Much of the debate on drone use in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere rightly focuses on those killed and injured by this technology. Areas for concern, in the context of Afghanistan for example, include the lack of casualty recording and the failure to adequately protect civilians from harm. However, less attention has been paid to the impact that the use of drones has on sustainable economic, social and political development in these areas. We know from the media, and independent NGO reports, that drone strikes cause: the internal displacement of communities, changes to the patterns of community life, for example, deciding not to attend funerals; declining school attendance, and negative health impacts including the destruction of health facilities. Most recently, an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has shown that attacks on rescuers by the CIA in Pakistan, known as “double-tap” strikes, have been revived. As well as being a crime against humanity, this tactic undermines the ability and willingness of assistance to be provided to victims of drone strikes, leading, potentially, to increased deaths and injuries.
There is less publicly available information on the long-term consequences of drone strikes. Why is this significant? As intervention in Libya, and elsewhere, has shown, the nature of conflict is changing and drones are becoming the weapon of choice for governments seeking a method of exerting influence upon a state with minimal casualties amongst their own armed forces. But if the aim of such intervention is to bring peace and stability (and get rid of despots) then the relationship between drone use and long term development is important.
The presence of drones is changing the nature of the relationship between the military and humanitarian organisations operating on the ground in these contexts. The seemingly arbitrary nature of the strikes, where the criteria used to select victims is unclear, has the potential to lead to suspicion about “outsiders” such as aid workers, present in such communities. The consequences of this suspicion have already been seen in the aftermath of the killing of Osama Bin Laden – attacks on health workers, running a polio vaccination campaign, significantly increased after it was revealed that a fake vaccination campaign was run in Abbottabad as a method of identifying the location of Bin Laden and his family. A question then arises as to the safety of aid workers who work in communities which are then subject to drone strikes – are they considered to be identifying individuals for assassination? If this perception does exist, how does this impinge upon their ability to deliver programmes on the ground? And what engagement and dialogue is currently going on between the military and humanitarian organisations on this issue? For example, unlike traditional humanitarian contexts, the absence of international forces on the ground, as is the case in Pakistan and Yemen, undermines the ability of aid agencies to build relationships with the military and develop a conducive dialogue with them.
Such concerns seem to have little current resonance with policy makers in those states using drones. Parliamentary Questions have revealed the UK’s lack of engagement with these issues. For example, the Government is not carrying out any research on retaliation attacks on aid workers following drone strikes nor examining whether this plays a role in any security assessments of locally engaged or other DFID staff in affected areas. More broadly, the relationship between drone strikes and shifting livelihoods is not disaggregated from other causes of displacement, which means that this particular impact of drone use is going unmonitored. The Government is also failing to undertake “any specific assessment of the effects of unmanned aerial strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan on (a) the livelihoods of the affected communities and (b) the ability of the affected communities to access education.” Though there has been some acknowledgement of the relationship between public opinion and drones with surveys, carried out by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan in 2010 and 2011, which included a question related to drone strikes. It is not clear what happened to this information and if it had any impact on policy development.
The use of drones, in these already fragile contexts, is marked by terminology such as “low-risk” and “clinical”- language which denies the long-term and damaging impact of this technology on health, education, economic development and political stability and arguably lays the ground work for further insecurity in the years ahead.