.S. has since publicly acknowledged that drones have caused the deaths of innocent people. A July 2016 report of drone causalities from the White House gave the figures of between 64 and 116 civilians and between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants killed from 2009 to 2015. However, these fall short of numbers reported by other organizations that track drone casualties, such as the New America Foundation that reports 219 civilian casualties and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that gives a figure of at least 325. However, the murky definition of who constitutes a “combatant” when signature strikes are used should give us some reservations about the accuracy of these statistics.

President Obama should also be worried that his use of the drone, even if these guidelines should become legally binding at some point, establish dangerous governmental precedent for use of lethal action against individuals who are deemed an “imminent national security threat” for future commanders-in-chief. With the uncertainty of the upcoming U.S. presidential election looming, everyone should be concerned about this. Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has stated that he wants to begin targeting the families of terrorists and deploy drones to patrol the U.S. borders 24/7.

The focus that so many commentators and policy makers place on the use of drones has, however, overshadowed the far more important and underlying problem that drives much of the horrific violence seen in the regions where the drone is deployed—the on-going conflict between central governments and tribal societies living on the periphery, as examined in The Thistle and the Drone.

Whether or not the U.S. continues or halts its drone program, the violence between center and periphery will continue in these societies. Historically, there has always been tension between the fiercely independent communities with codes of honor and revenge living in the distant mountains and deserts of the periphery and the centers of power, particularly of post-colonial states in Africa and Asia, attempting to establish the writ of the state within its newly defined borders. Following 9/11, it was to these communities’ “ungoverned areas” that both the United States and local governments looked to in its hunt for al Qaeda. Local governments, often under pressure from the U.S., deployed its military forces and the terrorists groups that emerged from these communities responded in kind with more violence, entering into a vicious cycle of revenge between these two foes. It was into this chaos that the drone was deployed, pouring gasoline onto an already raging fire.

Through military operations, missile attacks, drone strikes, and suicide bombers, local communities, many of whom had little knowledge of what happened on 9/11, were pulled into a war they had nothing to do with and caught in the middle of the violence, bearing the brunt of both military forces and militant groups. Entire populations have been uprooted and cast into refugee camps, slums, and the streets of Europe in their attempt to escape. The drones do little to resolve these on-going issues or make Americans safer. In fact, many terrorist groups cite revenge for drone strikes, especially when women and children are the victims, as motivation for their suicide bombings and other attacks.

While there are serious issues with the use of drones, such as human rights violations in the killing of innocent civilians, the assassination of U.S. civilians, international legal issues, and problems of oversight, the focus on drones is only one part of a much larger problem. There needs to be more focus by policymakers both in the United States and other countries to resolve the underlying problems related to the rule of law and governance in the targeted regions. We need to explore political solutions rather than continuing to try the same militaristic approaches that have not yet yielded any constructive results.

It is a long road ahead but only by addressing these deeper problems can we hope to bring an end to this senseless violence.

Harrison Akins is a Doctoral Candidate in Political Science at the University of Tennessee—Knoxville.

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