A genie unleashed

A genie unleashed

A genie unleashed

Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars
Chris Woods
Hurst & Company
2015, pp 386, Rs 2,287

With wars increasingly being fought between states and non-state actors, weapons armed with artificial intelligence have replaced erstwhile indiscriminate bombings with targeted killings. Fought with armed drones that target holed-up insurgents, precision bombing may have given asymmetric battlefield advantage to the state actor, notably the US; the political and psychological implications of secret drone warfare are far more complex. Backed by published literature, recorded interviews and onsite visits, Chris Woods, a former BBC staffer, has produced a definitive account on multiple implications of the covert war against terrorism which President Bush thought was perfect in bringing “sudden justice” to its enemies.

Such justice system is not exempt from hidden costs, though. The claim that the “find, fix and finish” nature of the targeted drone warfare saves civilian lives is grossly misplaced. For fear of legal and political retribution, such casualties are often underreported, however, not without inflicting collateral damage on military and public installations. In one such counter-offensive in May 2011, the Taliban assault had killed 16 people on the Mehran naval base (used for launching drones) in Karachi inflicting damages worth $200 million in a single day. Each counter-offensive leaves a clear message — heavy dependence on drone strikes will experience lethal blowback.

In his eye-opening narrative, the author contends that tactical disregard for
noncombatant deaths could prove doubly dangerous as terrorist and militant groups are fast acquiring technology to build their own drones, challenging the United States’ monopolistic claim as judge, jury and executioner in unmanned warfare against non-state actors. Not without reason a group of scientists, led by Stephen Hawking, have recently argued against misplaced faith in weaponised artificial intelligence. Since the cost of reproducing autonomous weapons is not prohibitive, it will set an inevitable arms race that will be impossible to reverse, and the proverbial genie will be well and truly out of the bottle.

As the world heads towards the third revolution in warfare — after gunpowder and nuclear weapons — the nature of killing has transformed to unravel a host of ethical and legal concerns. Killing men on the ground by assuming their guilt and denying them criminal trial could hardly ever be justified. The United Nations has routinely described covert drone strikes as extrajudicial killings, even though Washington insists that it (the UN) had no jurisdiction over the matter. However, Washington’s arrogance will be under test when several other countries would gain access to their own armed drones.

As drone strikes move war out from on-field combat to on-screen manoeuvres, its ripples are felt by those who are engaged in gruelling working hours witnessing virtual horrors of the actual warfare thousands of miles away. Woods says that a six-month stint in Afghanistan for manned crews could be as long as three years for those in heavily guarded war-rooms in Nevada or New Mexico. Being exposed to horrifying images of killing causes psychological pain and suffering on military personnel which psychologists describe as “Prolonged Virtual Combat Stress”. This stress is beginning to take a heavy toll on those who are repeatedly exposed to the horrors of remotely piloted combat.

Sudden Justice offers detailed insights on the technological revolution leading to asymmetrical warfare; the stories of precision bombings; the inconsistent value of local spies; the development of countermeasures by the militant groups; and the legal and moral implications of coveted drone warfare. Researched over a period of 30 months under a grant from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Woods has written as much about the development of drone technology as about the human dimensions of this evolving form of warfare.

Ever since armed drones made their debut in 2001, the respective US presidents have cited secret air war as their greatest achievement. However, the question that needs to be asked is whether the secret drone wars in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan have lessened terrorist activity — or, instead, have achieved the opposite?

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