The impact of the US drone program: Interview

In the following talking, Professor Doctor Timo Kivimäki speaks on the impact of US drone program on international relations, analyses President Trump's policy which gives the CIA more authority to attack with US "murdereous birds", and how could drones be benefic to humanity.

Edu Montesanti: US government assures that operations with drones are a more precise alternative to boots on the ground, authorized only when an "imminent" threat is present and there is "near certainty" that the intended target will be eliminated. The justification for the use of drones is that they are surgical and precise, and don't kill civilians. However, the official number of civilians killed by drones is so large, for so long much larger than combatentes killed. US drone program have been used as bombs out of regions at war such as Yemen and Somalia, and as surveillance all this mostly in secret by the Washington regime. How do you see US droe program, Professor Doctor Timo Kivimäki, in international relations?

Prof. Dr. Timo Kivimäki: Drones are part of a slightly colonial ethos in which US and a few other countries feel that they can protect people in fragile states in far-away places against criminals, terrorists and dictators. This ethos has led to military operations that tend to escalate conflicts and kill the people that we originally wanted to protect.

This is because of two reasons:

1. From the distance it is difficult to know how different societies react to military operations;

2. These apparently altruistic operations are often corrupted by selfish objectives (access to oil, geopolitics, etc.), and 3. Because external influence gives "criminals, terrorists and dictators" nationalist legitimacy to their violence: it is justified as "protection against intruders".

Classified, leaked US documents on the Haymark Operation in Northern Afghanistan reveal that from February 2012 to March 2013 nearly 90% of those killed by drones were not the intended targets. Data by a human rights organization, Reprieve, suggests that the percentage might be even higher. How the unintended targets still get classified as militants, escapes me.

Furthermore, precision does not mean accuracy. Even the intended targets may not be legitimate. When the US tries to avoid American fatalities by reducing presence on the ground, it will understand even less about the dynamics of the society it operates in. Thus it will be even less able to identify who is a terrorist and who is not, let alone that it will have an even weaker legitimacy to make that call.

When we look at the faces of the terrorists that have made violent operations in Europe, we can see that they look the same as any other people. Visual images do not reveal them, especially since the visual imagery drone targeting must rely on is so inaccurate that the drone operator cannot, according to one of them, Brandon Bryant, see if the target is carrying a rifle or a spade.

Telephone metadata is problematic, too. Whether a known terrorist calls someone for a barber's appointment or for a shipment of AK47s , is not revealed by metadata. If then the barber becomes classified as a terrorist because of his telephone contacts, there is a risk that the barber's other customers also become terrorist contacts, too.

I am sure that the network analysis of the metadata is more sophisticated that what I am making it look like, but the fundamental problem is that metadata is technical and thus it cannot penetrate the meanings, motives and intentions of people. From the distance, it is hard to UNDERSTAND people. 

Acting as the judge, jury, police and the executioner is so difficult from the distance. Even identifying the right target succeeds only in one of the ten cases. Thus, it is understandable that US drone program is not very popular among people who live under the hovering US drones.

The fact that the judge/jury/police/executioner is a foreigner of another religion does not help. It is, therefore, likely that drone warfare does, indeed, escalate resentment and conflict and give rise to anti-Western militias and terrorists.

This does not mean that innocent Western civilians would be legitimate targets for terrorists who have lived under the shadow of drones. Of course not. But the fact of the matter is that conflicting sides tend to seek legitimacy for their own violence from the violence their opponents have subjected themselves to.

All this, has so far looked at the problem of violence from a perspective that sees the militant terrorist violence as the only problem. The use of drones has fuelled that violence, not dealt with it. But the other side of the problem of US drones is that warfare without a risk for one's own side encourages American violence.

Thus, drone technology in the use of the military is problematic also because it encourages the US to get militarily involved in an increasing number of areas. That, too, is a conflict problem. Yet, one should realize that drones are just one element of the problem, an element that is often exaggerated.

For example, until rather recently in Iraq and Syria, drone strikes constituted only less than 10% of all US airstrikes (while the rule of drones in the UK air battle was more extensive).

So the problem is more broadly the air-based warfare that aims to police the world, not just drone warfare.


Edu Montesanti: Contrary to Barack Obama, President Donald Trump has given the Central Intelligence Agency new authority to conduct drone attacks against suspected militants. The situations is going to get even worse, isn't it

Prof. Dr. Timo Kivimäki: Yes. There is already some evidence (compiled by the UK-based organization Airwars) of the increase of proven civilian fatalities of US military operations in the Middle East after the beginning of the Trump presidency. This was disappointing given that originally Trump seemed to be less interested in this military "protection" in the Middle East and given that Trump did not originally have such good relations with his intelligence bureaucracy.

Yet, it seems that the CIA has gained the upper hand in the power battle and the democratically elected political leader has had to yield to the will of the his securocracy. This became quite clear already with the dismissal of president's National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn. Flynn was a strong opponent of the ways in which the US intelligence apparatus operated. He was forced/encouraged to retire in 2014, after his critique of the way in which US intelligence failed to understand the society in Afghanistan, even though the causal relationship between his critique and his early retirement has not been reliably shown.

In his damning report, Fixing Intel in 2010, he claims that soldiers tasked to fight insurgency often "acquire more information that is helpful by reading U.S. newspapers than through reviewing regional command intelligence summaries".

Now with Flynn gone, and the president harassed by legal investigations, it seems that the CIA is running the drone show. This is not the first time, though, as, according to leaked confession by a senior US State Department official, at least in Pakistan, there has been a period when the CIA was clearly in control of the drone warfare, with President Obama securely in the passenger's seat.

The degree of CIA control and the number of civilian fatalities was then, too, clearly correlated. So, yes, growing power of the CIA is a concern for all those people living in the shadow of US drones.

Edu Montesanti: How can drones be useful particulary to international relations, and to humanity in general?

Prof. Dr. Timo Kivimäki: Surely, there are useful ways to utilize drone technology for humanity. It is just in the realm of warfare where the technology affords developments that are dangerous.

The fact that with drones you can fight wars without being at personal risk, and the fact that you can monitor you enemies from the sky by relying on visual data, are the reasons for the negative consequences.

For such a long time the US was "monopolizing" drone technology in global conflicts. This made them reluctant to negotiate on the regulation of the use of drones.

Today almost hundred countries have mobilized drones for their defence effort, and the world with limited regulation of how drones can be used is a dangerous world.



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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey