The US is relying on an army of drones to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan
America's Army of the Grand Robotic is taking centre stage in the War on Terror
As Pakistan sinks deeper into political chaos, the spreading violence that threatens to destabilize the country may not be unrelated to the increasingly automated offensive being waged by the United States in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) against Taliban camps and suspected al-Qaeda strongholds.
Since last September some 100 militants and an unknown number of civilians have been killed by Predator and more heavily armed MQ-9 Reaper 'drones' operating from bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, such as the Shamsi airfield near Quetta. Only last Friday, on March 13, a drone strike killed 21 militants at a training camp in Kurram, a remote tribal area of northwestern Pakistan.
Equipped with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles and able to remain in the sky at altitudes of up to 26,000 feet for 24 hours at a time, the 'unmanned aerial vehicle' (UAV) has increasingly become the weapon of choice for the US military in its escalating warp across the Afghan border. Pakistani intelligence reports suggest that these attacks have brought dozens of recruits into the ranks of the Taliban, seeking revenge for those killed by America's 'eyes in the sky'.
The ‘Army of the Grand Robotic’ is part of the US fantasy of absolute dominationThe repercussions of the 'drone war' may not be limited to Pakistan. At present, some 5,000 robotic vehicles and UAVs are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and the North West territories. These machines perform various functions, from surveillance and offensive operations to the detection of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and they may well become a ubiquitous feature of the 21st century battleground. By 2015, the Pentagon’s $230bn arms procurement programme Future Combat Systems (FCS) expects to robotize some fifteen percent of America's armed forces.
At a time when the US Armed forces are running short of manpower, this 'Army of the Grand Robotic' has an obvious appeal. Robot weapons are also seen as particularly useful in the complicated and far-flung battlezones of the 'War on Terror', allowing the US military to strike their enemies almost anywhere in the world without risking its own soldiers. Such weapons are also part of the megalomaniac US military doctrine of 'Full Spectrum Dominance' – and the fantasy of absolute domination through technological supremacy that goes with it.
The enthusiasm for these weapons raises disturbing possibilities about the wars of the future and the future of war. At present UAVs are usually directed by trained pilots, who operate their machines from bases some 7,500 miles from their target. But last week a successful drone strike in Iraq was directed by ordinary soldiers for the first time, which suggested that soldiers may one day 'fight' without going near a battlefield.
For the time being human beings are likely to remain part of the 'kill-chain', but it may not be long before autonomous robots make their own decisions about when to fire and who to shoot at .
In his new book Wired for War, the robotics expert Pete Singer has speculated that these machines may usher in a new era of "cost-free war" that makes war more tempting and attractive. Other critics warn of a 'robot arms race' and even that such weapons may be 'reverse-engineered' by terrorists and used against their makers. Supporters of robotics claim that robots will eliminate war crimes, since machines will not be moved by human emotions such as anger or revenge. But the killing of civilians in modern warfare is not necessarily due to emotion, but to rational calculation or incidental 'collateral damage' and it is difficult to see how machines can reduce this tendency.
In 1970, the commander in Vietnam, General Westmoreland, looked forward to military developments that "will replace wherever possible the man with the machine". That future may be coming closer, as the Pentagon dreams of a Robocop army policing the world's dark places.
Last month the New York Times reported that Barack Obama intends to de-emphasise the promotion of democracy in Pakistan and intensify the use of drones along the Afghan border. Meanwhile the bodies continue to pile up and the political and social problems that make countries like Pakistan so unstable receive little attention. A single Predator costs $4.5m.
It is tempting to ask what might happen if money and resources were poured into Pakistan's secular educational system, where madrassas often constitute the only form of available in a society that currently spends only 2.6 per cent of its GDP on education. We might also ask whether the longterm stability of the country might be better assured by supporting its fragile but still vibrant civil society, instead of investing in high-tech weaponry that kills Pashtun peasants by remote control. ·
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