President Obama’s speech and the continuation of drone strikes

Published: May 26, 2013
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President Obama said that while all innocent deaths weighed heavily on his administration, the alternative to drone attacks would be troops in foreign countries. PHOTO: REUTERS

President Obama delivered his much anticipated speech on counter-terrorism at the National Defense University, at Fort McNair in Washington, on Thursday. In the days before the address the focus was mainly expected to be policies governing drone attacks.

According to White House officials, the speech would particularly give procedural details explaining the process leading up to decisions to use drones in counter-terrorism. It was also said that the remarks would outline, in detail, this administration’s counter-terrorism policies.

Pakistan has had a long and violent relationship with American drones since 2004, the fifth year under the presidency of Pervez Musharraf. According to estimates these attacks have claimed thousands of lives. Any shifts in policy or restrictions, concerning the deployment of drones, are especially pertinent to that area of the world.

President Obama addressed the drone issue in the first half of his speech. There was a lot that was said but, in my opinion, his remarks did not herald any change in the status quo. The president said that just because an act of war was ‘legal’ or ‘effective’ did not necessarily make it ‘moral and wise’. He did say that these war machines will be deployed wherever necessary but his administration has also worked ‘to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists – insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability…’

That begs the question as to what part does the target country play in this decision. In Pakistan’s case, how complicit was the government in 2004 in allowing these attacks? Even though in 2004, any compliance was vehemently denied by the Pakistani government, in a recent interview with CNN, Pervez Musharraf says otherwise. He claims that he had acquiesced to ‘two or three’ drone attacks under the direst of circumstances. One wonders: was it ‘two’ or was it ‘three’? Those numbers are not high enough to be a confusing memory –especially when Mr Musharraf explains the painstaking journey that eventually culminated in the decision to give the green light to drones over Pakistan. Or maybe was it more?

To give further validation to his decisions, President Obama discussed the killing of Anwer Awlaki, an American cleric, who was targeted in Yemen by a drone. All of the accusations put forth by President Obama to justify the strike were framed by a whole lot of ‘trying to’, ‘planning to’ and that Awlaki ‘hosted’ the Christmas Day bomber, Farouk Abdulmutallab, in Yemen. If those allegations made a case for execution by drone then I beg to differ.

Right now the executive authority of drone strikes rests with two entities: the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) which is a subunit of the Department of Defense (DOD) Special Operations Command—and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This might be in an attempt to divide liabilities and make it easier to squeeze out of embarrassing tight spots.

According to journalists, the background press briefing hinted to the president ‘expressing preference’ to transferring that authority to the Pentagon. This move would make the umbrella of oversight larger. No mention of any transfer of authority was made in the hour-long speech.

President Obama said that while all innocent deaths weighed heavily on his administration, the alternative to drone attacks would be troops in foreign countries. This would create more enemies, resulting in more casualties and would ‘ultimately empower those who thrive on violent conflict’. He went on to enumerate various proposals to improve oversight in cases when lethal force is to be used but ended that line of conversation by stating:

“Each option has virtues in theory, but poses difficulties in practice.”

In essence, the drone attacks will go on as they always have — relentlessly and with deadly consequences.

Read more by Zeba here or follow her on Twitter @zebansari

Zeba Ansari

Zeba Ansari

A graduate of Bolan Medical College, Zeba has been researching and writing for various organizations and websites. She writes from the perspective of the common man and tweets as @zebansari

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.