The US Predator drone is celebrated for its ability to target enemies more carfeully, reducing civilian casualties and the need for American soldiers on the ground.
But since US President Barack Obama began using drones on a large scale in 2008, a body of evidence suggests the drones are not as precise as once thought. For one thing, their targets are still determined by military and intelligence agencies. And they often get it wrong.
There have been some spectacular examples, including an attack on Oct. 30, 2006 that obliterated an Islamic boarding school in Chenagai, Pakistan, killing 82 civilians.
More recently, the Turkish military launched a full-scale 40-minute attack against 38 men along the country's border with Iraq. Their movement was reported by a US Predator drone patrolling the area. Thirty-four people, all of them civilians who were guilty only of the mundane crime of smuggling gasoline, were killed as a result.
How often does this happen? It's impossible to tell because governments aren't required to keep track of those killed. But several news organizations have made their own attempt. The estimates of civilians killed range from the hundreds to the thousands.
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Local media reports usually list the dead simply as "suspected militants." The 34 men on the Turkish border were thought to be "suspected militants" right up until they were all killed and the government found out they actually were not suspected militants. The term "suspected militants" just means we aren't sure if they are guilty or not. Some argue, despite the security threat terror groups pose, killing people simply because they might have connections to militants is illegal.
Whether legal or not, they may not even be all that effective. Although drone strikes have managed to kill several high-profile terrorist leaders, more often than not they are are taregeting low-level militants or people only loosely-associated with terrorist groups. The resulting anger among the targeted population tends to swell militant ranks, residents and analysts say.
GlobalPost reporters have traveled inside Pakistan's northern tribal areas, as well in Al Qaeda-controlled southern Yemen, and found those populations — who don't support the militants — are even angrier at the United States and its drones, which they say are destroying schools, targeting funerals and all too often, killing innocent civilians. To them, they say, it feels a lot like terrorism.
The issue is only becoming more urgent as the United States relies more and more on drones in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and now Syria. And the US isn't alone. Israel, Iran, China and many other countries are beginning to use drones as well. Brace yourself.