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2013: The year of the drone?

by Chris Abbott

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The United States government came under intense pressure during 2013 over its ongoing controversial drone strike programme in Pakistan and elsewhere, including Yemen and Somalia.

UN experts, human rights organisations, think tanks and the media all criticised the lack of transparency around US drone operations and questioned some of the legal justifications for the strikes. Open Briefing and others highlighted the dangerous use of ‘double-tap strikes’ and ‘signature strikes’ and called for the drone programme to be moved from the CIA and placed under the normal military/civilian chain of command at the Pentagon. In many ways, 2013 was the year of the drone.

However, it was also the first year since drone strikes in Pakistan began in 2004 when there were no confirmed reports of civilian casualties in the country. This is the one ray of hope contained in the new Covert Drone War annual report sent to us by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ). In fact, 2013 saw the number of drone strikes in Pakistan fall to the lowest levels of Barack Obama’s presidency. The BIJ attribute this to growing opposition from Pakistan’s political and military elites, who have been publicly critical of the strikes (after years of suspected tacit approval).

There were also no reported civilian deaths from US drone strikes in Somalia, where between 7-58 civilians have been reported killed in US actions since 2007.

However, the report is not all good news. In Yemen, at least 11 civilians including four children died in confirmed drone attacks. This is in part because Washington continues to enjoy Sana’a’s support for attacks on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, now viewed by many as al-Qaeda’s most dangerous franchise.

Furthermore, the BIJ argues that during 21013 the Obama administration continued the trend of limited transparency around its drone strikes. The report states:

Both Obama and his new CIA director John Brennan publicly discussed the use of covert drones, but the administration remained tight-lipped on key data including casualty numbers. Officials almost always refused to discuss individual strikes, and where they did it was usually anonymously.

The administration expressed an intention to move drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon, but at year’s end many drone strikes – including the Pakistan campaign – remained under Agency control.

It is possible that continued civil society pressure over 2014 will reverse this lack of transparency and that the falling numbers of civilian deaths from US drone strikes in Pakistan and Somalia can be mirrored in Yemen this year.

But in the background is a worrying trend. As Open Briefing revealed in a groundbreaking study for the Remote Control Project in September 2013, armed drones are no longer the purview of the United States alone. Seventy five other countries are known to have unmanned aerial vehicles, with approximately 20 countries possessing armed drones (though estimates vary widely). Open Briefing identified at least 29 different armed drone variants in use or in development by China, India, Iran, Israel, Russia and Turkey. The future use of armed drones by such countries warrants close attention this year; after all, the United States has set a dangerous precedent. It may well be that 2014 is, in fact, the true year of the drone.