The United States and its lethal drone policy in Pakistan/Afghanistan

Targeted Killings Polemics

Essay, 2012

17 Pages, Grade: A-



“It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we would grow too fond of it”

Gen. Robert E. Lee, 1807 – 1870

The United States of America’s current lethal drone policy is still shrouded in mystery and complexity: little official information is accessible to the public. This document, therefore, could only raise a certain number of issues. If there were a document detailing the said policy, it could not be found. This paper has had to rely on other various sources to expose the policy elements. It focuses on the war theater in Pakistan/Afghanistan and the drone policy’s lethal elements. Firstly, the paper will delve into the development of the U.S. drone program and the controversial use of an automatized lethal process. Secondly, it will consider elements from the political sphere that shaped the current policy. Thirdly, it will analyze the implication of public opinion in Pakistan and the U.S. Fourthly, the paper will highlight a few of the legal aspects that influenced the drone policy before drawing a conclusion.

The most discussed element influencing the drone policy of the U.S has been freely interpreted as the information relating to the matter remains scarce and mostly unofficial. What looked, at first, like a classic security versus democracy dilemma added to a member of the U.S. intelligence community seemingly out of control, a Department of Defense (DoD) with hardly any oversight, gave rise, surprisingly, to a quite controlled but executive branch driven process. One cannot ascertain however whether the safeguards in place, were operative and respected whilst the lethal drone program was progressing.

Drone history

The advantages of air power were already recognized in the past by military strategists. Today, its supremacy remains. The major problem, still being addressed, is reducing the risks to humans strapped into the machines which they fly. Already, during World War I, the U.S. navy had experimented on unmanned ‘air torpedoes’. The approach became more sophisticated by World War II when, during the ‘Operation Anvil’, they started guiding, by remote radio, some B24 bombers to hit the targets. Pilots were only used for takeoff. They landed in England by parachute before a ‘mother ship’ could guide the flying bomb to hit the target. The experiment was far from perfect as it claimed U.S. pilots’ lives, one of which was that of Joseph Kennedy, the late U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s older brother. Meanwhile, the Germans were working on a rocket program, which the U.S enhanced, at the end of the war. It then became a very successful cruise missiles system paving the way for the ballistic missiles’ blueprint. The cruise missiles, a type of proto drones, could neither hover over an area nor return to base as they were designed to just crash on a target. In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. Air Force tried to develop unmanned aircraft for surveillance flights whenever complex flight maneuvers were not required. It was not, however, until the 1980s and ’1990s that developments in computer and electronic controlled systems made it possible for the modern type of drones widely used nowadays to be manufactured. It took the Air Force yet another decade to arm unmanned aircrafts with missiles (Sifton, February, 2012, p. 12-13).

In 1998, the Clinton administration made plans to eliminate Osama Bin Laden by missile strike. The Pentagon predicted an estimated collateral damage of 300 casualties. Their confidence in Intelligence estimated at only 50 percent, it was decided to look for a better alternative. During 2000 and 2001, the Air Force tried to fit a Hellfire anti-tank missile on to a Predator surveillance drone but one week before 9/11, the National Security Council agreed that armed Predators were not yet operational (Zenko, 2012, p.1).

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been using drones for surveillance in Afghanistan since 2000. A year before the 9/11 attacks, drone operators believed to have detected Osama Bin Laden near his hideout in Kandahar. This sighting and the missed opportunity to kill him triggered an argument between the White House and the CIA about arming drones. The CIA had already been authorized to support military operations and after the 9/11 attacks, it was involved in the armed drones program. As stated above, one of the major benefits of drones is that they protect the operator from risks. They can therefore be seen as the next step in developing weapons technology and distancing further the emotional bond between the killer and his victim. This process started with the use of stones, then bows and arrows, later on catapults and culminated in long range missiles. According to Konrad Lorenz, an animal behaviorist, such developments support the ‘aggression drive’, which in the past, was often softened by the ‘submission’ phenomenon. This occurs whenever an animal, feeling threatened, ‘submits’ to its enemy before he can attack. When artillery or other distance range weapons are used in a battle, victims cannot stop aggression through submission (Sifton, 2012). Policy makers generally favor weapons incurring very little danger to the operators and therefore minimizing political risks. In addition, even human rights groups do admit that the weapon’s precision reduces the number of civilian casualties and causes less devastation than traditional warfare. Nevertheless, the partly automatized, long distance killing makes one shudder.

Capitalizing on the above mentioned advantages, plans for remote, autonomous ‘decision making’ taken by robots have been cropping up on U.S. military road maps since 2004. They are patent in the increased budgets and in the number of Predator crews. The number of trained crews, consisting of a sensor operator and a pilot, rose from 32 in 2005 to 160 in 2008. By 2009, the number of trained remote pilot operators outnumbered that of conventional pilots. The drones’ fleet make up cannot be accessed but the military’s high demand for Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAV) is clearly shown in the amount of mission hours shooting from 250,000 hours in 2007 to over 1 million in 2010 (Sharkley 2010). Some observers claim that the increase of UAV is linked to lobby efforts of the industry through the Congressional Unmanned System Caucus[1]. An element linked to the political sphere.

Some pilots’ moral and emotional disengagement is described as a ‘Playstation’ mentality. Their decision to kill or not can be misguided. Statements like “It’s a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool’ or “…Killing people is like squashing an ant. I mean, you kill somebody and it’s like ‘All right, let’s go get some pizza.’” strengthen this theory and policy makers should heed this fact. Reality strikes some pilots when the consequences of their attack glare at them on high resolution screens. The images that need to be studied can be disturbing and stressful, causing stress syndromes. Another new element for policy makers to consider is the fact that pilots leave the battlefield after their shift and go home without a debriefing about the day, to spend the evenings with their families. The “Committee on Autonomous Vehicles in Support of Naval Operations”, among others, strives to reduce the involvement or the importance of human beings in the battlefield. The most recent ‘United States Air Force Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047’ promoted further developments from the ‘man-on-the-loop’ systems, currently in use with the Predator and Reaper systems, to ‘human on-the top systems where humans will be in control of several partly autonomously operating robots. They allow a human being to control several partly autonomous robots whose task will be to find, identify and destroy a target. The extent, to which computers should make lethal decisions, raised an ethical question for policy makers to consider, in a long term future. It is however unlikely that machines will be able to make life and death decisions based on algorithms in the near future. Such decisions require human intuition and the ability to predict people’s intentions and likely behavior. A machine even equipped with a very sophisticated software program is not yet up to deciding whether a person is a civilian or a combatant. A robot would also struggle to determine whether an attack is proportional according to the International Humanitarian Law (IHL). Other technical challenges are still not solved. Sensors can identify facial expressions but they do not work very well when the target is moving. Another problem for policymakers promoting automatized warfare would be the question of whom to hold responsible if errors were to occur. Would the programmer, the manufacturer or the military hierarchy be held accountable (Sharkey, 2010)?

To sum up, today’s U.S. drone policy is driven by the wish to reduce the risks of loss of military personnel in aircraft on the battlefield and probably lessen the involvement of humans in a more general sense. Technical progress contributed to the furtherance of the drone program, which led to a first generation of surveillance drones. The latter did not raise different challenges as manned aircraft surveillance. Drones have evolved from a primarily information gathering surveillance tool to a powerful lethal weapon. Advances in the technological field have opened new opportunities that, eventually, stimulated the policy makers to question the extent to which one could use them. Technical advances and increased physical and psychic distance between killer and victims, have, it seems, softened individuals’ reluctance to kill. Further such programs have been mandated and financed by policy makers for some of the reasons mentioned above. It is highly likely that the hunt for Osama Bin Laden and his accomplices has impacted the early lethal drone policy.

American political sphere

This section describes different elements influencing the drone policy linked to the political sphere. Some factors are linked to general covert operations, others to political oversight and delegation of powers. It is nearly impossible to comprehensively describe the complexity of the system, therefore, only a selected number of the overall system’s components are studied.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford banned targeted killings as a potential instrument for the U.S government in Executive Order 11909. “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination”. President Ronald Reagan extended the ban to people acting on behalf of the U.S. government in Executive Order 12333 (Sharkey, 2010, p. 374). Their orders did not, however, exclude lawful self-defense options against legitimate threats to U.S. citizens’ national security. After the Bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, President Clinton overruled those bans. In a top secret memorandum, he gave the CIA the authority to kill Osama Bin Laden and some of his closest subordinates should they resist arrest. President George W. Bush issued another Memorandum of Notification on September 17, 2001, which authorized the CIA to kill members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks without the need for further approval. In August 2009, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee mentioned in one of its reports, the existence of a ‘joint integrated prioritized target list’ (JPTL). It named 2,058 individuals to be captured or killed. It is alleged that similar lists existed for Iraq (Zenko, October, 2011).



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The United States and its lethal drone policy in Pakistan/Afghanistan
Targeted Killings Polemics
Webster University  (International Relations)
The United States and its drone program in Pakistan
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Afghanistan, Pakistan, United States, Drone, IHL, US foreign policy, DoD, CIA, Unmanned Arial Vehicles, Al Qaeda, 9/11, Osama bin Laden, Global War on Terror, Taliban
Quote paper
Marcel Reymond (Author), 2012, The United States and its lethal drone policy in Pakistan/Afghanistan, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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