Since November 2002, when a CIA drone strike destroyed the SUV of “al-Qaeda’s chief operative in Yemen,” Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi (“U.S. kills al-Qaeda suspects in Yemen”), it’s been almost 13 years of unending repeat headlines. Here are a few recent ones: “U.S. drone strike kills a senior Islamic State militant in Syria,” “Drone kills ISIL operative linked to Benghazi,” “Drone kills four Qaeda suspects in Yemen,” “U.S. drone strike kills Yemen al-Qaida leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi,” “U.S. drone strikes target Islamic State fighters along Afghanistan-Pakistan border.” Those last strikes in Eastern Afghanistan reportedly killed 49 “militants.” (Sometimes they are called “terror suspects.”) And there’s no question that, from Somalia to Pakistan, Libya to Syria, Yemen to Iraq, various al-Qaeda or Islamic State leaders and “lieutenants” have bitten the dust along with significant numbers of terror grunts and hundreds of the collaterally damaged, including women and children.
These repetitive headlines should signal the kind of victory that Washington would celebrate for years to come. A muscular American technology is knocking off the enemy in significant numbers without a single casualty to us. Think of it as a real-life version of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s heroic machine in certain of the Terminator movies. If the programs that have launched hundreds of drone strikes in the backlands of the planet over these years remain “covert,” they have nonetheless been a point of pride for a White House that regularly uses a “kill list” to send robot assassins into the field. From Washington’s point of view, its drone wars remain, as a former CIA director once bragged, “the only game in town” when it comes to al-Qaeda (and its affiliates, wannabes, and competitors).
As it happens, almost 13 years later, there are just one or two little problems with this scenario of American techno-wizardry pummeling terrorism into the dust of history. One is that, despite the many individuals bumped off, the dust cloud of terrorism keeps on growing. Across much of the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, the drone assassination program continues to act like a recruitment poster for a bevy of terror outfits. In every country (with the possible exception of Somalia) where U.S. drone strikes have been repeatedly employed, the situation is far worse today than in 2001. In the two countries where it all began, Afghanistan and Yemen, it’s significantly — in the case of Yemen, infinitely — worse.
Even the idea of war without casualties (for us, that is) hasn’t quite panned out as planned, not if, as TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee reports today, you count the spread of post-traumatic stress disorder among the drone operators. In fact, given how humdrum headlines about the droning of terror leaders have become in our world, and the visible futility and failure that goes with them, you might think that someone in Washington would reconsider the efficacy of drones — of, that is, an assassination machine that has proven anything but a victory weapon. In any world but ours, it might even seem logical to ground our terminators for a while and reconsider their use. In Washington, there’s not a chance in hell of that, not unless, as Chatterjee suggests, both resistance and casualties in the drone program grow to such a degree that a grounding comes from the bottom, not the top. It turns out that — remember your Terminator films here — if a future John Connor is to stop Washington’s robotic killing operations, he or she is likely to be found within the drone program itself.