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Think Paddy Ashdown Knows Something About Drones? Think Again

Posted: 14/02/2013 14:02

"If you're opposed to drones, then think again" says Paddy Ashdown, in a mealy mouthed op-ed in The Times this week. Ashdown trades on his military experience to present an authoritative voice on the legal and moral issues around Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

What follows is a series of unsubstantiated equations between drone strikes and Special Forces operations, a bizarre panegyric about the political accountability of drones and the final claim - contra the world - that drones are just the modern Roman trebuchets and "we do not need new laws and practices" to govern them.

Ashdown appears unbridled by, or wilfully ignorant of, the fundamental issues which make a mockery of his analysis.

While he is right to point out that some of the issues which concern people about the growing use of drone warfare are reflected in extant military practices, his conclusions are baffling and misplaced. You're worried about a breach of sovereignty? We've been doing that for years! Extra-judicial killings? Same deal!

One of the central problems in his account is that he fails to understand that drones render such actions much more likely. It is one thing to point out previous examples of the bloody flouting of international law; quite another to argue that although this is becoming increasingly frequent, we shouldn't bat an eyelid.

And with more than 75 states now seeking to develop their own UAVs, according to a US Government Accountability Office report, the prospect of these abhorrent practices becoming international norms of warfare is very real.

Indeed warfare is a generous term here. Of course we should not be naïve that Special Forces operations are carried out in countries where there is no open conflict or declaration of war: and Paddy's anecdote about his foray into Indonesia in the 1960s is a taster of this. But just look for one moment at the sustained and devastating drone campaign which the US has been carrying out in Pakistan since 2004: are these really comparable military endeavours - in scale, duration or impact?

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism puts the civilian death toll in Pakistan between 473 - 893, including 176 children. Imagine the furore if this had been perpetrated by clandestine troops on the ground. It would have been politically and militarily impossible.

The point Ashdown singularly fails to address is that the military efficacy and political attraction of drones lies in the ease with which they can be deployed and their 'risk-free' nature (at least for the aggressor). As such, the burgeoning art of drone warfare is becoming a global must-have. And if the moral and legal problems with UAVs have historical antecedents - in other methods of extra-judicial killing and breaches of sovereign territory - this clearly does not make drones any less concerning.

Between 2008 and September 2012, UK drones alone had flown 40,00 hours in Afghanistan, firing 334 Hellfire missiles. The government announced in October 2012 that it was doubling the number of UAVs in Afghanistan.

In these operations the Ministry of Defence (MoD) claimed only four civilians had been killed, although it admitted that it makes no efforts to identify civilian dead other than through receipt of official complaints from friends and relatives at military bases. The MoD also stated that it had no idea how many people overall (automatically labelled insurgents) had been killed due to the "immense difficulty and risks" of ascertaining this information.

Ashdown avoids tackling these realities - but instead makes the absurd suggestion that drones provide greater political accountability for military operations: "thousands of miles from the battlefield is thousands of miles closer to the politicians who have to be accountable", he claims.

If this wasn't so instantly discernible as preposterous it might be worth analysing for the impressive contortion of logic it contains.

If Barack Obama's weekly 'kill list' meetings required the deployment of troops to act as death-squads for his extra-judicial killings, would they be anywhere near as prolific? Would we see half as many fatalities? The answer, of course, is no; and the fact that the number of civilian dead has increased so grotesquely - and international law flouted so frequently - with no repercussions for Obama tells you everything you need to know about the 'political accountability' which drones provide.

The UK's drones will be operated from RAF Waddington, near Lincolnshire. Perhaps we can expect this to become the shrine of political accountability in the UK in the years to come.

 

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