‘Over-the-Horizon’ Use of Killer Drones Is Not a Justification but a Further Offence

October 21st, 2021 - by David Swanson / DavidSwanson.org & Sarah Kreps and Paul Lushenko / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Irresponsible Hatecraft and ‘Proper’ Drone Murders

David Swanson / DavidSwanson.org

(October 19, 2021) — A friend asked if I could “refute” an article about drones published by “Responsible Statecraft,” and I’m not really sure I can. [You can read the article below — EAW] If an article were to oppose certain types of rape or torture or animal cruelty or environmental destruction but build in the assumption that one simply must have those things, albeit reformed versions of them, I couldn’t refute the need to oppose the particular atrocities. I could, however, question the assumption that that was good enough.

And if people who were paid to support the torture of kittens argued against doing so without gloves on, I could recommend getting the view of someone not paid to think that way, especially for publication on a website dedicated to opposing the torture of kittens (with or without gloves on).

Of course, there are some false beliefs built into the worldview represented by the article linked above, but there’s also the basic worldview that accepts murder, at least if it’s done by missile from robot plane.

It’s, not coincidentally, a worldview that goes along with Blobthought so thoroughly that it imagines “Over the Horizon” to be a part of “daily parlance” because somebody at the White House thought it was a good new phrase for obfuscating the blowing up of human beings in other countries.

It’s, also not coincidentally, a worldview that ignores the existence of laws, the laws against murder to be found in every nation on earth, and the laws against war to be found in the Hague Convention of 1907, the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, the United Nations Charter of 1945, the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

It’s a worldview that necessarily distinguishes large-scale terrorism from poor-man’s terrorism, re-labeling the former as “counter-terrorism.”

It gets into factual trouble when it claims that its so-called counter-terrorism prevents or reduces or eliminates terrorism, and when it suggests that drone murders conducted in places where troops are on the ground murder the right people and succeed in not being counter-productive in the way that drone murders conducted elsewhere tend to be.

It perpetuates a gross media myth when it suggests that the drone murders in Kabul that became news just as the US was removing troops from Afghanistan were different — not because the “ending” of the war was news and the location was in the capital — but because thousands of other drone murders all killed the proper people and didn’t generate more enemies than they killed.

It inverts reality when it depicts blowing up more people in Afghanistan with missiles as a public service and suggests that France should share part of the burden of providing it.

The reality, of course, has been decades of endless drone murders, including “signature strikes” and “double taps” targeting mostly unidentified people and sometimes identified people who could easily have been arrested had there not been a preference for murdering them and anyone nearby them. Daniel Hale is in prison, not for revealing a proper wholesome murder program that’s now been tarnished by withdrawing beyond the “horizon,” but for exposing the reckless sadism of drone war.

Were drone murders not already counterproductive on their own terms, we would not have had so many just-retired US military officials denouncing them for being so. Maybe “Responsible Statecraft” should wait for military employees to retire before publishing their propaganda. A CIA report found its own drone murder program counter-productive.

A CIA Bin Laden Unit Chief said the more the United States fights terrorism the more it creates terrorism. A former Director of National Intelligence wrote that while “drone attacks did help reduce the Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, they also increased hatred of America.” A former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff maintained that: “We’re seeing that blowback. If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”

Both General Stanley McChrystal and a former UK Special Representative to Afghanistan claim that every killing generates 10 new enemies. Former Marine Officer (Iraq) and former US Embassy Officer (Iraq and Afghanistan) Matthew Hoh concludes that military escalation is “only going to fuel the insurgency. It’s only going to reinforce claims by our enemies that we are an occupying power, because we are an occupying power. And that will only fuel the insurgency. And that will only cause more people to fight us or those fighting us already to continue to fight us.”

Of course, terrorism predictably increased from 2001 through 2014, principally as a predictable result of the war on terrorism. And 95% of all suicide terrorist attacks are indefensible crimes conducted to encourage foreign occupiers to leave the terrorist’s home country.

That a non-counter-productive approach is possible has been proven many times. For example, on March 11, 2004, Al Qaeda bombs killed 191 people in Madrid, Spain, just before an election in which one party was campaigning against Spain’s participation in the US-led war on Iraq.

The people of Spain voted the Socialists into power, and they removed all Spanish troops from Iraq by May. There were no more bombs in Spain. This history stands in strong contrast to that of Britain, the United States, and other nations that have responded to blowback with more war, generally producing more blowback.

The “successful” drone war on Yemen predictably helped generate a more traditional war on Yemen. The successful marketing of killer drones has led to the acquisition of military drones by over 100 national governments. One can’t help but wonder whether everyone on Earth agrees on which people are the proper people to blow up and which are the improper ones.

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is executive director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk World Radio.He is a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and US Peace Prize recipient. Longer bio and photos and videos here. Follow him on Twitter: @davidcnswanson and FaceBook, and sign up for: Activist alertsArticlesDavid Swanson newsWorld Beyond War newsCharlottesville news

The Mirage of Clean ‘Over-the-horizon’ Air Strikes 

Sarah Kreps and Paul Lushenko / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

(October 19, 2021) — The United States military has an informal term for air strikes that originate from outside the targeted country. They’re called “over-the-horizon.” President Biden has brought that term into more daily parlance in his defense of the type of air strike that may now be more likely in Afghanistan given his withdrawal of US forces. “We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities,” Biden recently explained, “which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground.”  

This explanation connotes a neat and clean way of conducting counterterrorism operations with little overhead. It assumes that America can strike terrorists anywhere at any time while reducing the costs of doing so, especially in terms of soldiers’ lives. Lift the hood, however, and a much more complicated story emerges for Biden’s apparent decision to double-down on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, against terrorists in Afghanistan.

Successful drone strikes entail both targeting the suspected terrorist and minimizing civilian casualties. Both tasks require multiple forms of intelligence, but especially human intelligence, all of which left Afghanistan along with the withdrawal of American assets in August. The botched strike on August 29, 2021 should reveal the perils of failing to positively identify a target, which is normally a key requirement for counterterrorism strikes.

The individual the United States thought was an Islamic State member involved in the killing of 13 American military personnel was actually Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for a US aid organization and had zero connection to terrorism. Ahmadi’s ostensible terrorist safe house was actually his home. And the alleged explosives were water bottles. Had anyone been on the ground, this all would have likely been known. Because the United States has virtually no personnel in Afghanistan, however, the prospects for another misfire are now much higher. 

A strike that goes awry and kills no combatants and many civilians is not only not “righteous,” as one senior US official initially characterized the strike, it is also counterproductive. Killing civilians risks delegitimizingthe use of drone strikes as an acceptable wartime practice. It can also become a vehicle for the recruitment of more terrorists, according to survivors of prior drone strikes.

Relatedly, the use of an armed drone for an OTH strike is actually just the figurative tip of a much longer spear. The drone itself is tethered to an entire global infrastructure. The Biden administration’s OTH strategy assumes that without regional bases across Central and South Asia, the United States will still be able to conduct drone strikes at will against terrorists in Afghanistan. Given the resources and personnel required to enable drone warfare, this seems dubious.

America’s armed drones are now launched from the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar severely limiting their ability to loiter in Afghanistan. According to Rep. Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), “those drones have to fly all the way around Iran and all the way up to Pakistan and lose 70 to 80 percent of their fuel before they even get anywhere near a target” in Afghanistan.

Given the fuel limitation, we may be reverting back to a world of drone strikes based on coincidence where missiles are launched based on the “signature” of terrorist behavior rather than concrete evidence of such wrongdoing. The lack of proper surveillance and reconnaissance, therefore, increases the likelihood for more errant strikes.  

The drones themselves are also not a costless proposition. In 2019, the Defense Department requested nearly $10 billion to procure an additional 3,500 drones to enable remote-warfare, according to a report filed by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. Compared to the previous year’s budget submission, these figures constituted a 25 percent increase in requested funding and over a 300 percent increase in the number of requested platforms. 

At the same time, the United States’ expanding use of drone warfare is also resource and labor intensive, which is much less understood by the public. Indeed, the public is often oblivious to the use of strikes abroad. This lack of awareness is largely a function of how experts frame America’s use of armed drones in the media and scholarship on drone warfare.

Analysts are comfortable grappling with the operational merits of strikes, even if they have yet to reach a consensus on how best to measurethe effectiveness of drones. In doing so, they discount the wider scope of resources and personnel that provide the backbone of strikes. 

Taken together, the use of OTH strikes might seem like the perfect way to fulfill Biden’s promise of both protecting Americans against terrorism while extricating US forces from Afghanistan. Upon closer inspection, the reality appears a lot costlier and risker. 

The implication is that the United States should rely more on partners in its emerging counterterrorism strategy. To that end, Washington should broker more collaborative arrangements with countries across the region. The Wall Street Journal reported in September that General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the possibility of using Russian bases in Central Asia with his counterpart in Moscow. Recent reports suggest that other talks with countries that border Afghanistan and host Russian bases, such as Tajikistan, have also continued.

The prospect of using bases in this and adjacent countries, which collectively comprise Russia’s “tacit sphere of influence,” is fraught. Yet, America may now have no other choice than to pursue a compromise with Russia in establishing a more proximate perch from which to overwatch Afghanistan. Access to a base in Central Asia would address the logistical burdens imposed by flying armed drones from Qatar, which would help the US military maintain a higher “near certainty” standard of no civilian casualties when conducting strikes.

As General Kenneth McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, testified, “our strikes in Afghanistan going forward will be under a higher standard. That’s a policy matter, not a purely military matter.” Meeting that standard will require partnerships with some countries that might otherwise seem unsavory or contrary to US interests. 

In addition, the United States should pursue a counterterrorism strategy that encourages allies and partners to bear more of the costs of fighting terrorists in Afghanistan. The United States has now sold France MQ-9 Reapers and provided intelligence for France’s ongoing counterterrorism operations in Mali. France, then, has the capability to shoulder some of the burdens of monitoring terrorists in Afghanistan.

Doing so would allow France to keep tabs on especially the Islamic State, which is a direct threat to France’s security. India, as well, has already leased two MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones from the United States for surveillance in the Indian Ocean and appears to be negotiating a $3 billion deal to acquire 30 more platforms from the manufacturer, General Atomics. India could easily recapitalize these drones to surveil and strike terrorists in Afghanistan. 

In sum, the use of armed drones for an over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan is an effective sound-bite. It implies conflict elsewhere. It also has the virtue of placating the public’s desire for risklessand humane war, which encourages people to focus more on drones themselves rather than the elaborate array of bases and personnel that enable strikes in the first place.

Without a base in Afghanistan, or anywhere across Central Asia, OTH strikes are less than meet the eye. Their use going forward may lack corroborating intelligence otherwise required to balance the targeted killing of terrorists with the protection of innocent civilians. The strategic appeal of using drone strikes in Afghanistan, then, may now become a strategic liability.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the United States Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or Government.

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