I watched in amazement on March 6, 2013, as United States Senator Rand Paul held up a vote of President Obama’s choice for CIA director for thirteen hours straight, demanding that the administration disclaim any pretense of right to use aerial drones to kill American citizens on U.S. soil without due process of law. Senator Paul’s filibuster failed to draw so much as an acknowledgement from the Obama administration. Only the next day did White House spokesman Jay Carney issue a grudging admission that the answer is: “No.” For now, at least, the American people are safe from drone strikes on American soil. But what about the rest of the world? There is no question that drones have been effective in decimating a generation of al Qaeda leadership. But at what cost? Here are the facts: Between 2004-2009, the Bush administration conducted 52 drone strikes. On January 20, 2009 President Obama was inaugurated the 44th President of the United States, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to reach out to the Muslim world later that year. Since those heady days, his administration has conducted 365 drone strikes in the Middle East, causing the death of at least 2536 to 3577 people in Pakistan, 228-335 in Yemen, and 7-20 in Somalia.
Is it morally acceptable for one country to systematically inflict so many civilian casualties in other nations in order to diminish the risks of terror attacks on its own soil? Of course not: one life lost as a “collateral” damage is one too many.
Is the objection to drone strikes only a moral one? No. Thus far, the ranks of terrorist organizations have not declined as a result of America’s drone program. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain as active as ever from North Africa to Yemen to elsewhere. For example, during a secret visit to Pakistan reported in the Associated Press today, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson saw evidence of 200 civilian fatalities in 25 separate incidents in Pakistan. The Pakistani government also confirmed at least 400 civilian deaths by U.S. drones on Pakistani territory. Yes, American drones are killing noncombatants at a rate substantially higher than the U.S. admits, and Pakistan complains that the program is radicalizing an entire generation of Islamist militants. The reason is obvious: Drone attacks neutralize popular will to defeat al Qaeda in the countries where they operate and inflame anti-American passions. Indeed, whereas in 2010, the Obama administration estimated “several hundred” al Qaeda operatives in the Arabian Peninsula, by July 2012, that number had increased to several thousands.
Bin Laden considered Che Guevara a hero, and the latter is seen as a model on guerrilla warfare by both communist and religious extremist groups. In his book Guerilla Warfare, he states: “The guerrilla band is not to be considered inferior to the army against which it fights simply because it is inferior in firepower. Guerrilla warfare is used by the side which is supported by a majority but which possesses a much smaller number of arms… The guerrilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area as an indispensable condition.” Likewise, guerrilla warfare expert Vo Nguyen Giap, summarized the weak point of guerrilla warfare as: “If you cannot secure materiel and moral support from the people in the region where you are fighting, you can only wage guerrilla warfare for 6 months at most. It is moral defeat, not hunger, that kills guerrilla warfare.” In failing to recognize the intellectual character of the struggle against radicalism, America is repeating the same mistake, which led to its failure in Vietnam fifty years ago: “We wrestle not against flesh and blood.” Radical terrorism is a marriage of fundamentalist Marxist ideology and corrupted Islamic theology. Young, zealous men embrace extremism as a result of ideological and false religious training, and the result is a mind inoculated against violent repression. Therefore, just as it was naïve to think that B-52 bombers would be able to defeat communism in Vietnam, it is agaın naïve to suppose that radical terrorism can be eliminated by drone strikes in 2013. Unless the false narratives of Islamist extremists, which drive terrorism, are refuted, and replaced with enlightened Islamic beliefs, terrorism can never be eliminated.
Turkey’s drone experience
The recent Turkish experience with drone surveillance may suffice for an example of the dangers of this technology. Over the past 30 years, PKK terrorism has cost more than 60, 000 lives in Turkey. If any government ever had cause to use systematic, remote aerial strikes to hunt down militant extremists, it would be our own. So far, the Turkish government has used drones only for intelligence purposes, but even that experience has borne bitter fruit: On December 28, 2011, surveillance imagery of a U.S. drone caused Turkish military officers to form an opinion that PKK militants were approaching the Turkish-Iraqi border. The images were accurate, but our government’s interpretation of the images was not. In reliance on this information, Turkey sent two F-16s and killed 34 civilians in the village of Uludere. Given that the very reason to combat terrorism is to secure our citizens, the reckoning of civilian fatalities as “collateral damage” is unacceptable. Besides, the object in Turkey IS NOT to kill people who happen to be caught up in the PKK, but to rehabilitate them. Moreover, it should not be forgotten that small scale attacks by using unmanned aircraft is within the reach of terrorist organizations like PKK. A guerilla group is able to simply purchase a large radio-controlled aircraft, attach explosives and fly it into an area of their choosing. The history of reprisal killings in Turkey and the PKK’s history of attacking civilian targets make such a scenario simply worthy of consideration by the Turkish military. Of course, history shows that technological improvements, once achieved, tend to remain, for good use or for ill. Therefore, perhaps it makes no more sense to say “drones are bad” than to say that “helicopters are bad.” Drones are here to stay. That said: Amorphous, unending “war on terror” of the West is being pressed into service of a deplorable unilateralism, which cannot be much longer borne. The definition of the word “civilization” itself includes cultural appreciation. Any civilized nation should consider the global and domestic ramifications of using these weapons. The struggle against extremism is a moral and intellectual contest, not a military conflict. Military strikes inflicted remotely against non-combatants, members of another race and religion sows new seeds for future terrorism. Its continuation will inevitably and always breed resentment and contempt, and fan flames of revenge.
Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak