The recent targeted killing of an Iranian General in Baghdad has suddenly changed the whole spectrum of drone-warfare across the globe.
Experts are still debating the ramifications of such an attack which may intensify the conflict not only in the Middle East but also in the regions beyond it. This is perhaps the first incident in which a state actor has been targeted by a drone through precision-guided missiles.
Reportedly, seven other persons also perished in the attack including a top Iraqi Shia militia commander. It has been learnt that the locations of General Soleimani were known to the American intelligence but he was not targeted owing to the perceived consequences of such an action.
Nonetheless, the recent spate of events has upped the ante of volatile situation in the region. Interestingly, eliminating non-state actors without providing them any legal avenue has already been criticised severely by many legal and human rights experts.
The recent drone strike has therefore opened a whole gamut of possibilities for states fighting regular or irregular wars in different theatres around the world. It may now become a norm that a state actor, who is believed to be working or supporting groups fighting in a foreign land or in a far off region against another state, can be targeted and killed by labelling him or her as a terrorist.
Moreover, the game of proxies has been introduced as part of an irregular practice which forms the basis of introducing private military contractors and personal militias.
Hence, in order to counter these proxies, militias or non-state actors, drones have been conveniently used in many countries, thus altering the conflict template in terms of its lethality, legality and morality. For example, the first drone strike in Pakistan took place in 2004, in which Naik Mohammad along with seven other persons was eliminated.
Since then a series of targeted drone killings was conducted in the border land of the country. Up till now, the total drone killings range from 3,500 to 5,000, including many top or middle level members of different violent extremist groups. In June 2018, Mullah Fazlullah was taken out in a drone-based targeted operation in the Kunar province of Afghanistan.
The legality of drone warfare is still under debate as no one can have the blanket authority to take the life of an individual unilaterally.
Moreover, such strikes have traditionally been coupled with collateral damage. The recent drone strike has therefore exposed the vulnerabilities of geo-positioning of an individual through satellite communication systems.
Though the recent official Iranian counter strike has been dubbed as a de-escalation effort nonetheless the existing networks of non-state actors may be energised to look for a possible opportunity of response through non-official means.
The success of such a strategy rests on a networked synergy in which irregular groups of opposing sects and interests at different locations are also in the loop. Such a grid of interconnecting asymmetric military human resource can be utilised for any kind of action against the American interests in the region.
Moreover, in case of an attack on US civ-mil targets by a non-Shiite irregular group, a hasty conclusion may lead to escalation and confrontation as well. Already the US has started targeting leaders of disgruntled Taliban factions in Afghanistan so that the latter may not be used through a web of proxies by a state actor or actors in the region. Hence, targeting a state actor may result in the restructuring of the existing militia matrix which may extend their tentacles beyond the sphere of their control and authority.