Drone Wars

Last week the world learned that Nobel Peace Prize winning US President Obama was armed with a ‘kill-list’. The New York Times reported how hard Obama mulled over the kill-list before he decided whom to extra-judicially assassinate. The following three days were marked with three drone-strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan killing 33 civilians and Al Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi, showing us exactly how much Obama “agonized” over that kill-list.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented at least 306 strikes from remotely piloted drones that have killed, until now, 2,959 people, 175 of them children. Over 85% of these strikes have been launched by the administration of US President Barack Obama. In “the last two decades, less than ten percent of U.S. history, account for more than 25 percent of the nation’s total wartime.” Yet many Americans look at Obama’s extensive, far-reaching drone apparatus, this ability to strike an alleged ‘enemy’ from a distance, with child-like awe much like how they would view a video game.

In a recent speech by Obama’s counter-terrorism  “tsar,” John Brennan, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars said that the drone strikes were “ethical and just” with each one being carefully vetted.

According to his account, he was dispatched to the center by President Obama to provide greater openness when it comes to the administration’s secret drone wars, to respond to critics of the drones and their legality, and undoubtedly to put a smiley face on drone operations generally.

Never, he said has a country with such an advanced weapon system as the drone used it quite so judiciously, quite so — if not peacefully — at least with the sagacity and skill usually reserved for the gods.  American drone strikes, he assured his listeners, are “ethical and just,” “wise,” and “surgically precise” — exactly what you’d expect from a country he says, quoting the president, as the preeminent “standard bearer in the conduct of war.”

Those drone strikes, he assured, are based on staggeringly “rigorous standards” involving the individual identification of human targets. The civilian casualty reports suggest otherwise. The recent redefinition of “civilian” in drone wars can explain the wide gulf between the civilian casualty figures by Obama administration and independent sources. According to this definition “any adult male killed in an effectively defined strike zone is a combatant unless posthumously proven otherwise.”

At least 15 drone strikes have been launched in Yemen this month, as many as in the whole of the past decade, killing dozens; while in Pakistan, a string of US attacks has been launched against supposed “militant” targets in the past week, incinerating up to 35 people and destroying a mosque and a bakery.

These killings are, in reality, summary executions and widely regarded as potential war crimes by international lawyers – including the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston. The CIA’s now retired counsel, John Rizzo, who authorized drone attacks, himself talked about having been involved in “murder”. The current US ambassador to Pakistan Cameron P. Munter who resigned from his post after only 1 year is said to have complained to colleagues that the C.I.A’s strikes drive American policy there, saying “he didn’t realize his main job was to kill people,” a colleague said.

While the Obama Administration has hailed the “success” of these drone strikes many analysts have termed them as counter-productive and that they have been used as a recruiting tool by Taliban against  the US. According to the Washington Post, in 2009, U.S. officials claimed that AQAP had nearly three hundred core members. Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say that number has grown to seven hundred or more, with hundreds of tribesmen joining its ranks to fight the U.S.- backed Yemeni government. “That’s not the direction in which the drone strikes were supposed to move the numbers,” wrote the Atlantic’s Robert Wright.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act in February seeking records pertaining to the legal basis for the Central Intelligence Agency’s  use of its deadly flying robots. On Monday, government lawyers filed a response brief, which says the agency won’t acknowledge whether the drone records exist because they’re secret.

So the CIA’s argument here is: Just because a high-ranking public official gives a speech explaining how effective the targeted killing program is doesn’t mean the program’s existence isn’t a secret. It’s a state secret despite the fact the White House likes bragging about it.

The covertness of drone wars in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere really turns out to have less to do with secrecy — just about every covert drone strike is reported, sooner or later, in the media — than assuring two administrations that they could pursue their drone wars without accountability to anyone. Gen. Hayden — who implemented George Bush’s warrantless eavesdropping program while NSA chief and then became Bush’s CIA Director – actually thinks Obama has gone much too far in his secrecy obsessions:

Hayden said, “secrecy has its costs” and Mr. Obama should open the strike strategy up to public scrutiny.’

“This program rests on the personal legitimacy of the president, and that’s not sustainable,” Mr. Hayden said. “I have lived the life of someone taking action on the basis of secret O.L.C. memos, and it ain’t a good life. Democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a D.O.J. safe.”

The strategy by the Obama administration regarding drone victims has been not only effective but a template for all aggressors: Keep the victims nameless, faceless and without a story. When you dehumanize the victims, murder becomes much easier for the public to accept. The mainstream media has repeatedly told us about the weariness and fatigue suffered by the pilots flying drones missions from the relative comfort from their base in Nevada, not once has it run a story about their victims. Not once has it told you of a 16-year-old kid from Waziristan named Tariq Aziz. One of his cousins had died in a missile strike and he wanted to know what he could do to bring the truth to the west. The Reprieve charity has a transparency project: importing cameras to the region to try to export the truth back out. Tariq wanted to take part.

Three days later, the CIA announced that it had eliminated “four militants”. In truth there were only two victims: Tariq had been driving his 12-year-old cousin to their aunt’s house when the Hellfire missile killed them both. This came just 24 hours after the CIA boasted of eliminating six other “militants” – actually, four chromite workers driving home from work. In both cases a local informant apparently tagged the car with a GPS monitor and lied to earn his fee.

The covert drone war appears to be entering a new phase. Until recently, strikes were carried out with the tacit co-operation of host governments. But now Islamabad is saying no. Recent CIA strikes in Pakistan have been publicly condemned by the government as being ‘in total contravention of international law.’ The strikes are carrying on regardless.

Yemen’s new president appears more pliant. Yet in a little-reported comment, the nation’s prime minister Muhammad Salem Basindwa recently told a local newspaper: ’The government has never asked the US to carry out drone attacks on the Yemeni soil because there should not be external meddling in Yemen’s own affairs.’

The campaign of drone murder is a failure on every level. It isn’t precise, it isn’t glorious and it certainly isn’t judicious.  It targets innocents and it doesn’t stop “anti-American sentiment,” it increases it. The drone strikes can never stop the “anti-American sentiment” only ending US imperialism, occupation, militarism and Israeli apartheid can do that.

P.S: The drone manufacturing company General Electric’s slogan is “we bring good things to life”.

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