Human rights activists at odds with President Obama over his recent national security decisions are indicating that they might legally challenge the U.S. military’s use of Predator drones, a weapon that intelligence officials say is their single most effective tool in combating Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Predator spy planes are unmanned aerial vehicles that are virtually invisible when flying overhead. The Air Force uses them frequently in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they are able to track and hit targets from the air when mountainous terrain makes it notoriously hard to send troops.
“That’s the spooky thing about the Predator,” national security and terrorism expert Neil Livingstone said. “Even if the Predator is directly overhead and you know it’s overheard, you still can’t see it or hear it. This is kind of like death out of the blue.”
Human rights activists are turning their attention to the drone program in part because they say there’s no warning to innocent civilians who are in a targeted area.
Gabor Rona, international legal director of Human Rights First, a U.S.-based group that advocates universal rights and freedom, said large number of civilians are being unintentionally hit, harmed and killed.
“This is not only a violation of the international laws of war,” he said. “It’s bad policy.”
Opponents of the drones say that the policy could be illegal. The laws of war allow individuals who are engaged in hostilities to be targeted in an armed conflict but strictly prohibit actions against those not engaged.
“Even when you’re attacking a legitimate military objective, you cannot cause civilian casualties that exceed the value of a legitimate military attack,” Rona says.
It’s undeniable that more civilians have been killed than actual Al Qaeda terrorists in the 16 Predator strikes this year. But there’s little chance that could change.
“So many of these guys surround themselves with collateral casualties,” Livingstone said, and large numbers of women and children are strategically placed around hotbeds of activity. Livingstone makes the point that even if high-value targets are killed in one of these drone attacks, Al Qaeda still can claim a “propaganda victory” because of the number of civilian casualties.
Two high-value Al Qaeda operatives were killed on New Year’s Day this year in northern Pakistan. Usama al Kini and Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan were wanted for their involvement in the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. More than 200 people were killed in the embassy bombings, including 12 Americans. The men sought refuge in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
“Our military fighting in Afghanistan has got to be able to pursue high level (operatives) who flee across the border from Afghanistan into Pakistan,” said Matt Bennett, a national security expert for a Washington-based think tank.
On the presidential campaign trail, Obama had said that if there was legitimate intelligence about high-level Al Qaeda personnel he would not hesitate to act. And although there’s no formal agreement between the U.S. and Pakistan when it comes to Predator drone attacks, Pakistan more or less looks the other way.
Even so, human rights advocates continue to grow more disillusioned by the president’s decisions on the Guantanamo military commissions and his refusal to release photos of alleged detainee abuse by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other national security issues. The Predator program, which is a holdover from the Bush administration, could be the next legal battle.
“This is part of a broader campaign on the left to begin the drumbeat of withdrawal from Afghanistan and Pakistan generally to change the direction there and make it about only providing aid and not about military engagement,” Bennett said.