Rage against the machine

In America’s ongoing war on terror, a small landmark was achieved in January.

Small, that is, when perceived from the West, where commentary was relatively limited. Within Pakistan, however, January holds far more significance as it was the first full month since 2011 that no US drone strike hit the turbulent tribal Waziristan region in the battle against al Qaeda affiliated groups.

With the Pakistani government now engaged in peace talks with the Taliban since earlier this month, it is tempting to link the quiet skies over Waziristan with this attempt at diplomacy, a carrot with which to induce hard-pressed militants to the negotiating table.

If such a cause and effect link could be made definitively, there is little doubt military hawks would cite this as ample evidence of the efficacy of the modern ‘wonder of warfare’ that is the pilotless drone, with its major strategic gains against zero losses in terms of battlefield casualties on the American side.

This is only part of the story, however, and, since 2006, the hatred felt by ordinary Pakistanis towards drones has grown in line with the civilian casualties that have accompanied the strikes otherwise billed as surgical. Similar anger has been recorded in Yemen where strikes continued through January, as they did in Somalia.

The year to January has also been marked by an increase in voices raised against the use of drones, (joining those in Pakistan who have long pointed to their counter-productive effects). The latest of these was that of the World Council of Churches (WCC) which, following a meeting in Bossey, Switzerland from February 7-12 issued a lengthy statement challenging both the legality and morality of drone use.

“Despite arguments as to the benefits of the use of drones in reducing the risk of military casualties, it has been consistently observed that drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives and have human rights and humanitarian implications,” the WCC statement ran.

Most significantly, the WCC points out: “Pakistan has been expressing its fears that the drone campaign would ultimately be counter-productive, as it would further contribute to radicalizing a whole new generation and thereby perpetuating the problem of terrorism in the country and in the region.”

The WCC message echoes that delivered in a letter from Archbishop Silvano Tomasi in November to the United Nations in Geneva in his role as the Holy See’s Permanent Observer to that body.

Precisely on the issue of the impact of drones on the wider population, Archbishop Tomasi stated: “It is indisputable that large populations live in constant fear of their strikes… Thus, if the economics of drones may make sense to the budgets, it is ethically imperative that those cost savings not be the only costs considered. Costs to civilian life and property, as well as the psychological and economic cost of living in constant fear of future mistaken strikes, should not be ignored.”

As an aside, in January, when Archbishop Tomasi appeared before the UN to offer the Holy See’s progress report on child safeguarding, representatives from Yemen appeared that same day to assure the UN that in its own efforts to better protect children, it had recently opened a fulltime counselling centre for families affected by drone strikes on its territory.

Closer to home, and since a May 2013 to the White House National Security Advisor, Bishop Pates of the US bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace has been urging increased “debate and scrutiny” of targeted killings using drones.

Is America listening to these raised voices?

It’s tempting to believe that a message recently delivered by America’s Ambassador to Nigeria is the signal for a new era of caution. Having deployed drones there for use in tracking fighters with Boko Haram, a group now officially designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US State Department, US Ambassador James Entwistle sought to ease concerns when he said “the United States government will not take any unilateral counter-terrorism action” and promised full cooperation with Abuja.

In the wider realm of geopolitics, however, there appears little inducement for America to give up on what has become its upper hand in dealing with its overseas enemies. Even with the United Nations itself speaking out on the issue in December, when the general Assembly urged member states towards greater efforts in pulling drone programmes more into line with international law and human rights treaties, America is currently fixated on news that an American national in Pakistan is actively plotting attacks against his fellow nationals from a location apparently secure from all but drone technology.

A blast from the quiet sky over Pakistan may soon be the answer to all questions.