A series of leaks from the White House about the United States’ war against al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan have, over the past month, caused even greater attention to focus on its tactics. Much attention has been fixed on the report that President Barack Obama personally scrutinises each proposed target of a strike by an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, through meetings at which “kill lists” are discussed. In Pakistan, in particular, the US’ use of drones to target suspected militants in that country’s lawless northwestern frontier (the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA) has become something of a cause celebre for an alliance of the country’s Islamist right and its extensive anti-American liberal elite. Indeed, the tactics, policies and methods of control that the US is developing for its attacks inside Pakistan need to be carefully studied, for it is increasingly likely that they are the future of war.
Drones are getting cheaper, smaller and faster. The US military’s 7,000 drones, mostly commissioned in the past few years, range from handheld “Ravens” tossed around corners and over hills as a drone scout by infantry, to giant surveillance blimps thousands of feet in the air. Militaries across the world are working feverishly on developing and inducting drones, some of them as small as bumblebees and capable of hovering like insects. The consulting firm Frost and Sullivan projects that, even if the United States cuts back its drone purchases by a half by 2020, the global drones market will still reach $7 billion. China startled observers at the Zhuhai Air Show last year by releasing 25 new varieties of drones; and while only the US, Israel and the UK have used drones in war so far, nearly 50 countries have them in service. India has developed its own surveillance drone, the Nishant, and will reportedly buy 95 more this year. This makes military sense; it isn’t just that commanders can avoid risking a soldier’s life on gathering intelligence or for dangerous targeting mission; drones can even be argued to be cheaper in pure, heartless economic terms, when the cost of training and housing a soldier is factored in.
If technology is changing how nations wage war, then the type of targets are, too. War is no longer necessarily a clearly defined, all-or-nothing conflict between two sovereign countries. It is fought through proxies, and deniable actions, and in territories — both actual and notional — of dubious sovereignty. The official Pakistan complaints about sovereignty and national honour conceal, of course, that its own establishment acts exactly the same way. Indeed its argument for its own involvement in Afghanistan — to create “strategic depth” against India — suggests that it itself claims, at practically an official level, that sovereignty along the the Durand Line is fuzzy. Finally, there are the moral considerations, underlined by talk of Mr Obama reading medieval Christian “just war” theorists before studying his “kill lists”. Some argue that it makes war too remote — but in a world of huge, volunteer armies, those making decisions are distant from what they unleash, anyway. It is clear, however, that targeting and decision-making for a war must remain with the military — rather than the intelligence services, as they are for the US strikes in Pakistan. Transparency and accountability equivalent to a regular military operation, especially when it comes to civilian casualties, are necessary; Mr Obama’s personal integrity is not what future processes can be built on. If nothing else, it will help demonstrate just how “normal” drone wars now are.