Hariri Center Director Michele Dunne and Senior Fellow Amy Hawthorne reflect on US policy toward the Middle East and North Africa in the two years since President Barack Obama promised to make it a top priority to support democracy and human rights in the region.
J. Peter Pham, director the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, was one of four experts invited to address a high-level international conference on the crisis in the Sahel region convened today in The Hague.
Rudolph Atallah, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, testified at a House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on “The Growing Crisis in Africa’s Sahel Region.”
On the heels of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to the United States, Energy & Environment Program Associate Director Mihaela Carstei joins CTV to discuss the Keystone Pipeline project that would transport tar sands oil from Canada and the northern United States to refineries in the Gulf coast of Texas.
J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, wrote an invited commentary for the current issue of the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine defending the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, popularly known as “drones”) in Africa.
In the wake of reports in recent months that not only has the United States deployed UAVs in Africa, but has provided them to several regional partners, the editors invited Pham and Lester Holloway, former editor of New Nation and currently a Liberal Democrat council member in the United Kingdom, to debate the question “Are drone strikes justified at all on the continent?”
Arguing the affirmative, Pham notes, “As a counterterrorism measure, the use of remotely controlled aircraft to launch precision strikes against specific terrorist targets in hard-to-get-to places in Africa is justified legally and ethically and the reason for the choice of weapons is understandable tactically and operationally.”
Focus on Africa magazine is published quarterly by the BBC African News and Current Affairs Department of the World Service. Using a network of correspondents over the continent, it reflects the unbiased, informative, and invaluable reporting of the BBC. Each issue includes feature articles, news reports, and photographs covering the continent's latest political, economic, social, cultural, and sporting developments and providing a unique picture of Africa today.
The full text of the article is seen below.
BBC Focus on Africa
Following the news in July that the Pentagon in the United States will provide un-manned military aircraft to Kenya, Focus on Africa magazine asks:
“Are drone strikes justified at all on the continent?”
Reports over the past year that the American military and intelligence services have quietly built a network of bases across Africa for ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVs, popularly known as ‘drones’) to not only gather intelligence on militant activities, but also target suspected terrorists, have ignited debate over whether or not this is justified. To answer that question with respect to Africa, however, requires that one first look at the larger question of the use of UAVs in modern battle.
At least outside the United States, perhaps no policy of the Obama administration stirs more controversy than its aggressive use of drones as part of its approach to counter-terrorism. Critics usually fall into one of two camps. First, there is the moral unease around the very term ‘drone’ with its suggestion of killing machines operating with limited or even no human judgement, much less conscience. Second, there is the more practical concern caused by reports of strikes, both successful and unsuccessful, which have resulted in ‘collateral damage’ to innocent bystanders (including children) and the impact this might have on fuelling extremism.
The first is largely a misconception. While a UAV, unlike its conventional equivalent, may indeed be controlled by a pilot who is located thousands of miles away, its operation nonetheless requires constant control by humans. In fact, those who operate the vehicles prefer to call them ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ (RPA), rather than UAVs, to underscore this human interface which includes not only flying the planes, but doing so while constantly talking – both in person and through different media – to commanders, intelligence analysts and even legal advisors.
Thus while pilots responsible for lethal attacks launched from a UAV may be physically removed from the target and the possibility of direct harm, their part in the action is no less skilled. It involves the input of all those literally and figuratively looking over a shoulder, and so could even be said to have a profoundly social aspect. As Henry Crumpton, who headed the special operations division of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Counter-Terrorism Center, has noted – without that human dimension, “the UAV is just a hunk of metal, wires, optics and ordnance.”
The second is answered by the data recently compiled and analysed by The New York Times national security reporter, Scott Shane, who concluded that while ‘there are serious questions about whether American officials have understated civilian deaths,’ the best evidence suggests that ‘even if the highest estimates of collateral deaths are accurate, the drones kill fewer civilians than other modes of warfare.’ That is not surprising since remote piloting offers certain advantages beyond merely lowering the risks to the pilots themselves, including how, liberated from some of the constraints and demands of a real cockpit, they can use technology to get a clearer picture of both their targets and the surrounding environment.
Of course, this still leaves the larger question of whether such use of force by the US can be justified – particularly in Africa. In a speech earlier this year, President Barack Obama’s top counter-terrorism advisor, John O Brennan, outlined the criteria that the administration uses in determining whether or not to authorise an RPA attack on terrorism suspects. Merely being a member of al-Qaeda or a group allied with it is not sufficient to get one targeted, he said. Lethal action is approved only against operational leaders of groups plotting acts of terrorism against the US or its allies, lower-level militants training to take part in them or individuals who possess “unique operational skills that are being leveraged” in a planned attack. Moreover, force is authorised only when capturing the individual is not feasible.
Applied to Africa, these criteria would severely limit the number of potential targets for strikes by RPAs. Quite simply, the total number of senior al-Qaeda or other militant extremists training for attacks against American targets or currently finding sanctuary on the African continent is rather small. This explains why actual instances of attacks launched from the Reapers and Predators flying over Africa are far fewer than the legion reported in sensationalist media in the US and picked up by the foreign press. And this is to say nothing of ludicrously falsified reports in Iranian state media exposed late last year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).
However, this does not mean that there are no ‘high value’ targets in Africa and, in point of fact, those instances where they can be identified almost always coincide with circumstances where the US or its partners cannot easily arrest or otherwise capture them. This includes places like Somalia, where the government’s authority is notional at best (even in the capital, Mogadishu) or northern Mali, which has effectively been taken over by an ad hoc coalition of groups including al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate.
As a counter-terrorism measure, the use of remotely controlled aircraft to launch precision strikes against specific terrorist targets in hard-to-get-to places in Africa is justified legally and ethically and the reason for the choice of weapons is understandable tactically and operationally.
The ultimate objective espoused by the US and its African partners is to eliminate threats and build a secure environment conducive to good governance and development. Drones can be used to strategically advance these goals. When deploying this method of warfare, it is important then to understand the specific circumstances for doing so.
Dr. J Peter Pham is the director of the Michael S Ansari Africa Centre at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.
As President Barack Obama ratchets up drone attacks on al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab insurgents in Somalia, experts are questioning whether drones could replace Guantánamo Bay as the recruiting tool of choice for militants. An undeclared war fought by remote control is now killing Somalis on a weekly, often daily, basis by missiles fired from pilotless planes operated thousands of miles away in the United States.
It is difficult to verify the precise number of innocent civilians killed because Washington classifies all fighting age males in an area where their targets live as ‘militants’. Certainly at least five dozen civilians have lost their lives over the past two years in Somalia, guilty only by association with family members or their neighbours. War-weary Somalis have so far not displayed the same degree of anger at drone attacks as seen in Pakistan, where over 2,500 have been killed, but as the intensity of Obama’s clandestine war rapidly escalates a backlash is a distinct possibility.
As with Pakistan, the key question is: does the killing of ‘enemies of the West’ actually create more enemies? As a Yemeni lawyer, Haykal Bafana, puts it: “When an American drone missile kills a child in Yemen the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with al-Qaeda.”
With American bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Seychelles, the failed state of Somalia is now virtually surrounded. The capital Mogadishu even has a CIA- base, nicknamed the ‘pink house’, at the airport. American forces are now also reportedly running a counter-terrorism programme involving renditions of snatched individuals and the use of hired ‘mercenaries’ to train local forces to tackle Islamic fighters. So the use of drones can be seen as part of a broader campaign of jet bombing runs, naval gun bombardment, cruise missile attacks, raids by Special Operations Forces and assistance to regional armies such as the Ugandan Defence Force.
Nineteen years after the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ retreat in 1993, Somalia has long been unfinished business for the US. The rise of Islamic militancy and piracy, and perhaps even the discovery of new oil reserves, has allowed the US to refocus attention on the Horn of Africa.
Most victims of drone strikes in Somalia are invisible to the West due to scant media coverage. There are few Western ‘boots on the ground’, and fewer Western journalists. Lack of public protest at this strategy is partly attributable to the absence of American coffins and shellshocked veterans returning home, but also because the anti-war movement, so strong during the tenure of former American President George W Bush, has all but disappeared.
Many of the American targets are approved personally by Obama with a weekly ‘kill list’ drawn up at the White House on ‘terror Tuesdays’. Critics accuse the president of acting as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Somalia is at least the seventh country where the US are using drones to conduct lethal attacks, joining Mali, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq and Yemen. Medea Benjamin, author of the book Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control says that if Bush was known as the ‘war president’, Obama is on course to become ‘the dronewar president’.
The US appears to have switched from the large-scale snatching and rendition of terror suspects to Guantánamo to drone attacks, in effect avoiding the complications of detention by deciding to take no prisoners alive. Former American President Jimmy Carter, writing in The New York Times in June, said that such operations “would have been unthinkable in previous times”. He added: “Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable.”
A report by the BIJ in February calculated that the US had executed 21 military strikes on Somalia since 2007, killing up to 169 people including 112 militants. However the Iranian-backed Press TV – which broadcasts each known attack and takes into account social media accounts on the ground – claims there have actually been 56 drone attacks on Somalia since September 11, 2001 killing 1,370 people. Brennan, chief counter-terrorism advisor to Obama, is quoted defending drones as a “miracle weapon, a surgically precise and humane way of waging war”, but Bill Roggio, editor of longwarjournal.org, countered: “Drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents.”
The ‘self-defence’ justification of hunting militants who directly threaten the safety of American citizens has been stretched to the point of transparency. Drones are increasingly replacing ‘traditional’ means of warfare. They are also big business. Annual spending on these weapons is set to rise from $5.9 billion a year currently to $11.2 billion over the next decade.
Al-Shabab continue to rule large swathes of Somalia despite drone attacks. The fear must be that the country could once again become a failed experiment in American military intervention, especially if the strikes create a new, even more radical, generation railing against the perceived injustices of the West.
Lester Holloway is a former editor of New Nation, an African and Caribbean weekly newspaper. He is also a Liberal Democrat councilor in the United Kingdom, a radio presenter, journalist and blogger.
On May 30, the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center will release a new issue brief, The Kaleidoscope Turns Again in a Crisis-Challenged Iran, a discussion of Iran’s upcoming presidential elections.
From June 13-14, the 2013 Wrocław Global Forum will bring together over 350 top policy-makers and business leaders to explore the region’s impact as an actor in Europe, as well as its crucial role in the transatlantic partnership and on the global stage.