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Drone warfare won't win in Libya

By Mary Ellen O'Connell, Special to CNN
  • U.S. has decided to use drone aircraft on behalf of Libyan rebels
  • Mary Ellen O'Connell says drones won't accomplish U.S. goals or bring peace
  • Drones may be a lower risk for U.S. forces, but they can kill civilians, she says
  • O'Connell: Controlling the air through drones doesn't mean controlling territory, which is key

Editor's note: Mary Ellen O'Connell holds the Robert and Marion Short Chair in Law and is research professor of international dispute resolution at the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. She is a specialist on the international law of armed conflict and is the author of "The Power and Purpose of International Law" (Oxford University Press, 2008). She has been a professional military educator for the U.S. Department of Defense, chaired the Use of Force Committee of the International Law Association (2005-2010) and is a vice president of the American Society of International Law.

(CNN) -- Unmanned aerial combat vehicles, better known as Predator or Reaper drones, are sleek, small, flexible planes that look like gliders. They have capabilities that larger, heavier manned jet aircraft do not possess.

Drones are cheaper to use than planes. If they are shot down, no U.S. pilot is killed or captured. And because they are unmanned, President Barack Obama uses them in places where, for political reasons, he does not want a significant U.S. military presence.

Yet that is the fatal attraction of drones -- they may not seem like a weapon of war but they are.

On Friday, CNN reported that the United States had begun using combat drones in Libya. CNN also reported that a drone attack in Pakistan had killed at least 25 people -- a third of them women and children.

As this death toll demonstrates, drones are battlefield weapons. Predators and Reapers launch Hellfire missiles or drop bombs weighing up to 500 pounds -- firepower only permitted in armed conflict. The United States is not in an armed conflict in Pakistan; it is not supposed to be in one in Libya.

In Pakistan, despite continuous drone attacks since 2004, the terrorism threat remains. In 2010, the United States attacked more than 110 times, killing 600 to 700 people. Greg Miller of The Washington Post has reported that in all of those strikes only two people on a list of high-level terrorism suspects were killed.

Top counterterrorism experts from the Rand Corp. to the Obama administration have said the use of military force, which includes combat drones, is counterproductive to the goal of ending terrorist groups. Bob Woodward revealed in his book, "Obama's Wars," that the president knows this:

"Despite the CIA's love affair with unmanned aerial vehicles such as Predators, Obama understood with increasing clarity that the United States would not get a lasting, durable effect with drone attacks."

Pakistanis protest U.S. drone action
Bittersweet victory for Misrata rebels
Fighting still raging in Misrata

What U.S. drone policy in Pakistan has managed to accomplish is the increasing alienation of Pakistani authorities and the Pakistani people. The one thing the U.S. does need to counter terrorism is friends.

Opinion: U.S.-led drone war is self-defeating

Drones are likely to be just as ineffective in Libya. The official U.S. aim there is civilian protection. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 of March 17 says the use of "all necessary measures" is authorized "to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in" Libya.

The resolution responded to the imminent rout of Libyan rebels from Benghazi, and the fear that Libyan armed forces would exact revenge on civilians left behind. The resolution did not authorize outside intervention in a civil war. Indeed, an earlier resolution, Resolution 1970, imposes a weapons embargo on all of Libya. Resolution 1973 continues that embargo with an exception to establish a "no-fly" zone and take other steps to protect civilians.

After defending Benghazi, the U.S. should have turned immediately to seeking a peaceful end of the crisis. The U.S. rejected out of hand the African Union peace initiative, thereby putting no pressure on the rebels to come to the table. Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister David Cameron instead took the new position that Moammar Gadhafi must go as a condition of ending the use of force.

In this case, such a position is unlikely to help the cause of peace -- it only backs Gadhafi further into a corner. Each day the war continues, civilians are killed or die as a result of the fighting. Just as the fighting seemed to settle into a stalemate that could only be broken by negotiations at last -- the drones arrive. Their deployment appears set to move the conflict even further from a peaceful settlement. Even if the unlikely occurs and Gadhafi and his sons leave or are killed, continued fighting or chaos are predictable.

Perhaps the U.S. aim is not primarily civilian protection but regime change? If so, drone attacks will be no more helpful to that aim than to civilian protection. Air attacks can keep the rebels in the fight but cannot win the war for them. A civil war can only be won by control of territory, not control of the air.

Controlling territory requires military and civilian leadership, organization, training and equipment to defeat the Libyan army and replace the government. The rebels have deficits in all of these categories. Even if air attacks could buy NATO time to try to organize and train the rebels, Resolution 1970 does not permit arming the rebels.

Sending drones to Libya is unlikely to bring the rebels a military victory. Drones are likely to prolong the fighting and the deaths of civilians. Sending drones does not even help Obama keep his promise that NATO would take the lead. Drones controlled by the U.S. deploy major military force.

Drones give the appearance of a sophisticated, high-tech policy, not involving a big U.S. military presence. What they really give us is death and destruction that will not lead to the end of terrorism in Pakistan -- or peace in Libya.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mary Ellen O'Connell.

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