Mechanised mass murder: the terror of Obama's drone wars
It is said that blue skies have stopped being beautiful in Pakistan. The Drone War has created a culture of trauma in the communities against which it’s waged. These extrajudicial killings epitomise the way violence has been systematised in the so-called war on terror.
Strike footage makes sickeningly plain the sheer imbalance of forces, and why this newly mechanised form of murder breeds terrorism in the shadows of its drones. How can you confront, shame or hide from an enemy that watches, unblinking, from the sky and strikes with a computerised console five thousand miles away?
With Islamist terrorists one side and Western troops on the other, people now have to look up, too, to watch for a reign of violence from above: drones – unmanned aerial vehicles – cruising the skies over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine and now Somalia.
A New Kind of War
As weapons they are deadly: highly effective and low risk. Their surveillance capacity is also immense, and so Western countries imposing austerity and service cuts on their own people, continue to subsidise their development. This is a fundamentally new kind of warfare, and the role of drone technology in the military is growing at an unprecedented rate. As of 2008, the US Air Force employed twice the number of drones as it did manned planes. This is a broad transformation in the way that wars are fought – and the way people are targeted.
Legal definitions can be tricky, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The military tend not to operate under the common definition of words like interception, extremism or in this case, militant. The debate around drones took a new turn when Obama re-defined ‘militant’ to mean any male over the age of fourteen who was killed by US forces, unless proven innocent after death – not something the military put a great deal of effort into facilitating. It was this duplicitous manoeuvre that allowed the Pentagon to start trumpeting the incredible and ‘humane precision’ of the drones’ (the main irony there being, that drones are incredibly precise; but they are stacked with massive, indiscriminate weapons and used without due process.)
Particularly controversial are the drone ‘signature strikes’, which rather than targeting a known individual, are launched against those who, once under surveillance, are thought to ‘fit the profile’ of a terrorist. Pakistan, for example, is now informally considered a no-capture zone: arrest is not plausible, and assassination becomes the first port of call. No evidence, no trial, no verdict.
The aptly named American Predator drones are stacked with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, originally dubbed ‘fire and forget’ missiles. These incredibly powerful weapons, designed to take out entire bunkers and eliminate tanks rather than individuals, engage and reach supersonic speed in seconds. The operator, thousands of miles away, guides the missile to its target. His screen flashes white; small figures on the ground react to an unheard noise; an instant later, the entire view of the console is obliterated by an explosion, which clears to reveal a crater, and bodies blown to pieces.
The Drone Programme
The CIA’s covert drone programme was commissioned in the aftermath of 9/11, and first known drone strike took place on November 4th 2002, when the CIA assassinated six suspected al Qaeda members in Yemen.
By 2025, they are set to become an $80billion business, although over 98% of their victims are not classified as ‘high-value targets’. Thousands of civilians, hundreds of them children, have been killed by drone strikes in Pakistan alone. Death toll estimates vary drastically wherever the drones operate – and it’s been a long time now since the Americans stopped counting.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which is engaged in monitoring and documenting drone strike casualties in the Middle East, reports a sharp and continuous rise in drone strike deaths in Pakistan since 2006. By 2011, civilian deaths were approaching 3,000 - of which almost 200 were children. Only 185 named militants had been killed in that time: a 16-to-1 ratio. Pakistani authorities estimate over 700 civilian deaths in 2009 alone. And casualty levels are on the rise – 123 innocent lives were lost in January 2010.
The drone war continues, despite protest and condemnation at every level, under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency and a President who promised to restrict their use, but has instead doubled it. He ordered 42 drone attacks between January and October 2009, compared to just 34 in Bush’s last full year in office. And even by the military definition of ‘militant’, over 66% of victims were civilians.
Resistance is growing
After more than 30 drone strikes hit civilian homes in Afghanistan in 2012, President Karzai demanded an end to the drone attacks – but they continue elsewhere. Back in 2008, CIA officials became concerned that targets were being tipped off by the Pakistani intelligence, so the Bush administration decided to abandon the practice of obtaining the government’s permission before launching strikes. In the next six months the CIA carried out over 38 Predator strikes in northwest Pakistan – compared with ten in 2006 and 2007 combined.
The Pakistani courts have ruled that drone strikes are illegal, making them a violation of Pakistan’s national sovereignty. Ex-CIA chief John Rizzo is now wanted in Pakistan for arrest for crimes against humanity and conspiracy to wage a war of aggression, and a mass movement against the drone programme is gathering pace on the ground. Massive demonstrations have been seen in Pakistan in recent months, with hundreds of thousands of citizens of all ages and creeds coming together to assert their right to sovereignty over their sky. In Pakistan’s Peshwar province in November 2013, thousands of protesters blocked NATO’s convoy route in and out of Afghanistan.
The protests were led by the country’s foremost opposition party, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) party, led by former cricketer Imran Khan. Khan has criticised the Pakistani government for its failure to take meaningful action against the drone programme, in opposition to its so-called ‘US allies’. For Khan, the urgency of halting drone strikes is heightened still further by the threat they pose to his country’s peace talks with the Taliban.“We will put pressure on America and our protest will continue if the drone attacks are not stopped,” he warned.
Also in November, PTI members based in London organised a coordinated protest outside the US Embassy, where hundreds gathered to chants of ‘no justice, no peace’ and ‘drones fly, children die’. “The main reason we are protesting is that [drone attacks are] bringing instability to the country, it’s creating more militancy in Pakistan, more terrorism,” said Shahbaz Khan, President of PTI London. “People living in the north-west Pakistan are living under constant fear and kids are being traumatised. They cannot live their normal lives anymore and people need to know this.”
Chris Nineham, vice-chair of the Stop the War Coalition, decried the notion that the CIA could be trusted to minimise casualties and respect human rights, reminding the press gathered there that these were the armed representatives of governments complicit in repression, secrecy and torture all over the world. He told the impassioned crowd that the combined efforts of the anti-war movement in the Middle East and across the world had won the battle for public opinion. “In country after country around the world, the vast majority of the population have called for an end to these strikes. Our job is to mobilise that majority.”
Voices from below
The vast majority of drone strike victims are faceless. None but those who mourn them know their names. But there are some faces, thanks to the courage of a few decent journalists, which the world has got the chance to see.
One such face belonged to Tariq Aziz, a sixteen-year old student and avid football fan who became what you might call ‘politicised’ after his cousin was killed by a drone. Those who knew him observed his desire to be a constructive force for his country, to make the killing stop. He began organising protests and working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to help document civilian casualties. In October 2011, he attended his first public conference in Islamabad. Less than a week later, he was killed by a drone strike, along with his twelve-year-old cousin. “Tariq’s killing was illegal,” said Neil Williams, a British photographer who had befriended him. “It was murder.”
On 24th October 2012, a primary school was hit by a drone strike. Thankfully the children were not in class; but the family of their teacher was at home. His three children were injured, and his 67-year old mother, Mammana Bibi, was killed. Her son said he knew she was dead when he came across her sandal by itself. When they discovered her body in the distance, neighbours refused to grant him access, fearing that the severity of her injuries would prove too traumatic.
With the help of Reprieve, Mammana’s son Rafiq ur-Rehmanis now suing the CIA and the UK government for its complicity in what Amnesty International and UN representatives classify as a war crime. He was able to travel with his two children to speak before the US Congress, though his lawyer has been denied exit visas since he began representing drone strike victims.
"Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day,” Rafiq told the congressmen. “Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed. But only one person was killed that day… Not a militant, but my mother.”
The courage of these survivors and their determination to see justice done has helped push the drone war into the public consciousness, and the battle for public opinion has been won. America is an exception: 61 per cent approve of drone strikes against foreign ‘terrorists’. Undoubtedly this can be attributed in part to the CIA’s ability to hide behind its very broad definition of who is and is not a ‘militant’. But as popular awareness builds around the true nature of drone strikes abroad, and furthermore the domestic use of drones for surveillance on US citizens, there is a growing sense of unease around the whole principle.
Fuel on the fire
The reality is that drones are not only monstrous weapons – they are counterproductive. Drones have galvanised anti-American sentiment amongst both the people of these ‘allied’ countries. Government officials on both sides of the Atlantic, some of whom are vocal advocates of the ‘war on terror’, warn that drone strikes only put fuel on the fire.
Former US State Department deputy chief in Yemen, Nabeel Khoury, stated: “Drone strikes take out a few bad guys to be sure, but they also kill a large number of innocent civilians. Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the US generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every operative killed by drones... In war, unmanned aircraft may be a necessary part of a comprehensive military strategy. In a country where we are not at war, however, drones become part of our foreign policy, dominating it altogether, to the detriment of both our security and political goals.” Even so, business is booming. Boeing alone has already raked in over $1.8 billion in drone contracts. No wonder, then, that the industry spends millions on lobbying each year.
Entire communities are being led to understand that they are the enemy. And we make them our enemies, by allowing their children and parents and siblings to be murdered from the sky on our behalf. The key to defeating the Taliban, argue a host of experts, is the support of the rural tribes. But the drone war makes that impossible. It has removed the need for al Qaeda to recruit – they will be flooded with volunteers for as long as the drone strikes and imperial occupations continue. It was spelled out by the would-be bomber of Time Square in his testimony in June 2010. He explained he had witnessed the drone strikes and was acting in retaliation. “The drones, when they hit… They don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody. It’s a war, and in war, we kill people.”
So we call, as ever, for unity in opposition to the killing, and for a stand against terrorism on both sides – but especially to its deadliest forms, which are bankrolled by our taxes, because that is our responsibility, and struggling against that is at any rate our best means of halting the other.
The culture of trauma being created by the perpetual threat of drone strikes constitutes a systematic and society wide violation of human rights. Children too afraid to sleep, people feeling unsafe in their homes, too afraid to gather for free association – all this has contributed to a spike in psychiatric problems and a more fractured society. It sets the kind of scene we in Britain remember from our grandparent’s stories of German bombing raids during World War Two.
Technology: our choice
One more thing which provides propagandistic cover for the drone programme is the blurring of the lines between civilian and military uses for drone technology. Beyond the military, the purposes served by this technology are infinitely more constructive and inspiring. They’re teaching us more about the planet and nature conservation than we’ve been able to ascertain for decades. Drones operated solely by thought have endlessly improved the lives of brain-stroke victims. They show remarkable promise when it comes to emergency provision during natural disasters and for the billion people on Earth who have no access to safe road systems. But to put these two uses on either side of the debate, as academic and media do all too often, is deeply duplicitous.
A recent series of lectures produced by TEDTalk, for example, was entitled Drones: will they save us, or destroy us? - as though we can’t have them save lives without allowing them to take them; as though the answer to that question were somehow contingent upon a decision made by drones, rather than by the way in which scientists, governments and the public take responsibility for the direction in which these technologies are developed. In the existing economic system, technological development moves where money leads it. Investment goes to the most profitable ends, not the more useful ones.
And the collision course between the interest of the military-industrial complex and the rest of society is becoming more and more apparent. We are at an impasse when it comes to drone technology, much like we are with the internet. The internet can be left to become a highly centralised, corporatized mechanism for global surveillance; or we can fight to put it back under social control, as a means to transmit information as a challenge to unjust power, while protecting the privacy of the powerless to speak out. Likewise with the drones – they run on our collective wealth, and it is up to us to determine whether they’re dropping medical aid or Hellfire missiles.
And we must take that seriously, because with honourable exception many of the scientists developing such technology have, to quote Vandana Shiva, ‘the world view of a petree dish’. They are actively discouraged, through education and into the work place, from thinking critically about the social function of what they produce.
In the first lecture of the TEDtalk series on drones Regina Dugan, who formerly oversaw the Pentagon’s research innovation programme before going to sell her services to the world’s second-most powerful institution, Google. She amazed audiences with a small humming bird drone able to fly in reverse. She spoke for twenty minutes without a single reference to the most profitable sector for drone technology, which generated most of her funding: the Pentagon and private military contractors. After her lecture, which was as buoyant as it was non-specific, she was asked for what purpose her glider, unsuitable for passenger use but capable of incredible speeds, might be used for.
“Our responsibility,” she replied confidently, “is to develop the technology for this. The way it’s ultimately used will be determined by the military. The purpose of the technology is to be able to reach anywhere in the world in less than sixty minutes.”
“And to carry a pay load of more than a few pounds,” the questioner prompts.
“Yes,” she admits. “I don’t think we ultimately know how much...”
“But not necessarily just a camera,” he presses. The audience gives a dry laugh; clearly, a considerable number have come to discuss the extrajudicial murder carried out by her former employer with such ‘innovations’. And for the first time since she’s been on stage, she drops her eyes to the ground and loses the smile.
“No, not necessarily just a camera.” The audience laughs again. She looks confused.
But of course in the real world, drones tend not to just carry cameras. Predator drones are stacked with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, which weigh 100 pounds and were originally dubbed ‘fire and forget’ missiles. These incredibly powerful weapons, designed to take out entire bunkers and eliminate tanks rather than individuals, engage and reach supersonic speed in seconds. In the 12 months from June 2005, Predators carried out 2,073 known missions and participated in 242 separate raids.
The operator, thousands of miles away, guides the missile to its target. His screen flashes white; small figures on the ground react to an unheard noise; an instant later, the entire view of the console is obliterated by an explosion, which clears to reveal a crater, and bodies blown to pieces.
Follow Marienna Pope-Weidemann on Twitter: @MariennaPW