The American drone war against designated terrorists is picking up speed and intensity, as the frequency and deadliness of the strikes increases. On Monday, as many as 15 suspected militants were killed by a drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region; the target was reportedly Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Qaida's second in command (his fate is unknown). That follows on the heels of strikes in South Waziristan on Saturday and Sunday, bringing the three-day toll to 27. This was the eighth drone attack in the past two weeks, and the deadliest in Pakistan’s remote tribal regions since last November.
In recent weeks, US president Barack Obama has signalled his increased willingness to wield the remote-controlled aircraft as a frontline weapon in the fight against al-Qaida and affiliated jihadist militants. Obama’s anti-terrorism chief, John Brennan, for the first time offered the legal and ethical justifications for the programme. And the New York Times reported how the president personally gives the green light on targeted drone assassinations of identified terrorist leaders.
Fighting terrorism, unlike conventional warfare, has few traditional rules, and the framework in law and ethics for combating these fighters (who target civilians as a matter of course) is full of grey areas and subjective judgements. For example, the US regards any military-age male killed in a drone strike as a combatant and therefore a legitimate target. Is it plausible that there are no male civilians in Waziristan? The ease with which the use of robotic killing machines is becoming routine is raising deep questions about what happens to rules and ethics when nations can make war without risking their soldiers' lives.
Read more: Clive Stafford Smith, head of the NGO Reprieve, writes in the Guardian that US drones are killing many more innocent civilians that the Americans will admit, a tactic he says is sure to backfire. And PW Singer of the Brookings Institution asks whether drones undermine democracy (hint: they do).