An image of a potential target relayed by a US drone.
This method of warfare is being massively expanded under the leadership of the Americans. It’s a war of quick successes and of decisions made in the shadows. A war that appears to be clean and yet amounts to government-ordered murder.
CIA drones are killing terrorists — and civilians — in Pakistan almost every day. The unmanned aircraft are becoming the weapon of choice in the fight against al-Qaida and its allies. But the political, military and moral consequences are incalculable. SPIEGEL ONLINE has investigated Barack Obama’s remote-controlled campaign against terrorism.
What is the cost of rendering a terrorist harmless once and for all by killing him? During the course of 14 months, the CIA used unmanned and heavily armed small aircraft known as drones to stage 15 strikes against the presumed locations of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. On Aug. 5, 2009, on the 16th try, the drones finally managed to kill Baitullah Mehsud.
On that day, a Predator drone was hovering about three kilometers (2 miles) above the house of Mehsud’s father-in-law, somewhere in the Pakistani province of South Waziristan. The drone’s infrared camera sent remarkably sharp images in real time to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The images showed the Taliban leader sitting on the roof of his house, in the company of his wife, his uncle and a doctor.
At that very moment, thousands of miles away in the United States, someone pressed a button, and two Hellfire missiles shot from the drone. Mehsud and 11 others were killed.
This incident is so well documented because it was reconstructed for an article in The New Yorker. But the hunt for Mehsud cost the lives of far more than 11 people. According to estimates, between 207 and 321 people died in the course of the 16 attempts to eliminate Mehsud — and it is certain that not all of them were Taliban fighters.
Obama, Prince of Peace and King of the Drones
So what is the value of eliminating a terrorist? The US’s drone war has been expanded dramatically in the last year and a half, an escalation that began under former President George W. Bush. But his successor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, has not just continued the program. He has elevated it to the preferred method for killing al-Qaida and its allies.
More missiles have already been fired from drones in the 13 months since Obama has been in office than in the entire eight years of the Bush presidency. Dozens have been fired since the beginning of the year, and this year the US military will, for the first time, likely train more drone pilots than fighter pilots, says P.W. Singer, an expert on modern warfare at the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution. According to Singer, as many as a third of all aircraft the military acquires in the future will be unmanned. At any given moment each day, several unmanned aircraft are in use against terrorists in the skies above Pakistan. Others are in the skies over Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.