Now we know that not only did the United Kingdom already have drones, but more are coming to join the Royal Air Force for surveillance and combat operations in foreign lands. And, for the first time, they will be controlled from Britain. According to a report in the Guardian, the United Kingdom has made urgent purchase of five more Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, which will double their number with the British military. Initially, they will be deployed in Afghanistan and are expected to start operating within weeks. So, instead of sitting with their American counterparts in Nevada, the British “pilots” will be playing with videogame killing machines from RAF Waddington in the English county of Lincolnshire. These latest developments come as the United Nations has finally decided to investigate American drone strikes and other “targeted killings” of “terrorist suspects.”
In the main, three factors have influenced the British government’s decision: the prolongation of the war in Afghanistan beyond the military planners’ original estimates; the rise in the deaths and injuries of British and other NATO soldiers at the hands of Afghan security personnel; and President Obama’s plan to withdraw most of the U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Surely other NATO troops cannot stay in the country beyond that point.
Whether President Obama is reelected or Mitt Romney wins on November 6, it can be taken as certain that drone wars will continue in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and their use will be extended to other places, so mechanized, refined, and cheap to manufacture are these instruments of the “war on terror.” In the present economic difficulties, the governing coalition of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal-Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, probably feels that Britain’s urgent purchase of Reaper drones is a “good investment.” Sources in touch with American policymakers in Washington confidently predict that drone wars will continue. So, there seems to be no reason for the British government to withdraw its aircraft from the region. Under rules imposed by the European Union and the Civil Aviation Authority, drone missions can only be flown in certain places in Britain.
In a recent article, I discussed a study by Stanford and New York Universities’ law schools. It concluded that the CIA’s targeted drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal areas were politically counterproductive, killing many civilians and undermining respect for international law. That British drones have been in operation from Creech air base in the United States has been a less known fact. The Ministry of Defense in London insists that only four civilians have died in its drone operations in Afghanistan––in line with the Obama administration’s claims of there being very few civilian casualties. However, British defense officials say they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit.
Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the legal charity Reprieve, says that “decisions are being made that will ripple through the generations.” Writing in the Guardian on October 23, he remarked: “Just as the secret Manhattan Project ushered in the nuclear age, so the military and their corporate colleagues are pressing forward with policies with very little public disclosure or debate.” It is wholly inconsistent for any Western leader or government to assert that they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of “immense difficulty and risks” and yet for Prime Minister David Cameron to claim that by December 2010 British drones had “killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan.” No wonder defense officials denied that the information came from them, and said that “they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure.” So the question arises, as Smith has raised, whether the kill-numbers are being “conjured up by politicians.”
For several years since the “war on terror” started a decade ago, the British government has sought to deny accusations that its forces have been involved in terror and torture—against mounting evidence. The Stanford and New York universities’ report is among the latest and most damning. The truth about the use of circling drones to terrify the 800,000 citizens—men, women and children—in a remote tribal region is a kind of war forbidden under the Geneva conventions. But the rules of war are being changed with disregard for established conventions and law. The West’s drone policy is on trial.
In a legal challenge before the High Court in London brought by a man who lost his father in a CIA drone strike, Britain once again faces accusations of providing intelligence for such attacks and therefore of complicity. After reading a harrowing account of drone terror from Noor Khan, a resident of northwestern Pakistan, Lord Justice Moses described the evidence as “very moving.” It is our responsibility as citizens wherever we may be to read Noor Khan’s testimony and ask ourselves, “How many more?”