A greater focus on pilotless armed drones as an instrument of war by the United States and its allies raises questions of political cost as well as law and morality.
An analysis of recent developments in the use of armed-drones was the subject of the preceding column in this series (see "America's wars: the logic of escalation", 22 September 2011). It raised two issues: the United States's expansion of drone-specific bases, from where operations are directed at Somalia and Yemen from Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and even the Seychelles; and the debate within the Barack Obama administration over the extent of targeting by drones, especially their use to eliminate individuals or as part of a generalised counter-paramilitary warfare (see Craig Whitlock & Greg Miller, “U.S. assembling secret drone bases in Africa, Arabian Peninsula, officials say”, Washington Post, 21 September 2011).
The former is controversial because it can be regarded as assassination without the possibility of trial and punishment, but the latter carries even greater implications because of the escalation involved. Moreover, this type of campaign is being conducted with a range of tools that includes special-forces raids and cruise-missile attacks as well as drones. The current division of opinion in Washington essentially pits the state department's argument for a degree of caution against the Pentagon's emphasis on the need for wider action against small and dispersed yet potentially dangerous paramilitary groups (see Charlie Savage, "At White House, Weighing Limits of Terror Fight", New York Times, 15 September 2011).
The debate can also be regarded as largely theoretical in that the administration is primarily concerned with high-value targets and not yet spread drone-warfare too far. But this situation could change. Pakistan shows the way, for here tactics have already moved beyond the specific targeting of individuals towards "signature strikes": that is, attacks aimed at "killing clusters of people whose identities are not known, but who are deemed likely members of a militant group based on patterns like training in terrorist camps".
Such attacks can on occasion kill significant leaders. This was the case with the death on 3 June 2011 of Ilyas Kashmiri, who was presumed to have been the leader of the group that planned the attack on Pakistan's naval base at Mehran; though he had not been specifically identified before the attack that killed him (see Dexter Filkins, "The Journalist and the Spies", New Yorker, 19 September 2011).
This kind of "signature strike" may be attractive to the CIA and other parts of the US security industry, but it can also be singularly indiscriminate. An attack by four drone-fired missiles on a marketplace in the village of Datta Khel in North Waziristan on 17 March 2011, for example, killed as many as forty-four people, quite probably including some members of Pakistan's elite Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI). Many attacks of this type have fuelled a bitter anti-Americanism that now stretches across large sectors of Pakistani society, yet the counsels in Washington include active consideration of whether to extend the "signature raid" concept to other current theatres of war such as Yemen and Somalia - with a possible extension in future to the likes of Libya and Nigeria.
So if the use of drones in individual assassinations directed at individuals is already problematic, the trend in Pakistan and potentially elsewhere is more of a generic phenomenon whereby profiling that identifies a group of people with the characteristics of active paramilitaries is regarded as sufficient legitimacy for them to be attacked and killed.
The reverse lens
Here too, the implications in terms of the laws of war are substantial. But there is also a political aspect to consider. As the United States finds drone-warfare ever more attractive and moves further away from placing large numbers of "boots on the ground" and the use of drones becomes more attractive, the likelihood of greater civilian deaths among the target population increases. Such "collateral damage" assuredly will provoke intense anger and resentment among survivors, and empower those who can best weave the experience into a convincing political narrative (see "Drone warfare: cost and challenge", 23 June 2011).
US drones are "piloted" principally from bases in the American mid-west. The Royal Air Forces's Reaper drones are also managed from there, though the operational centre is moving to RAF Waddington near Lincoln in eastern England. For the radical groups and their sympathisers on the receiving end, the distant bases from where the drones are flown are very much part of the frontline of their war. At some stage in the months or years to come, there will be retaliation: perhaps not against the heavily protected bases themselves, but much more likely against "soft" targets such as a local bowling-alley or fast-food outlet.
There is still a disconnect in the western public mind between those distant wars and what happens at home. True, there may be rare if appalling attacks such as those in Madrid (2004) or London (2005), but for the most part the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan count mainly in terms of fallen young soldiers or particularly deadly bombs in Kabul or Peshawar.
That could change. As and when "remote war" becomes routine, not least in the increasing use of drones, a real prospect exists of "remote war" in reverse.