Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Death From Afar
DRONES are hardly synonymous with harmony. But in the last election debate neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney disagreed over what is now America’s main tactic in fighting the long war on terrorism: ever-greater use of armed drones for targeted killings in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the badlands of Yemen and Somalia, and, no doubt before long, north Mali, where an al-Qaeda affiliate has recently taken root. Just a few days before the debate, the CIA’s director, David Petraeus, reportedly asked the White House for a big expansion in the agency’s fleet of missile-carrying drones. It is part of the agency’s decade-long evolution from an intelligence organisation to a paramilitary one.
In Djibouti, an impoverished mini-state on the Gulf of Aden, America has turned a former French Foreign Legion outpost, Camp Lemonnier, into the most important base for drone operations outside the war zone of Afghanistan. According to an investigation by the Washington Post, Predator drones take off round the clock on missions over nearby Somalia and Yemen. Their pilots are in Creech, an air force hub 8,000 miles away in Nevada. The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) runs Camp Lemonnier; the CIA is believed to have a more secret site elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. Aircraft from both bases often work together, as in the attack last year that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who became an al-Qaeda planner and propagandist.
After Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans do not want to spend blood and treasure in fighting big insurgencies on the ground. So drone strikes seem certain to stay the centrepiece of counter-terrorism efforts for many years to come and may well increase in reach and scale. America will invest $1.4 billion on new construction at Camp Lemonnier alone. Hugely enlarging the scope of drone operations (see chart) has been politically useful for Mr Obama. The ruthlessness of the campaign, plus the killing of Osama bin Laden, blunted Republican charges that he is soft on national security.