As United States President Barack Obama prepares to enter his fifth year in office, one may be excused for thinking that his administration’s response to insurgency warfare essentially boils down to one thing: the joystick. This is the means by which Washington’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) fleet is remotely guided, usually from the safety of ground control stations located thousands of miles away from selected targets.
Even prior to last November’s Presidential election, Obama administration officials declared in every possible way that the drone campaign would remain a permanent feature of the White House’s counterinsurgency campaign. Not only that, but it seems increasingly apparent that when, on November 19, 2012, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that America’s UAV fleet would expand, he meant it both in terms of raw numbers and geographical reach. Africa appears now to be high on the list of UAV targets. The US is currently busy establishing a large network of small air bases located in strategic locations throughout the continent, in what US observers have termed a “massive expansion” of US covert operations in Africa.
The Central Intelligence Agency, which has been steering the development of America’s UAV program almost since its inception, launched over 50 Predator drone strikes during the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. But the use of CIA drones under Obama has surpassed all precedent: last month the CIA launched its 300th drone strike under the Democratic President. Unlike Bush, who refused to even acknowledge Washington’s part in the remotely controlled strikes, Obama has publicly defended them, rejecting accusations that drone strikes have caused large numbers of civilian casualties, and arguing instead that “for the most part they have been very precise […] strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates”.
In light of the US President’s strong support, it is interesting to note that 2012 was marked by a significant fall in the number of CIA drone strikes inside Pakistani territory, which has traditionally been the main target of UAV operations under Obama’s presidency. According to a study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes in Pakistan have fallen to their lowest level in five years, probably due to the CIA’s effort to deflect strong public criticism in Pakistan of the allegedly high civilian toll of UAV bombings. The study added that, according to media reports from Pakistan, there was a six-fold drop in civilian casualties from drone strikes.
But this was not necessarily indicative of Washington’s broader geographical use of ‘joystick bombers’ in the previous year. Observers correctly note that, as the number of drone attacks dropped in Pakistan, it rose dramatically in Yemen, where a major —and mostly underreported— US military campaign has been taking place since last March. Media reports from that country suggest that nearly 200 people were killed in CIA drone strikes in 2012. During the past six months, far more UAV missiles have landed in Yemen than in Pakistan. Moreover, at least two US confirmed drone strikes took place in Somalia in 2012, the first-ever such attacks on the African continent. This author agrees with those who speculate that Washington may have employed Predator drones elsewhere in Africa, but that these incidents remain unreported.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that the US electorate, which exercised significant pressure on the Bush administration over its use of torture against enemy detainees between 2001 and 2007, appears broadly unconcerned with the use of drone strikes against suspected terrorists by the Obama administration. Congress seems equally disinterested in challenging the marked secrecy that has governed the Predator drone program since its inception. One is tempted to ponder whether the American public and its elected representatives are willing to tolerate the inconvenient discrepancies of the CIA drone program so long as it keeps US troops away from the physical dangers lurking in the front lines of Washington’s ‘global war on terrorism’.
In the current political climate in Washington, there is little indication that the Obama administration’s drone war will dissipate any time soon. On the contrary, the role of ‘joystick warriors’ can be expected to increase in America’s evolving counterinsurgency doctrine.