Fellow Travelers

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Undeclared Drone War

Wholly unsurprising revelations have been made that the war in Afghanistan is an unmitigated disaster. Equally problematic is the undeclared drone war being waged across the border in Pakistan, chiefly by unaccountable CIA combat drones. In addition to killing people we're told are high-ranking Al Qaeda members, the drone strikes are killing innocent men, women, and children. Drone strikes are killing the first responders who show up at the scene of a drone strike to help the wounded. Drone strikes are killing mourners at the funerals of people killed by drone strikes. There's no accountability of this process, and there's very little condemnation of this in the media or the public at large. In a recent poll, even a majority of Democrats and liberals approved of the drone tactics. One can hope that this is simply because of a lack of understanding about the effects of the drone strikes, and their human cost.

Far from being targeted and precise strikes (which the Predator drones are capable of, when we were more careful about using them, and only the military was operating them), drone strikes have, due to a lack of oversight, become much more haphazard and with much higher amounts of collateral damage, as CIA Drones Kill Large Groups Without Knowing Who They Are:
Strikes targeting those people - usually "groups" of such people - are called "signature" strikes. "The bulk of CIA's drone strikes are signature strikes," the Journal's Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes report.

And bulk really means bulk. The Journal reports that the growth in clusters of people targeted by the CIA has required the agency to tell its Pakistani counterparts about mass attacks. When the agency expects to kill 20 or more people at once, then it's got to give the Pakistanis notice.

Monstrously, in a tactic we've learned from watching how other terrorist groups operate (when Hamas did it, our intelligence services called it the "double tap"), U.S. drones are targeting rescuers and mourners:
Its last news-making report, issued last July, was designed to prove (and unquestionably did prove) that top Obama counter-Terrorism adviser John Brennan lied when he said this about drone strikes in Pakistan: "in the last year, 'there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop." The Bureau's July, 2011 report concluded that Brennan's claim was patently false: "a detailed examination by the Bureau of 116 CIA "secret" drone strikes in Pakistan since August 2010 has uncovered at least 10 individual attacks in which 45 or more civilians appear to have died."

Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals:
But research by the Bureau has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children. A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.

Although the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004, they have been stepped up enormously under Obama.

There have been 260 attacks by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan by Obama's administration - averaging one every four days. Because the attacks are carried out by the CIA, no information is given on the numbers killed.

Administration officials insist that these covert attacks are legal. John Brennan, the president's top counterterrorism adviser, argues that the US has the right to unilaterally strike terrorists anywhere in the world, not just what he called "hot battlefields".

More then just being neat, precise, carefully planned strikes which only kill "the bad guys" (and after years of our government lying to us, who the heck is naive enough to believe them when they say anything), these drone strikes are killing people who might be the bad guy, and anybody unfortunate enough to be standing somewhere near the bad guy, and anybody who responds to an explosion to try to render aid, and anybody who goes to the funeral. Our government has made going to a funeral a death sentence, and often times children pay the price, as shown in this slideshow: Rare Photographs Show Ground Zero of the Drone War. WARNING: Some of those images are disturbing, and are of children killed by our drones.
By the time Behram reached Bismullah Khan's mud house, partially destroyed in the strike, Khan's youngest son, Syed Wali Shah, had already died. Behram watched as the boy's body was laid out on a prayer rug, a "very small" one, in preparation for his funeral.

"The body was whole," Behram recalls. "He was found dead." The villagers wrapped a bandage around the boy's head, even though they had no chance to save his life.

Behram doesn't know who the target of the Dande Darpa Khel attack was. ("You'd have to ask the CIA that," he says.) But he observed people's anger as they prepared bodies for burial and cleared the wreckage. "The people were extremely angry. They were talking and shouting against the U.S. for the attack," Behram says.

When you kill innocent people for the crime of living in a country where people who may also be our enemies live, you only create more enemies. You only further radicalize the people, and strengthen the resolve of those that oppose the US government. How would we react if another country, like Russia or China, was launching secret drone attacks against people in the US that they claimed were a danger to their national security? It makes any larger peace process impossible, especially when our drones are killing the people who are trying to make that peace, as in the case of Tariq Aziz: For Our Allies, Death From Above
On the night before the meeting, we had a dinner, to break the ice. During the meal, I met a boy named Tariq Aziz. He was 16. As we ate, the stern, bearded faces all around me slowly melted into smiles. Tariq smiled much sooner; he was too young to boast much facial hair, and too young to have learned to hate.

The next day, the jirga lasted several hours. I had a translator, but the gist of each man’s speech was clear. American drones would circle their homes all day before unleashing Hellfire missiles, often in the dark hours between midnight and dawn. Death lurked everywhere around them.

When it was my turn to speak, I mentioned the official American position: that these were precision strikes and no innocent civilian had been killed in 15 months. My comment was met with snorts of derision.

I told the elders that the only way to convince the American people of their suffering was to accumulate physical proof that civilians had been killed. Three of the men, at considerable personal risk, had collected the detritus of half a dozen missiles; they had taken 100 pictures of the carnage.

In one instance, they matched missile fragments with a photograph of a dead child, killed in August 2010 during the C.I.A.’s period of supposed infallibility. This made their grievances much more tangible.

Collecting evidence is a dangerous business. The drones are not the only enemy. The Pakistani military has sealed the area off from journalists, so the truth is hard to come by. One man investigating drone strikes that killed civilians was captured by the Taliban and held for 63 days on suspicion of spying for the United States.

At the end of the day, Tariq stepped forward. He volunteered to gather proof if it would help to protect his family from future harm. We told him to think about it some more before moving forward; if he carried a camera he might attract the hostility of the extremists.

But the militants never had the chance to harm him. On Monday, he was killed by a C.I.A. drone strike, along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan. The two of them had been dispatched, with Tariq driving, to pick up their aunt and bring her home to the village of Norak, when their short lives were ended by a Hellfire missile.

My mistake had been to see the drone war in Waziristan in terms of abstract legal theory — as a blatantly illegal invasion of Pakistan’s sovereignty, akin to President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in 1970.

But now, the issue has suddenly become very real and personal. Tariq was a good kid, and courageous. My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government.

And Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile — most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.


There was a time when I was in favor of using armed drones. Particularly when piloted by the US military, and in active combat zones like Iraq or Afghanistan, where they were used in response to specific threats and as air support for attacks on troops. However, letting that camel nose into the tent has since proved to be a mistake. It is now the CIA running the drone war, and instead of using them for direct combat support, we use them to kill anybody the CIA doesn't like. It's easy for people, on the left and the right, to work themselves up into a patriotic feel-good fervor, about how our technology is "killing the bad guys". But we don't think any deeper about it, about what sort of accountability there is for the process, and about how much further the tactics can be taken. It's easy to wonder "how long until we used these combat drones on American soil against American citizens?", but I'd pose that an even better question is "How many people would actually object if we did?" This question becomes especially important when you consider that, already, Liberals and Democrats approve of drone strikes on American citizens abroad.
Depressingly, Democrats approve of the drone strikes on American citizens by 58-33, and even liberals approve of them, 55-35. Those numbers were provided to me by the Post polling team.

It’s hard to imagine that Dems and liberals would approve of such policies in quite these numbers if they had been authored by George W. Bush.

Certainly the Obama administration has been no help with this:
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration over its refusal to release information regarding the drone strike program. The lawsuit demands documents detailing the legal rationale for the fact that “media reports reveal that at least three American citizens have been killed over the last four months by unmanned aerial vehicles — commonly known as `drones’ — on the basis of unilateral decisions made by the executive branch.”

As Glenn Greenwald has been pointing out, the Obama administration has responded with the Orwellian argument that it can’t honor the ACLU’s request, because even the answer to the question of whether such documents exist is classified info. As the above polling demonstrates, the uncomfortable truth of the matter is that the administration doesn’t have to worry about public opinion on these questions at all.

So there's the question. When faced with the reality of our undeclared drone war in Pakistan, when faced with the human cost of it, and the long-term ramifications of a world in which rank-and-file members of both political parties approve of using drone strikes to execute American citizens without trial or oversight anywhere in the world, do we approve of these things being done in our name or do we oppose them?

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