by Ayesha Alam (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 1, Rabi' al-Thani, 1435)
Barack Obama has assumed the mantel of terminator with his drone warfare. Nobody’s guilt need be established; if Obama decides, the person can be eliminated by the push of a button. He has become a serial killer using drones in far off lands.
The drone wars hum around the world, a perpetual, low-grade frequency of pain, terror, and destruction that occasionally erupts into media coverage through acts so flagrant that they temporarily overpower the world’s ennui to death and violence in the Muslim world. Drone attacks in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KPP) have splashed the news; the militarized drone geography extends to Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and countless other hotspots.
Recently, the news has been revolving once more around the drone, the sleepless Predator that feeds on fear as much as on notoriety. Firstly, the revisiting of a deadly strike on a wedding party in Yemen in December 2013, dubbed “The Wedding which became a Funeral,” that killed 12 men from the two families and injured numerous others, including the bride who sustained a cut under her eye. Secondly, the abrupt disappearance (and reappearance) last month of Pakistani drone activist Karim Khan, the first person to sue both the CIA and the Pakistani government for conducting the deadly drone strikes in the country that have killed 3,646 (by rough estimate) Pakistanis so far.
The Yemeni wedding party drone strike illustrates the posturing and bombast of Barack Obama’s May 2013 speech on drones, which were represented as a form of scientific precision strikes protected by due process and a fictitious respect for human life. “But the high threshold that we’ve set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets, regardless of whether or not they are American citizens,” pontificated Obama. “This threshold respects the inherent dignity of every human life. Alongside the decision to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way, the decision to use force against individuals or groups — even against a sworn enemy of the United States — is the hardest thing I do as President.”
While the raw data is still being compiled in the recent Yemeni wedding party attack, the bodily damage and psychological devastation that drones enact are clearly outlined in the oral histories of the survivors. One shaykh recounted, “Blood was everywhere, the bodies of the people who were killed and injured were scattered everywhere… I saw the missile hit the car that was just behind the car driven by my son. I went there to check on my son. I found him tossed to the side. I turned him over and he was dead. He was struck in his face, neck, and chest. My son, ‘Ali.”
In some of the Pakistani government’s recent documents acquired and published by the Bureau for Investigative Reporting related to US drone strikes in Pakistan, we are given a clear picture of the active complicity of Islamabad in the strikes; and also of the confused labeling which makes it clear that both the CIA and its subcontractors on the ground (which include complicit governments) are aware of the high human cost. These documents are the notes taken by the Pakistani government’s political agents, keeping track of the US drone attacks strike-by-strike, and the victims that result (a list including the ones known to the media and the ones unknown). The office minutes make it clear that sometimes civilians are deliberately targeted, “A civilian pickup was targeted” reports a July 2009 entry.
As Jeremy Schahill, author of Drone Wars and founder of Intercept, stated about Obama and his drone crusading, “I do think it’s chilling that we live in an era where a man who won the Nobel Peace Prize and is a constitutional lawyer by training is streamlining and creating a mechanism for making assassination, including of US citizens, a normal part of our — what’s called our national security policy.”
Drones are “a tool for killing outside of the law,” concurs ‘Ali Ashal, a member of the Pakistani parliament who represents a district where US cruise missiles killed 41 people in 2009 but missed their alleged target, a high-ranking al-Qaeda leader who Ashal said was “moving freely throughout the area and would pass by checkpoints.”
One of the central misconceptions about drone war is that this is an all-American enterprise, a Yankee cowboy death-dealing Thunderbird engineered by the neocons against the Muslim world. The fact of the matter is that drones have become global — it’s a global death machine in which all the various allies, associates and subcontractors of the Pentagon are heavily invested. This includes the European countries, Israel (which is one of the main manufacturing base of the drones), Saudi Arabia, and the assorted governments of the developing world to whom the War on Terror has been subcontracted, at the expense of the peace and security of their own citizens. It is an inseparable part of the architecture of the new global war waged by NATO.
This was illustrated by the recent comments by Yemen’s President Abdel Rabbo Mansur al-Hadi, who gave an interview to Human Rights Watch on the drone activities inside his country. According to al-Hadi, the UK is a participant in a secret “joint operations control room” in Yemen’s capital, from which individuals who are “going to be targeted” are identified. Al-Hadi also stated that officials from Yemen, the United States, and the other NATO countries were also participants in the control room. A Yemeni government official told researchers that the room was used for “intelligence-sharing activities” rather than purely for counter-terror operations.
“It raises significant questions as to the role of governments such as United Kingdom in intelligence-sharing in Yemen,” declared Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch, about the interview. “What is the intelligence that is being shared, and is any of that intelligence being used in strikes that may violate international law?” Tayler said. “We do not know because the US government and the UK government, as well as others, will not give us the answers.”
This pan-NATO aspect of the Global War on Terror was outlined by the British charity Reprieve, which lodged a complaint at the International Criminal Court accusing NATO of war crimes. Reprieve states that the US’ allies in NATO, specifically the UK, Germany and Australia, are involved and equally guilty of drone strikes in Pakistan. Reprieve legal director Kat Craig stated, “The International Criminal Court, established specifically to hold overwhelming state power to account, is in a unique position to offer some semblance of justice to individual drone victims with nowhere else to go. They must take this complaint seriously and investigate.”
In Pakistan, 67 days have passed since the last drone strike, the longest détente since the start of the drone wars in the beleaguered country. Many commentators speculate that the reason for the pause is the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the US, which the US has been cautiously pursuing in order to secure the future of its pipelines from Afghanistan. However, even so, drones remain center-front in the news.