Dissent on Drones

Photo by drsmith7383, 2007, Flickr creative commons

Ever since its inception, the legal and ethical parameters for the “War on Terror” have been murky. Should it be subject to the same legal framework as a “real” war? Recent revelations about U.S. drone warfare have brought the debate back to life. Can targeted killings ever be justified? What if they compromise the basis of due process? And if so, does it matter whether killings are carried out by American soldiers or automated drones? What considerations, in short, should govern the ethics of drone warfare, and can it be governed at all?

Considering the secrecy with which the U.S. drone program has been implemented, the issue of transparency is paramount. “We citizens should know the criteria that are being used, the kind of evidence that is required, and we should know how the decisions are being made,” argued Michael Walzer in a recent live chat with the New Yorkers Amy Davidson on drone warfare. “Should the president pull the trigger? Not by himself, not without the advice and consent of some group of people independent of his office and of the CIA.”

Going further in a recent online essay at Dissent, “Targeted Killing and Drone Warfare,” Walzer asked, “Why should we think it [the drone] different from the sniper’s rifle? The difference is that killing-by-drone is so much easier than other forms of targeted killing. The easiness should make us uneasy….We should think very carefully before relaxing the targeting rules and turning drones into a weapon like all the others.”

By most appearances, the U.S. government hasn’t set a very high threshold for using drones. But as news of remote pilots suffering post-traumatic stress suggests, killing-by-drone isn’t as clean as it seems. According to Willie Osterweil, “the major innovation of the drone is not the reduction of U.S. soldier suffering, but removing that suffering from the political calculus and ending the limits that suffering places on the capacity of military force.” But “while it’s much cheaper, socially, emotionally, and politically, to feed, train, house, and replace a pilot working in Kansas than in Kandahar, it costs much more economically”—“a win-win for the military industrial complex.”

Making public the criteria for ordering strikes and allowing independent oversight over decisions to deploy drones are important—but arguably these are smaller considerations next to the fundamental, contentious assumption that the U.S. government is “legally permitted to use lethal force against any of its operatives when the country involved is unwilling or unable to take action against the threat,” as Obama counterterrorism chief John Brennan has stated. As Rafia Zakaria put it last year in Dissent, the parameters for drone use outlined by Brennan

encompass both countries that consent and do not consent to U.S. strikes, cover a boundless geography (wherever al-Qaeda or associated groups may be), and allow the United States to decide for itself what proportionality and necessity entail, when these constraints are normally understood as concepts determined by international tribunals adjudicating the necessity of armed conflict.

Moreover, drone campaigns in Pakistan (the country subject to more drone attacks than any other) have “not reduced the ability of their supposed targets to kill with impunity”: “In the decade since September 11, 2001, a total of 322 drone strikes have battered the northwest tribal region of Pakistan. While those on American soil have fared well during that time, in 2011 alone 476 incidents of terrorist violence took place in Pakistan, killing 4,447 civilians, an increase from the previous year.”

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.