The Global War on Terror, with unmanned aerial vehicles or drones as its weapon of choice, has become a self-sustaining industry. But concerns about the legality of drones are growing and the United Nations has plans for a dedicated investigations unit to examine the legality of drone attacks in cases where civilians are killed in so-called 'targeted' counter-terrorism operations.
According to unofficial counts, since 2004, there have been more than 400 'targeted killings' by drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — countries where the United States is not fighting a conventional war. About 3 000 people have been killed, including scores — possibly hundreds — of innocent civilians.
Surveillance,tracking and killing the enemy by stealth has many advantages.
UAVs are cheap in comparison to other military weapons and surveillance systems; they are safe and considered 'clean'; they have the element of surprise which is always very helpful in war and do not carry crews that could be killed.
Another advantage of drones, according to the advocates of this new kind of warfare, is that they limit the number of casualties after a target has been selected for attack. The problem of innocent victims, unfortunate enough to get killed or maimed only for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, is a 'normal occurrence' as in any other war and should be seen as such, it is argued.
But when the drones are used outside a declared and official war zone the legality of their use becomes at best suspect.
As the drone attacks authorised by the Obama Administration continue, the number of mutilated bodies of innocent victims not only keeps soaring, but seems to be counter productive since it creates more hatred and resentment towards the US. With it come more potential suicide bombers.
As a Pakistani photojournalist explained, "When people are out there picking up body parts after a drone strike, it would be very easy to convince those people to fight against America."
It is said that the recent death of the American ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, in Benghazi was in response to the killing of a Taliban leader in a 'successful' drone attack in Afghanistan.
True or not, more important is the fact that the Global War on Terror has become a self-sustainable enterprise and the killings continue.
Pakistan, Yemen and Somali (Mali might soon be added to the list) have been suffering from a barrage of drone attacks while not even at war with the US.
Pakistan is a supposedly friendly ally but victim of regular US drone attacks aimed at extremists living and hiding in the country. 97% of the locals interviewed there said the US drones are bad policy.
The United Nations, against the backdrop of growing international concern, recently announced plans to set up a dedicated investigations unit to examine the legality of drone attacks in cases where civilians are killed in 'targeted' counter-terrorism operations.
Some legal experts are of the opinion that certain drone attacks may amount to war crimes. But what are the possibility that those that authorise it will be held accountable?
In the US military and the powerful US weapons industry, there is little concern about humanitarian crimes . A recent report highlighted how the size of San Diego County in California, the national centre of the US UAV industry, doubled over the past five years. It could double again as UAVs are increasingly used for everything from waging war in far-flung corners of the world to monitoring the US Mexico border.
According to the report the UAV industry in San Diego generated at least US$1.3 billion in 2011, directly and indirectly supporting 7135 jobs. The true impact could be much bigger since classified programmes are not included in public records.
The Pentagon is investing heavily in UAVs at a time when other items in the defence budget are being cut. Analysts predict this trend will continue. They expect the global market for such aircraft to exceed US$12 billion by 2019, confirming once again there is money to be made in war. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, expressed strong support for the future use of drones. One of the few things they agreed on.
Expanded use in Africa
Closer to home it was also reported that the US military is expanding its drone capacity in Africa, with $1.4 billion earmarked for upgrading and expanding the first permanent drone war base in Africa, located at Camp Lemonier in tiny Djibouti.
There are also much smaller drone bases in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Seychelles with the possibility of others secretly hidden away. Djibouti is, however, the nerve centre for an average of 16 drone missions a day over Somalia and Yemen. It is the busiest drone base outside the Afghan war zone.
Not only is Camp Lemonier the most important US military facility in Africa but Djibouti’s location is also crucial. It is situated between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Somalia and Yemen can be reached in minutes and Djibouti's port offers easy access to the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa, Amanda Dory, clearly had this in mind when she remarked that Camp Lemonier is not "an outpost in the middle of nowhere of marginal interest. This is a very important location in terms of US interest, in terms of navigation, when it comes to power projection".