“Attack of the Drones,” a homage to the lesser of the Star Wars trilogies, is the headline of choice in reports on the One Good Thing to come out of the “war on terror”: very cool gadgets. With the media stoking laddish pleasure in “weapons porn” (Newsweek‘s phrase), we might be forgiven for forgetting that this “greatest, weirdest, coolest hardware in the American arsenal” has neither brought the war to a swifter end nor enabled the capture of archenemy Osama bin Laden.
Indeed, behind the glittering mirage of news about the technological wizardry of drones and the giddy success of manufacturers from California to Karachi lies a chilling void of information about their use. In June the UN Human Rights Council condemned the US failure to count and disclose, much less prevent, civilian casualties from drones in Afghanistan. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, pledged to regulate their use (implying a disturbing lack of regulation till then). But the government still refuses to share even the most basic information about attacks, partly because in Pakistan they are run by the CIA. Independent reporters who dare to investigate–like Stephen Farrell, who went to Kunduz after an airstrike killed about a hundred civilians–court death as well as condemnation for taking “unnecessary” risks for something as trivial as the truth.
The US military’s certainty of the drones’ effectiveness is difficult to take on trust, when it neither counts nor identifies those killed. It claims a number of top Al Qaeda officials have been hit but provides no answer to the Pakistani figure of nearly 700 civilian deaths in Pakistan alone since 2006. Official secrecy fuels rumors of the worst, and scandals like the September 4 Kunduz massacre prove that often the worst is true. Regulation cannot solve the practical problem, so evident that day, of identifying bad guys in a war-torn society in which fuel tankers captured by the Taliban attract a range of youths willing to siphon off free fuel at 2:30 am.
Afghans are cynical (and wise) enough to assume from past experience that the secrecy covers up facts too grisly for public airing. Aerial counterinsurgency was invented in the Pakistani-Afghan borderland and Iraq by the British in the 1920s. Then, as now, it was a means of fighting insurgency without public scrutiny. Then, as now, no one counted the dead. British MPs pressed futilely for “particulars of where and why these bombardments have taken place…[and] whether inhabitants have been killed.” Despite the government’s twisted assurance that the regime worked primarily through “terror,” bombardment was used routinely even for tax collection–the sort of perversion only Orwell could capture: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” It failed miserably: anger at civilian deaths and continual foreign surveillance provoked frequent insurgency, mistrust of local governments and the anxiety about Western imperialism that led to our present discontents.