The Iranian part of the gas pipeline is complete but Pakistan has run into repeated delays for the 780-km section to be built on its side of the border
A Pakistani delegation will be visiting Iran next month to revive talks on a planned gas pipeline which has been set back for years because of US and Saudi opposition, an Iranian news agency says.
Iran’s gas delivery should have started in December 2014 but Pakistan has failed to complete its section of the pipeline under the contract signed back in 2010.
According to Fars news agency, Pakistani officials have officially announced their readiness lately to resume the negotiations and decided to send a delegation to Tehran in the middle of the Persian month of Farvardin which began on March 21 or in early Ordibehesht.
“Although Pakistani officials are subject to the policies of Saudi Arabia and America, the government under pressure from the Pakistani people and businessmen is willing to provide for conditions so that the Iranian natural gas reaches Pakistan,” the source said.
According to the unnamed source, the Pakistani negotiating team has been given complete freedom to negotiate the volume, time and mode of gas imports from Iran and reach a final conclusion.
“Pricing is up for the later stage and if we reach an initial conclusion, we will also get to that phase,” the source added.
The energy crisis in Pakistan which suffers about 12 hours of power cuts a day has worsened in recent years amid 4,000 megawatts of electricity shortfall. The nation of 190 million people can only supply about two-thirds of its gas needs.
Contractually, Pakistan has to pay steep fines to Iran for failing to build and operate its section of the pipeline. Iran’s Minister of Petroleum Bijan Zangeneh has said that Tehran decided not to take the matter to international arbitration because Islamabad did not have any money to either pay the penalty or build the pipeline.
Pakistan has however pushed ahead with talks to receive gas from Turkmenistan through a pipeline which is exponentially longer and costlier than the Iran route and has to cross volatile terrain in Afghanistan.
Qatar is currently one of the main suppliers of liquefied natural gas to Pakistan after the two sides signed a 15-year agreement in February 2016 for shipment of 3.75 million tonnes of LNG a year.
In their last negotiations with Iran, the Pakistanis reportedly said they preferred LNG to natural gas.
However, Iranian energy experts have dismissed the proposal as another delaying tactic given that the first Iranian LNG production is years off, while the Pakistanis have started talks to buy natural gas from Turkmenistan.
For years, Islamabad has been under US and Saudi pressure to opt out of the Iran project even though this would entail going the extra mile of more than 700 km across the violence-wracked Afghanistan to get gas from Turkmenistan.
A US state department official told the Associated Press on Thursday that Washington wants to work with Moscow on regional efforts to end the 16-year Afghan war and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would be discussing this during his visit to the Russian capital on April 12.
The Trump administration’s idea of seeking Russian cooperation to bring about national reconciliation in Afghanistan signifies a radical departure from the consistently negative approach taken by the Barack Obama presidency aimed at keeping Moscow out of the Afghan problem as far and as long as possible. This is of course brilliant news. (See my recent opinion piece in the Tribune titled The grand bargain.)
However, Trump’s best-laid plans in this direction are surely going to run into big headwinds. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Army General Curtis Scapparotti may have already made a valiant attempt to raise dust by saying on Thursday that he has seen “increased influence” of Russia of late in Afghanistan “and perhaps even supply to the Taliban.” Hot-shot generals do not usually speculate, and the word “perhaps” has simply no place in their vocabulary, but then, this is politics with the objective of caricaturing Russia in adversarial terms.
The Russians promptly hit back saying that the accusation by the general is “absolutely false.” A top Russian diplomat heading the Afghan desk in the foreign ministry, Ambassador Zamir Kabulov retorted that “these statements are fabrications designed to justify the failure of the US military and politicians in the Afghan campaign, we cannot find any other explanation.” (Sputnik )
Indeed, the NATO general could have been indulging in a blame game. The point is, Scapparotti spoke soon after reports appeared that the Taliban have captured the strategically-located Sangin district in the southern Helmand province. It is a humiliating setback for the US and NATO since more of their soldiers had been killed in Sangin during the war than in any of the 400-odd districts in the country. (Read a BBC commentary here on the significance of Sangin in the chronicle of the Afghan war.)
But, coming back to Tillerson’s talks in Moscow, it is significant that Trump is taking his time to announce his strategy for Afghanistan. He is apparently pondering over the wisdom of deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan in the absence of an exit strategy. Under the circumstances, there is a good possibility that Trump would sense the rationale behind the regional initiative taken by Russia on Afghan national reconciliation.
Pakistan announced today its intention to take part in the forthcoming Moscow conference. Afghanistan has already stated its participation. Presumably, Iran, China and India also will attend the conference. Meanwhile, AP reported today that Pakistan brought together seven top Taliban leaders for a meeting in Islamabad last week “to try and press them into peace talks ahead of a multi-nation meeting in April in Moscow.”
The Taliban leaders who attended the meeting included key figures in the leadership such as Mullah Muhammed Abbas (who took part in direct talks with the Afghan government in July 2015 in Pakistan), Amir Khan Muttaqi, Mullah Muhammed Turabi, Mullah Saaduddin (from the Quetta shura), Mullah Daud (Peshawar shura) – and, most important, Yahya, a senior member of the Haqqani network, and Latif Mansour, secretary of the Taliban leadership council.
This would suggest that the Taliban could be tiptoeing toward the regional format on Afghanistan soon. Of course, there will be hiccups on the way to the conference table, since some Taliban factions could be counting on an outright military victory and a takeover in Kabul. Pakistan will have to do the heavy lifting, ultimately.
A report of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), especially prepared for the US Congress and the Trump administration, finds what should be called a magnanimous failure of the US in achieving any of its major objectives in Afghanistan even after spending almost 16 years in the country. Ironic though it may sound, this report, along with its list of grave threats that the US needs to tackle, endorses the war as, what Trump himself has called, totally “disastrous” for the US. While the actual intention behind the preparation of this report seems to be to impress upon the president and the Congress to sanction more funds, commit more US troops and continue the rehabilitation programme (read: Trump has vowed to end the programme), it ends up enlisting the US’ multiple failures in Afghanistan, ranging from eliminating the Taliban completely to restoring even a semblance of peace and establishing a strong security force in the war torn country. Hence, the question: will commitment of more resources (funds and troops) to Afghanistan make any difference, especially when the proposed increase is nothing compared to what the US had committed and continued to utilize for years after it invaded Afghanistan in 2001?
It is worth recalling that since 2001, around 2250 US military personnel have died and over 20,000 wounded in Afghanistan and the war is not over—yet. Apart from it, as the report notes, the US has spent more money in Afghanistan than it collectively spent to reconstruct the whole Europe after the Second World War, marking this the “largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in our (US) nation’s history.” Given the scale of the loss, it cannot be gainsaid that it is also the greatest failure the US has suffered ever since. And as the report highlights, “after 15 years the task is incomplete.”
Afghanistan, for the US, remains a “high risk” territory—something that warrants, the US policy makers think, a long-term military presence. Despite spending a whopping US$70 billion on establishing Afghan security forces—almost half of the reconstruction budget going to this particular sector of national reconstruction— the report finds that Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) remain acutely incapable of tackling the war on their own.
While the report places the onus of responsibility on Afghan forces for ceding territory to the Taliban, the fact remains that the US forces have not left the country either and remain militarily engaged.
According to the US-Afghanistan Bi-Lateral Security Agreement (BSA), the very purpose of retaining a significant strength of US troops and military personnel is to “enhance the ability of Afghanistan to deter internal and external threats against its sovereignty.”
However, despite the fact that two years have passed since the agreement was signed, no major progress has been seen in terms of the Afghan forces’ ability to recover territory from the Taliban. On the contrary, as the SIGAR report notes, “approximately 63.4% of the country’s districts are under Afghan government control or influence as of August 28, 2016, a decrease from the 70.5% reported as of January 29, 2016.”
What this indicates is that the US has been unable to achieve, so far, its publicly stated objectives. According to the SIGAR report, the other “high risk” areas include corruption, sustainability, on-budget support, counter-narcotics, contract management, oversight, strategy and planning.
Curiously enough, SIGAR does not mention the rising threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the threat it is posing to the regions surrounding this country. The regions surrounding Afghanistan include Central Asia, South Asia and China.
Were the Islamic State to be allowed, by not taking action against it, to spread in Afghanistan and be able to set foothold in this region, it will spread utter devastation—something that will directly serve the US interest against Russia and China. Not only will it jeopardize China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ project but will also cause a manifold increase in the threats of ISIS finding support in China’s Xinjiang province and in Central Asia states i.e., Russia’s “under belly.”
No wonder, the US doesn’t see ISIS as a “real threat” to their interests in Afghanistan because it is not, as yet, posing any direct threat. For the US, the primary threat remains the Taliban and the imperative of silencing their movement remains the primary objective.
It is for this reason that both China and Russia have found a justifiable reason in establishing contacts both with the Afghan government and the Taliban in order to prevent ISIS from gaining foothold in Afghanistan. While China has already started to conduct counter-terror operations in co-operation with Kabul, Russia is equally setting itself up to lead the peace process by holding a global peace conference on Afghanistan in Moscow.
What are Trump’s options for an un-winnable war?
Given the dark scenario depicted in the report, it seems that the US military is deeply interested in raising troop levels in Afghanistan. But the question is: will sending more troops do any good when 16 years of war have led only to deterioration? What it will do is intensify the war with the Taliban and provide ISIS a ready-made scenario to gain strength.
It is obvious that the US cannot win the war against the Taliban. As a matter of fact, the question of actually winning the war has lost whatever significance it previously had. Therefore, the new question that must be raised and duly addressed is how to prevent Afghanistan from becoming another Levant?
It is again self-evident that ISIS doesn’t figure as a threat in the US officials’ calculation. Therefore, China and Russia must step up their efforts and help negotiate a peace settlement with the Taliban. Pakistan’s role is crucial in this regard and fortunately enough, both Russia and China are on good terms with Afghanistan’s immediate and most important neighbour.
Therefore, the best option for the US/the Trump administration is to engage with countries that can actually pave the way for settlement. On the contrary, were the US to continue to walk the lonely path in Afghanistan, it will continue to progressively lose space and momentum to China-Pakistan-Russia nexus just as it lost space and advantage in Syria after Russia started its own military campaign in September 2015. As such, with Russia and China willing to facilitate a peace settlement, the US needs to tap into this opportunity and turn the “disastrous war” into a meaningful settlement.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has called for a crackdown on those who would blaspheme against Islam on social media, and claims to have contacted Facebook and Twitter to ask for their help in suppressing online sacrilege.
“All relevant institutions must unite to hunt those who spread such material and to award them strict punishment under the law,” Sharif said.
Minister of the Interior Ministry (MoI) Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that an official from Pakistan’s embassy in Washington, DC, was dispatched to Facebook and Twitter, asking them to help identify Pakistanis both at home or abroad who have insulted Islam.
He went on to say Pakistan would seek to extradite any Pakistanis living abroad if they were accused of blasphemy so they could be tried in an Islamic court.
Facebook, at least, has answered the call and will send a delegation to Pakistan to help them fight blasphemy, according to a statement from Pakistan’s Interior Ministry. Facebook told the MoI that they were “aware” of Pakistan’s concerns, and wanted to reach a mutual understanding with the Islamic Republic.
Facebook told the Associated Press that it seriously considers requests from governments, but its ultimate goal is to “protect the privacy and rights of our users.”
“We disclose information about accounts solely in accordance with our terms of service and applicable law,” continued Facebook.
Pakistan already extensively censors online content that depicts blasphemy, pornography, suicide and other things deemed objectionable. YouTube was blocked in the South Asian nation from 2012 to 2016, until it agreed to assist the government in censoring their content.
Facebook itself was blocked for a short period of time in 2010 due to it being the platform of choice for many artists participating in “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day”. Some sites, such as Reddit and Imgur, remain banned.
Pakistan has some of the world’s strictest blasphemy laws. “Outraging the religious feelings of Muslims” carries a three year prison sentence as well as fines. Defiling a Quran is life in prison. Speaking ill of Mohammed is punishable by death.
Human Rights Watch claims that from 1987 to 2014, more than 1,300 Pakistanis have been accused of blasphemy and more than 60 of the accused have died in extrajudicial killings.
The US President Donald Trump has hit Pakistan and Saudi Arabia hard where it hurts most – making things difficult for their elites to travel to America or get a Green Card — by subjecting the visa applicants to ‘extreme vetting’.
To societies such as Pakistan (or India for that matter), the ultimate insult that Washington can give is to deny the elites the privilege to visit America. Pakistani elites were willing to eat grass if necessary for making atom bomb, but if restrictions are put on their travel to America, it hurts. The bottom line is seamless freedom to criticize America and alongside unhindered right to visit America. Unsurprisingly, the Pakistani elites are livid with anger. The reaction ranges from embarrassment to indignation. In an editorial comment, the Pakistani newspaper The Nation advised the government that “its attempts to befriend the Trump administration might be altogether pointless.”
But Trump won’t retract. He knows it is an immensely popular move, as the average American thinks that the Muslim is a troublemaker and best kept away at arm’s length.
How do the European countries see Trump’s move? Will they emulate him? The fact of the matter is that anti-Muslim feelings are widespread in the countries of western and central Europe too. However, Europe may dither, because it damages their self-esteem as the ‘civilized world’ if primeval passions mutate as state policies. Besides, western companies make a lot of money in the CGG markets.
How will India look at Trump’s Muslim ban? The government will probably find it expedient to take an evasive stance by keeping mum or choosing to take a stroll on the sidewalk. A ‘senior MEA official’ probably did that by observing,
- India is not really worried at the moment as the religious radicalization has not been a big problem in the country and it has not been a source of refugees. So far no Indians have been arrested abroad for being involved in acts of terror.
Will India’s political parties voice opinions? This is, after all, election time in Uttar Pradesh. Indeed, the hardliners among our elites may (quietly) draw some vicarious satisfaction. One of them has blamed Trump for being not hard enough on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s detractors in America allege that he made an exception of those Muslim countries where he has business interests. Bloomberg illustrated the point with graphics. Take a look, here. In reality, though, it is a weak argument. With the solitary exception of the UAE, whose sheikhs have had a dismal record of promoting radical Islamist groups as instruments of foreign policies, Trump’s business empire overwhelmingly spans the non-Muslim world – Argentina, Brazil, Bermuda, Canada, China, Ireland, UK and US.
Will this sort of discriminatory attitude of viewing Muslim countries as plague-ridden regions colour Trump’s policies toward the Muslim Middle East? These are early days. Trump is courting Israel, but then, he could be calculating that it pays to keep the Jewish lobby in America (which controls the Congress, media and think tanks) happy. In Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump has a cabinet minister who extensively cultivated Middle eastern elites. But the US has no more reason to covetously eye the Middle East’s oil. The US is not only energy self-sufficient but will likely be a major exporter in a conceivable future. Having said that, petrodollar recycling still continues to be of relevance to US industry and banking system.
Trump could be betting that the sheikhs have no option but to swallow the humiliation. A trace of contempt was probably discernible in his pugnacious remark calling for ‘safe zones’ for Syrian refugees, during a post-election thank-you trip in December:
- We’ll build safe zones in Syria. When I look at what’s going on in Syria, it’s so sad. It’s so sad. And we’ve got to help people. And we have the Gulf States. They have nothing but money. We don’t have money. We owe $20 trillion. I will get the Gulf States to give us lots of money, and we’ll build and help build safe zones in Syria, so people can have a chance. So they can have a chance.
So, in the mother of all ironies, Trump is bullish he’d get King Salman to cough up the money to put up Syrian refugees who have been rendered stateless in a bloody conflict that Saudi Arabia in the first instance promoted. And, furthermore, he now expects that Salman would counsel his princes and princesses to patiently queue up for ‘extreme vetting’ to get American visas. It’s no more possible for them to succumb to the sudden itch to board their private jets and head for America to do shopping or indulge in fun and frolic.
To add insult to injury, Saudi Arabia has been bracketed with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Trump promised: “We’re going to have extreme vetting in all cases. And I mean extreme. And we’re not letting people in if we think there’s even a little chance of some problem… we’re gonna have extreme vetting. It’s going to be very hard to come in. Right now it’s very easy to come in. It’s gonna be very, very hard. I don’t want terror in this country.” By the way, Trump’s Muslim ban is not applicable to any country other than Saudi Arabia within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The wheel has come full circle since the Faustian deal between FDR and King Abdul Aziz at their fateful meeting in 1945 in Egypt whereby in lieu for secure access to supplies of Saudi oil, US guaranteed the military security of the Wahhabi regime.
Reprieve | October 30, 2016
Personnel on military bases in the UK have been involved in choosing targets for a secret US drone campaign which has killed hundreds of civilians in violation of international law, documents obtained by human rights charity Reprieve indicate.
Job adverts and CVs identified from publicly-available sources show that the US Air Force has employed a “MQ-9 REAPER [drone] ISR Mission Intelligence Coordinator” at RAF Molesworth in Cambridgeshire; while a Private Military Contractor (PMC) has advertised for an “All Source Analyst – Targeting” to work at the same base.
RAF Molesworth is leased to the US, but the UK Government has refused to answer questions on whether it plays a role in the covert drone campaign – which carries out missile strikes outside of warzones with minimal accountability.
British Ministers have said that “the US does not operate RPAS [drones] from the UK,” but have refused to answer questions on whether bases in the UK play a role in choosing targets and drawing up the US ‘kill list.’
A third job advert from contractor Leidos for someone to provide “FMV [full motion video] intelligence analysis in support of USAFRICOM… and Special Operations Command Africa,” also at Molesworth, indicates that the base may be involved in supporting illegal covert drone strikes in countries such as Somalia, where neither the US nor the UK is publicly at war. Along with the CIA, US Special Operations Command is the main player in the drone programme.
Concerns have been raised over the legality of the US covert drone programme, its lack of transparency, and reports that it has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. The UN has warned that it may violate international law, and British ministers have refused to be drawn on their view of its legality. President Obama has to date refused even to formally acknowledge that the CIA is carrying out drone strikes, because of the programme’s covert status. A 2014 study by Reprieve found that covert drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan had killed as many as 1,147 unknown people in failed attempts to kill 41 named individuals.
The revelations come on top of documents published recently by The Intercept on the role played by Menwith Hill – another UK/US intelligence base – in identifying targets in Yemen, one of the main theatres in which the covert drone programme operates. One document states that targets at Yemeni internet cafes are “tasked by several target offices at NSA and GCHQ.” The document’s header shows it was copied to the UK, meaning that the British Government must have already been aware of the role its intelligence and bases were playing.
Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve said:
“These documents are the strongest evidence yet that the US may be conducting its illegal, secret drone war from bases on British soil. Simply to say that drones are not flown from the UK is missing the point, if it is personnel on British soil that are at the top of the so-called ‘kill chain’ and British agencies who are feeding targets into those lists.
“The US drone programme, conducted in the shadows, has killed hundreds of civilians without any accountability. The British Government has questions to answer over its own involvement in this secret war and how much responsibility it bears for those deaths.”
In the past week, Burundi and South Africa have joined Namibia in declaring their intention to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). They are likely to be followed by a parade of other African countries, jeopardizing the future of an international court that has prosecuted 39 officials from eight African countries but has failed to indict a single person who is not African.
Ironically, African countries were among the first to embrace the ICC, so it is a striking turnaround that they are now the first to give up on it.
But it is the United States that has played the leading role in preventing the ICC from fulfilling the universal mandate for which it was formed, to hold officials of all countries accountable for the worst crimes in the world: genocide; crimes against humanity; and war crimes – not least the crime of international aggression, which the judges at Nuremberg defined as “the supreme international crime” from which all other war crimes follow.
As the ICC’s founding father, former Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, lamented in 2011, “You don’t have to be a criminologist to realize that if you want to deter a crime, you must persuade potential criminals that, if they commit crimes, they will be hauled into court and be held accountable. It is the policy of the United States to do just the opposite as far as the crime of aggression is concerned. Our government has gone to great pains to be sure that no American will be tried by any international criminal court for the supreme crime of illegal war-making.”
The U.S. has not only refused to accept the jurisdiction of the ICC over its own citizens. It has gone further, pressuring other countries to sign Bilateral Immunity Agreements (BIA), in which they renounce the right to refer U.S. citizens to the ICC for war crimes committed on their territory.
The U.S. has also threatened to cut off U.S. aid to countries that refuse to sign them. The BIAs violate those countries’ own commitments under the ICC statute, and the U.S. pressure to sign them has been rightly condemned as an outrageous effort to ensure impunity for U.S. war crimes.
Resistance to U.S. Impunity
To the credit of our international neighbors, this U.S. strategy has met with substantial resistance. The European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating that BIAs are incompatible with E.U. membership, and urged E.U.- member states and countries seeking E.U. membership not to sign them.
Fifty-four countries have publicly refused to sign BIAs, and 24 have accepted cut-offs of U.S. aid as a consequence of their refusal. Of 102 countries that have signed a BIA, only 48 are members of the ICC in any case, and only 15 of those countries are on record as having ratified the BIAs in their own parliaments.
Thirty-two other ICC members have apparently allowed BIAs to take effect without parliamentary ratification, but this has been challenged by their own country’s legal experts in many cases.
The U.S. campaign to undermine the ICC is part of a much broader effort by the U.S. government to evade all forms of accountability under the laws that are supposed to govern international behavior in the modern world, even as it continues to masquerade as a global champion of the rule of law.
The treaties that U.S. policy systematically violates today were crafted by American statesmen and diplomats, working with their foreign colleagues, to build a world where all people would enjoy some basic protections from the worst atrocities, instead of being subject only to the law of the jungle or “might makes right.”
So current U.S. policy is a cynical betrayal of the work and wisdom of past generations of Americans, as well as of countless victims all over the world to whom we are effectively denying the protections of the U.N. Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and other multilateral treaties that our country ignores, violates or refuses to ratify.
Avoiding the jurisdiction of international courts is only one of the ways that the U.S. evades international accountability for its criminal behavior. Another involves an elaborate and well-disguised public relations campaign that exploit the powerful position of U.S. corporations in the world of commercial media.
Major Propaganda Funding
The U.S. government spends a billion dollars per year on public relations or, more bluntly, propaganda, including $600 million from the Pentagon budget. The work of its P.R. teams and contractors is laundered by U.S. newspapers and repeated and analyzed ad nauseam by monolithic, flag-waving TV networks.
These profitable corporate operations monopolize the public airwaves in the U.S., and also use their financial clout, slick marketing and the support of the U.S. State Department to maintain a powerful presence in foreign and international media markets.
Foreign media in allied countries provide further legitimacy and credibility to U.S. talking-points and narratives as they echo around the world. Meanwhile, Hollywood fills cinema and TV screens across the world with an idealized, glamorized, inspirational version of America that still mesmerizes many people.
This whole elaborate “information warfare” machine presents the United States as a global leader for democracy, human rights and the rule of law, even as it systematically and catastrophically undermines those same principles. It enables our leaders to loudly and persuasively demonize other countries and their leaders as dangerous violators of international law, even as the U.S. and its allies commit far worse crimes.
Double Standards in Syria/Iraq
Today, for instance, the U.S. and its allies are accusing Syria and Russia of war crimes in east Aleppo, even as America’s own and allied forces launch a similar assault on Mosul. Both attacks are killing civilians and reducing much of a city to rubble; the rationale is the same, counterterrorism; and there are many more people in the line of fire in Mosul than in east Aleppo.
But the U.S. propaganda machine ensures that most Americans see one, in Mosul, as a legitimate counterterrorism operation (with Islamic State accused of using the civilians as “human shields”) and the other, in east Aleppo, as a massacre (with the presence of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the former Nusra Front, virtually whited out of the West’s coverage, which focuses almost entirely on the children and makes no mention of “human shields”).
The phrase “aggressive war” is also a no-no in the Western media when the U.S. government launches attacks across international borders. In the past 20 years, the U.S. has violated the U.N. Charter to attack at least eight countries (Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Syria), and the resulting wars have killed about two million people.
A complex whirlwind of conflict and chaos rages on in all the countries where the U.S. and its allies have lit the flames of war since 2001, but U.S. leaders still debate new interventions and escalations as if we are the fire brigade not the arsonists. (By contrast, the U.S. government and the Western media are quick to accuse Russia or other countries of “aggression” even in legally murky situations, such as after the U.S.-backed coup in 2014 that ousted the elected president of Ukraine.)
Systematic violations of the Geneva Conventions are an integral part of U.S. war-making. Most are shrouded in secrecy, and the propaganda machine spins the atrocities that slip through into the public record as a disconnected series of aberrations, accidents and “bad apples,” instead of as the result of illegal rules of engagement and unlawful orders from higher-ups.
The senior officers and civilian officials who are criminally responsible for these crimes under U.S. and international law systematically abuse their powerful positions to subvert investigations, cover up their crimes and avoid any accountability whatsoever.
When British playwright Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005, he bravely and brilliantly used his Nobel lecture to speak about the real role that the U.S. plays in the world and how it whitewashes its crimes. Pinter recounted a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in London in the 1980s in which a senior embassy official, Raymond Seitz, flatly denied U.S. war crimes against Nicaragua for which the U.S. was in fact convicted of aggression by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Seitz went on to serve as Assistant Secretary of State, U.S. Ambassador to the U.K., and then Vice-Chairman of Lehman Brothers.
As Pinter explained: “this ‘policy’ was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.
“The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.
“Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn’t know it.
“It never happened. Nothing ever happened. Even while it was happening it wasn’t happening. It didn’t matter. It was of no interest. The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It’s a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.”
If in 2016 the world seems to be more violent and chaotic than ever, it is not because the United States lacks the will to use force or project power, as both major party candidates for President and their military advisers appear to believe, but because our leaders have placed too much stock in the illegal threat and use of force and have lost faith in the rule of law, international cooperation and diplomacy.
After a century of commercial dominance, and 75 years of investing disproportionately in weapons, military forces and geopolitical schemes, perhaps it is understandable that U.S. leaders have forgotten how to deal fairly and respectfully with our international neighbors. But it is no longer an option to muddle along, leaving a trail of death, ruin and chaos in our wake, counting on an elaborate propaganda machine to minimize the blowback on our country and our lives.
Sooner rather than later, Americans and our leaders must knuckle down and master the very different attitudes and skills we will need to become law-abiding global citizens in a peaceful, sustainable, multipolar world.
Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He also wrote the chapters on “Obama at War” in Grading the 44th President: a Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.
Britain is fighting at least seven covert wars in the Middle East and North Africa, outside of any democratic oversight or control. Whitehall has in effect gone underground, with neither parliament nor the public being allowed to debate, scrutinise or even know about these wars. To cover themselves, Ministers are now often resorting to lying about what they are authorising. While Britain has identified Islamic State (among others) as the enemy abroad, it is clear that it sees the British public and parliament as the enemy at home.
Britain began training Syrian rebel forces from bases in Jordan in 2012. This was also when the SAS was reported to be ‘slipping into Syria on missions’ against Islamic State. Now, British special forces are ‘mounting hit and run raids against IS deep inside eastern Syria dressed as insurgent fighters’ and ‘frequently cross into Syria to assist the New Syrian Army’ from their base in Jordan. British special forces also provide training, weapons and other equipment to the New Syrian Army.
British aircraft began covert strikes against IS targets in Syria in 2015, months before Parliament voted in favour of overt action in December 2015. These strikes were conducted by British pilots embedded with US and Canadian forces.
Britain has also been operating a secret drone warfare programme in Syria. Last year Reaper drones killed British IS fighters in Syria, again before parliament approved military action. As I have previously argued, British covert action and support of the Syrian rebels is, along with horrific Syrian government/Russian violence, helping to prolong a terrible conflict.
Hundreds of British troops are officially in Iraq to train local security forces. But they are also engaged in covert combat operations against IS. One recent report suggests that Britain has more than 200 special force soldiers in the country, operating out of a fortified base within a Kurdish Peshmerga camp south of Mosul.
British Reaper drones were first deployed over Iraq in 2014 and are now flown remotely by satellite from an RAF base in Lincolnshire. Britain has conducted over 200 drones strikes in Iraq since November 2014.
SAS forces have been secretly deployed to Libya since the beginning of this year, working with Jordanian special forces embedded in the British contingent. This follows a mission by MI6 and the RAF in January to gather intelligence on IS and draw up potential targets for air strikes. British commandos are now reportedly fighting and directing assaults on Libyan frontlines and running intelligence, surveillance and logistical support operations from a base in the western city of Misrata.
But a team of 15 British forces are also reported to be based in a French-led multinational military operations centre in Benghazi, eastern Libya, supporting renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar. In July 2016, Middle East Eye reported that this British involvement was helping to coordinate air strikes in support of Haftar, whose forces are opposed to the Tripoli-based government that Britain is supposed to be supporting.
The government says it has no military personnel based in Yemen. Yet a report by Vice News in April, based on numerous interviews with officials, revealed that British special forces in Yemen, who were seconded to MI6, were training Yemeni troops fighting Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and also had forces infiltrated in AQAP. The same report also found that British military personnel were helping with drone strikes against AQAP. Britain was playing ‘a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program’. In addition, the UK spybase at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire facilitates US drone strikes in Yemen.
Britain has been widely reported (outside the mainstream media) as supporting the brutal Saudi war in Yemen, which has caused thousands of civilian deaths, most of them due to Saudi air strikes. Indeed, Britain is party to the war. The government says there are around 100 UK military personnel based in Saudi Arabia including a ‘small number’ at ‘Saudi MOD and Operational Centres’. One such Centre, in Riyadh, coordinates the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen and includes British military personnel who are in the command room as air strikes are carried out and who have access to the bombing targets.
The UK is of course arming the Saudi campaign: The British government disclosed on 13 October that the Saudis have used five types of British bombs and missiles in Yemen. On the same day, it lied to Parliament that Britain was ‘not a party’ to the war in Yemen.
A secret ‘memorandum of understanding’ that Britain signed with Saudi Arabia in 2014 has not been made public since it ‘would damage the UK’s bilateral relationship’ with the Kingdom, the government states. It is likely that this pact includes reference to the secret British training of Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia, which has taken place since mid-2015. Operating from a desert base in the north of the country, British forces have been teaching Syrian forces infantry skills as part of a US-led training programme.
In Afghanistan, the public was told that British forces withdrew at the end of 2014. However, British forces stayed behind to help create and train an Afghan special forces unit. Despite officially only having ‘advisors’ in Afghanistan, in August 2015 it was reported that British covert forces were fighting IS and Taliban fighters. The SAS and SBS, along with US special forces, were ‘taking part in military operations almost every night’ as the insurgents closed in on the capital Kabul.
In 2014, the government stated that it had ended its drone air strikes programme in Afghanistan, which had begun in 2008 and covered much of the country. Yet last year it was reported that British special forces were calling in air strikes using US drones.
Pakistan and Somalia
Pakistan and Somalia are two other countries where Britain is conducting covert wars. Menwith Hill facilitates US drone strikes against jihadists in both countries, with Britain’s GCHQ providing ‘locational intelligence’ to US forces for use in these attacks.
The government has said that it has 27 military personnel in Somalia who are developing the national army and supporting the African Union Mission. Yet in 2012 it was reported that the SAS was covertly fighting against al-Shabab Islamist terrorists in Somalia, working with Kenyan forces in order to target leaders. This involved up to 60 SAS soldiers, close to a full squadron, including Forward Air Controllers who called in air strikes against al-Shabab targets by the Kenyan air force. In early 2016, it was further reported that Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose troops operate with UK special forces, was saying that his troops were ready with Britain and Kenya to go ‘over the border’ to attack al-Shabaab.
The RAF’s secret drone war, which involves a fleet of 10 Reaper drones, has been in permanent operation in Afghanistan since October 2007, but covertly began operating outside Afghanistan in 2014. The NGO Reprieve notes that Britain provides communications networks to the CIA ‘without which the US would not be able to operate this programme’. It says that this is a particular matter of concern as the US covert drone programme is illegal.
Even this may not be the sum total of British covert operations in the region. The government stated in 2015 that it had 177 military personnel embedded in other countries’ forces, with 30 personnel working with the US military. It is possible that these forces are also engaged in combat in the region. For example, the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, has said that in the Gulf, British pilots fly US F18s from the decks of US aircraft carriers. This means that ‘US’ air strikes might well be carried out by British pilots.
Britain has many other military and intelligence assets in the region. Files leaked by Edward Snowden show that Britain has a network of three GCHQ spy bases in Oman – codenamed ‘Timpani’, ‘Guitar’ and ‘Clarinet’ – which tap in to various undersea cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf. These bases intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic on behalf of Western intelligence agencies, which information is then shared with the National Security Agency in the US.
The state of Qatar houses the anti-IS coalition’s Combined Air Operations Centre at Al Udeid airbase. The government says it has seven military personnel ‘permanently assigned to Qatar’ and an additional number of ‘temporary personnel’ working at the airbase. These are likely to be covert forces; the government says that ‘we do not discuss specific numbers for reasons of safeguarding operational security’.
Similarly, the government says it has six military personnel ‘permanently assigned’ to the United Arab Emirates and an additional number of ‘temporary personnel’ at the UAE’s Al Minhad airbase. Britain also has military assets at Manama harbour, Bahrain, whose repressive armed forces are also being secretly trained by British commandos.
Kenya and Turkey
Kenya hosts Britain’s Kahawa Garrishon barracks and Laikipia Air Base, from where thousands of troops who carry out military exercises in Kenya’s harsh terrain can be deployed on active operations in the Middle East. Turkey has also offered a base for British military training. In 2015, for example, Britain deployed several military trainers to Turkey as part of the US-led training programme in Syria, providing small arms, infantry tactics and medical training to rebel forces.
The web of deceit
When questioned about these covert activities, Ministers have two responses. One is to not to comment on special forces’ operations. The other is to lie, which has become so routine as to be official government policy. The reasoning is simple – the government believes the public simply has no right to know of these operations, let alone to influence them.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told parliament in July that the government is ‘committed to the convention that before troops are committed to combat the House of Commons should have an opportunity to debate the matter’. This is plainly not true, as the extent of British covert operations show.
Similarly, it was first reported in May that British troops were secretly engaged in combat in Libya. This news came two days after Fallon told MPs that Britain was not planning ‘any kind of combat role’ to fight IS in Libya.
There are many other examples of this straightforward web of deceit. In July 2016, the government issued six separate corrections to previous ministerial statements in which they claimed that Saudi Arabia is not targeting civilians or committing war crimes in Yemen. However, little noticed was that these corrections also claimed that ‘the UK is not a party’ to the conflict in Yemen. This claim is defied by various news reports in the public domain.
British foreign policy is in extreme mode, whereby Ministers do not believe they should be accountable to the public. This is the very definition of dictatorship. Although in some of these wars, Britain is combatting terrorist forces that are little short of evil, it is no minor matter that several UK interventions have encouraged these very same forces and prolonged wars, all the while being regularly disastrous for the people of the region. Britain’s absence of democracy needs serious and urgent challenging.
twitter – @markcurtis30
The reported decision by Asian Development Bank to lend $2.5 billion to Pakistan and be a collateral financier for upgrade of Lahore-Peshawar segment of the Karachi-Peshawar railway line is a significant development. India should analyse it carefully. (Business Standard )
Firstly, Karachi-Peshawar railway line upgrade falls within the ambit of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). That is to say, ADB is joining hands with China (which is the co-financier for the railway line upgrade) in a CPEC project.
Now, this is a big concessional loan ($2.5 billion at low interest rate less than 2 percent) and it wouldn’t have been possible without approval by Japan and the United States, which dominate ADB’s decision-making. We need to take note that Japan and the US are showing pragmatism here, given the reality that CPEC is a flag carrier of China’s One Belt One Road.
In sum, this is a political affirmation of their interest in Pakistan’s stability and development.
The other salience that emerges here is that it is an extremely untimely and counterproductive move on our part to raise dust on Baluchistan. It complicates India’s relations with not only Pakistan but also with China, considering that a significant segment of the CPEC activity is located in Baluchistan, and, equally, our campaign on Baluchistan will not get a sympathetic ear in the world capitals. It will only make us look small-minded and petulant.
Similar pragmatism toward One Belt One Road as ADB is showing also characterises the attitudes of Asian, Middle Eastern and European countries. No doubt, projects enhancing regional connectivity attract all countries. India probably stands out as solitary exception, in its perspective on One Belt One Road derived exclusively through the geopolitical prism.
Secondly, we need to take note that the CPEC is indeed going ahead despite the ‘hawks’ amongst us hoping against hope that it may not take off. The ADB loan itself wouldn’t have been forthcoming without expert opinion saluting the CPEC. The ADB decision has prompted China to fill in with an additional loan of $5.5 billion for the railway project, which now makes CPEC a $51.5 billion eighth wonder in the world.
Two things become clear. One, China is determined to build Pakistan’s infrastructure development and make its economy resilient. Clearly, it is a ‘win-win’ for China too for a variety of factors at work in regional politics and China’s own national strategies. Two, China usually puts its money (big or small) only where the mouth is, which means it is becoming a stakeholder in Pakistan’s future and prosperity with a long-term perspective.
And where China goes, the US and Japan are bound to follow. Simply put, Indian diplomacy runs into almost-impossible headwinds to ‘isolate’ Pakistan in the prevailing circumstances.
It is about time we wake up and put to ourselves some searching questions. Do we have the ghost of a chance to annex Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, as the present government is leading the domestic opinion to believe? To my mind, our government is whistling in the dark and leading the public opinion in a wrong direction.
Again, from a regional security point of view, if the POK and Northern Areas of Pakistan, which are hopelessly impoverished regions, are set on a path of infrastructure development and economic activity, there is less chance of them becoming the sanctuaries of terrorist groups. In fact, this is also one consideration China would have. Don’t we have a congruence of interests with China on regional security and stability in this regard? This is one thing.
Besides, if Pakistan integrates these regions politically, doesn’t it open up an interesting avenue to resolve the Kashmir problem? A realistic perspective would be that without any redrawing of boundaries as such, if the Line of Control gets legitimacy as an internationally recognised border – with Pakistan keeping the areas under its control and India keeping J&K as an integral part of it – won’t that be a basis of durable settlement?
Put differently, if Pakistan integrates Northern Areas and POK, it is tantamount to a unilateral move to ‘solve’ the Kashmir problem. We should actually applaud Pakistan if it goes on to integrate those regions just as it plans at present to integrate the tribal areas. Which in turn would also enable India to work out its own terms of integration of J&K in terms of our democratic principles.
Frankly, India’s paranoia over the CPEC has no rationality. It is based on contrived and often trivial arguments lacking basis and/or unsupported by empirical evidence or are outright falsehoods, which are assembled uncouthly with the ulterior motive to arrive at a certain pre-determined conclusion.
The name of the game is Sinophobia – to somehow complicate the Sino-Indian normalization itself. See a paper by the Vivekananda Foundation on the topic titled Implications of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The reported statement by former Israeli minister Diaspora Affairs Rabbi Michael Melchior that Saudi Arabia will open its doors to Israeli visitors “much sooner than you dream about” will not come as surprise. To be sure, a critical mass is developing in the secretive Saudi-Israeli intercourse.
The Saudi regime has been chary about links with Israel for fear of annoying the ‘Arab Street’, whereas, Israel has been all along eager to flaunt the breach in the Berlin Wall of Arab-Israeli conflict. But Saudis seem to estimate that the time has come to be open about the relationship.
The point is, if the raison d’etre of the dalliance is the ‘containment’ of Iran, it is resource-sharing. An open relationship is needed to optimally develop security and military cooperation. The Custodian of Holy Places seems to think the Muslim world will learn to live with his country’s strategic cooperation with Israel.
Well, the Palestine issue no longer poses hurdles, either. Arab Spring, conflicts in Syria and Iraq, military coup in Egypt, Saudi-Iranian rivalry, breakdown in Iran’s ties with Hamas, Islamic State – all these have relegated the Palestine issue to the backburner. Besides, Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas is on a tight American and Saudi leash. Abbas even received in Ramallah recently a Saudi delegation led by former general Anwar Majed Eshki who visited Jerusalem and met senior Israeli officials, including the head of the foreign ministry Dore Gold.
Again, Saudi Arabia’s keen interest in taking possession of two Red Sea islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba – Tiran and Sanafir – needs to be understood as a move to be Israel’s ‘neighbor’. Sanafir and Tiran sit at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, on a strategically important stretch of water called the Strait of Tiran, used by Israel to access Red Sea. King Salman personally camped in Cairo in April to persuade Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to transfer the two islands in lieu of a seductive multi-billion dollar offer to Sisi.
Indeed, both Saudi Arabia and Israel are making haste to position themselves for a new phase of the Middle East’s politics in the post-Barack Obama era. They expect Hillary Clinton to pick up the threads where George W. Bush left them — a muscular regional policy involving switch back to containment of Iran and resuscitation of the pivotal relationships with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel is willing to reconcile with the Iran nuclear deal. They are doing everything possible, no matter what it takes, to see that the deal gets derailed. On Saturday, Israeli Defence Ministry issued a harshly-worded statement slamming Obama and comparing the Iran deal with the 1938 Munich agreement to appease Hitler. (Jerusalem Post )
Equally, Saudis and Israelis have convergent interests in regard to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq — supporting extremist Sunni groups, promoting the Kurdistan project, creation of ‘spheres of influence’ on Syrian and Iraqi territory, and ultimately, entrapping Iran in a quagmire that will exhaust the regime.
The Saudi-Israeli strategic regional realignment is something that Washington historically encouraged. It is just the underpinning needed for creating a regional security architecture supported by the NATO’s network of partnerships with the GCC states under the canopy of a US missile shield.
Alas, Turkey too could have been a key partner in this enterprise, but for the failure of the July 15 coup. Israel looked distressed when it transpired that the coup failed. As for Saudi Arabia, it probably played a role in the failed coup. (Sputnik )
Without doubt, it is against a complex backdrop that the recent reports regarding Israel and Pakistan taking part in a major air exercise hosted by the US also needs to be viewed. Neither Islamabad nor Tel Avi has denied the reports. Of course, the US always encouraged a Pak-Israeli proximity. Now, the big question is: With Saudi Arabia establishing ties with Israel, can Pakistan be far behind? (Times of Israel )
From the Israeli, Saudi and American perspective, it is of utmost importance that Pakistan aligns with Saudi Arabia instead of remaining neutral in regard of Iran’s rise. Pakistan’s role is crucial to any major plans of destabilization of Iran.
Israel and Saudi Arabia pretended until recently that they have a special thing going with Moscow, too, with a view to create ‘strategic ambiguity’. Moscow played along, while making a strategic decision that Iran is its ‘natural ally’ in the Middle East. This is perfectly understandable, because in the ultimate analysis, Israel and Saudi Arabia are bit players only, while Iran (or Turkey for that matter) is an authentic regional power credited with a world view.
It is possible to see the Russia-Azerbaijan-Iran trilateral summit in Baku on Monday as a strategic counter-move by Moscow and Tehran.
The proposed North-South Transport Corridor is admittedly an old idea with a pronounced economic dimension, but in the present context, an access route for Russia to the Persian Gulf and Middle East via Iran’s territory becomes a geopolitical event of far-reaching significance in the regional alignment that is under way. (See my blog China’s One Belt One Road isn’t only show in town.)
Forbes in a report has hailed Iran’s success in the development of its gas industry and says the country can soon become a main rival over market access to key players like the United States.
The world’s leading business magazine says Iran owes the progress it has made in its gas industry to its high exploration success rate which it says stands at a whopping 79 percent.
The rate, it says, is specifically high given that the world’s average is only 30 to 35 percent.
The Forbes report further emphasizes that the progress in Iran’s gas industry could soon enable it to exploit the promising markets in India, Pakistan, Kuwait, and UAE.
It adds that the country’s planned reductions in subsidized pricing, which will help reduce wasteful usage, will free up more of its gas for exports.
Forbes further stresses that Iran’s plans to produce liquefied natural gas (LNG) will specifically have a prosperous future.
“Iran is currently working on several options to join the same ‘international LNG club’ that the US is also joining,” wrote Forbes in its report. “And Europe is the mid- and long-term target. Europe’s gas demand is projected to increase 15-20 percent by 2025. This means that Iran is competition for the US”.
The report emphasizes that Iran’s LNG plans are expected to become operational after 2020, adding that the country could benefit from the growing demand over the succeeding years particularly given that Europe’s gas demand, for example, is projected to increase 15-20% by 2025.
The US government today claimed it has killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in 473 counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015.
This is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian casualty range recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports by local and international journalists, NGO investigators, leaked government documents, court papers and the result of field investigations.
While the number of civilian casualties recorded by the Bureau is six times higher than the US Government’s figure, the assessments of the minimum total number of people killed were strikingly similar. The White House put this figure at 2,436, whilst the Bureau has recorded 2,753.
Since becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama has significantly extended the use of drones in the War on Terror. Operating outside declared battlefields, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, this air war has been largely fought in Pakistan and Yemen.
The White House’s announcement today is long-awaited. It comes three years after the White House first said it planned to publish casualty figures, and four months after President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the data would be released.
The figures released do not include civilians killed in drones strikes that happened under George W Bush, who instigated the use of counter-terrorism strikes outside declared war zones and in 58 strikes killed 174 reported civilians.
Today’s announcement is intended to shed light on the US’s controversial targeted killing programme, in which it has used drones to run an arms-length war against al Qaeda and Islamic State.
The US Government also committed to continued transparency saying it will provide an annual summary of information about the number of strikes against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities as well as the range of combatants and non-combatants killed.
But the US has not released a year-by-year breakdown of strikes nor provided any detail on particularly controversial strikes which immediately sparked criticism from civil liberty groups.
Jamel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union said: “While any disclosure of information about the government’s targeted-killing policies is welcome, the government should be releasing information about every strike—the date of the strike, the location, the numbers of casualties, and the civilian or combatant status of those casualties. Perhaps this kind of information should be released after a short delay, rather than immediately, but it should be released. The public has a right to know who the government is killing—and if the government doesn’t know who it’s killing, the public should know that.”
The gap between US figures and other estimates, including the Bureau’s data, also raised concerns.
Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve said: “For three years now, President Obama has been promising to shed light on the CIA’s covert drone programme. Today, he had a golden opportunity to do just that. Instead, he chose to do the opposite. He published numbers that are hundreds lower than even the lowest estimates by independent organisations. The only thing those numbers tell us is that this Administration simply doesn’t know who it has killed. Back in 2011, it claimed to have killed “only 60” civilians. Does it really expect us to believe that it has killed only 4 more civilians since then, despite taking hundreds more strikes?
“The most glaring absence from this announcement are the names and faces of those civilians that have been killed. Today’s announcement tells us nothing about 14 year old Faheem Qureshi, who was severely injured in Obama’s first drone strike. Reports suggest Obama knew he had killed civilians that day.”
The US government said in a statement: “First, although there are inherent limitations on determining the precise number of combatant and non-combatant deaths, particularly when operating in non-permissive environments, the US Government uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over years and that use information that is generally unavailable to non-government organsations.”
Bibi Mamana was a grandmother and midwife living in the the tribal region of North Waziristan on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.
On October 24 2012, she was preparing for the Muslim festival of Eid. She used to say that the joy of Eid was the excitement it brought to children. Her eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela was reported to be in a field with her as she gathered vegetables when a drone killed Mamana.
“I saw the first two missiles coming through the air,” Nabeela later told The Times. “They were following each other with fire at the back. When they hit the ground, there was a loud noise. After that I don’t remember anything.” Nabeela was injured by flying shrapnel.
At the sound of the explosion, Mamana’s 18-year-old grandson Kaleem ran from the house to help. But a few minutes later the drones struck again, he told the BBC. He was knocked unconscious. His leg was badly broken and damaged by shrapnel, and needed surgery.
Atiq, one of Mamana’s sons, was in the mosque as Manama gathered vegetables. On hearing the blast and seeing the plume of smoke he rushed to the scene. When he arrived he could not see any sign of his mother.
“I started calling out for her but there was no reply,” Atiq told the Times. “Then I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards. It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected many different parts from the field and put a turban over her body.”
Atiq’s brother Rafiq told Al Jazeera English he received a letter after the strike from a Pakistani official that said the attack was a US drone strike and that Mamana was innocent. But nothing more came of it, he said. The following year Rafiq, a teacher, travelled to the US to speak to Congress about the strike.
“My job is to educate,” he said in an emotional testimony. “But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand?”
Picture credit: BBC
Evaluating the numbers
The administration has called its drone programme a precise, effective form of warfare that targets terrorists and rarely hits civilians.
With the release of the figures today President Obama said, “All armed conflict invites tragedy. But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”
In June 2011 Obama’s then counter terrorism chief, now CIA director, John Brennan made a similar statement. He also declared drones strikes were “exceptionally precise and surgical” and had not killed a single civilian since August 2010. A Bureau investigation in July 2011 demonstrated this claim was untrue.
Most of the Bureau’s data sources are media reports by local and international news outlets, including Reuters, Associated Press and The New York Times.
The US Government suggests it has a much clearer view of post-strike situations than such reporting, suggesting this is the reason why there is such a gap between the numbers that have been recorded by the Bureau, and similar organisations, and those released today.
But the Bureau has also gathered essential information from its own field investigations.
The tribal areas have long been considered a difficult if not impossible area for journalists to access. However, occasionally reporters have been able to gain access to the site of the strikes to interview survivors, witnesses and relatives of people killed in drone strikes.
The Bureau conducted a field investigation through the end of 2011 into 2012, in partnership with The Sunday Times. Through extensive interviews with local villagers, the Bureau found 12 strikes killed 57 civilians.
The Associated Press also sent reporters into the Fata, reporting its findings in February 2012. It found 56 civilians and 138 militants were killed in 10 strikes.
Access to affected areas is a challenge in Yemen too. But in December 2009 a deputation of Yemeni parliamentarians sent to the scene of a strike discovered the burnt remnants of a camp, which had been set up by several families from one of Yemen’s poorest tribes.
A subsequent investigation by journalist Jeremy Scahill revealed a deception that hid US responsibility for the deaths of 41 civilians at the camp – half of them children, five of them pregnant women.
The reality on the ground flew in the face of the US government’s understanding of events. A leaked US diplomatic record of a meeting in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, between General David Petraeus and the Yemeni president revealed the US government was ignorant of the civilian death toll.
Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber
Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a 40-year-old father of seven, was exactly the kind of man the US needed in Yemen. A widely respected cleric in rural Yemen, he delivered sermons in his village mosque denouncing al-Qaida.
He gave just such a speech in August 2012 and earned the attention of the terrorist group. Three anonymous fighters arrived in his village two days later, after dark, calling for Jaber to come out and talk.
He went to meet them, taking his policeman cousin, Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, with him for protection. The five men stood arguing in the night air when Hellfire missiles tore into them.
A “huge explosion” rocked the village, a witness said. Jaber’s father, Ahmad bin Salim Salih bin Ali Jaber, 77, arrived on the scene to find people “wrapping up body parts of people from the ground, from here and there, putting them in grave clothes like lamb.”
All the dead were al Qaeda fighters, unnamed Yemeni officials claimed. However Jaber’s family refused to allow him to be smeared as a terrorist.
For three years they fought in courts in America and Germany for recognition that he was an innocent civilian. In November 2013 they visited Washington and even managed to arrange a meeting in the White House to plead their case. In 2014 the family said it was offered a bag containing $100,000 by a Yemen national security official. The official said it was a US strike and it had been a mistake.
By late 2015 the family offered to drop their lawsuits against the US government if the administration would apologise. The Department of Justice refused. In February 2016 the court dismissed the family’s suit but they have not stopped fighting: in April they announced they would appeal.
Picture credit: Private
Falling numbers of civilian casualties
The White House stressed that it was concerned to protect civilians and that best practices were in place to help reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties.
The Bureau’s data does show a significant decline in the reports of civilian casualties in recent years.
In Pakistan, where the largest number of strikes have occurred, there have been only three reported civilian casualties since the end of 2012. Two of these casualties – Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto – were Western hostages held by al Qaeda. The US, unaware they were targeting the American and Italian’s captors, flattened the house they were being held in.
The accidental killing of a US citizen spurred Obama to apologise for the strike – the first and only time he had publicly discussed a specific CIA drone strike in Pakistan. With the apology of a “condolence payment to both the families,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told the Bureau. However, they have yet to receive any compensation from the US government for their loss.
Families who have lost relatives in Pakistan have not reported being compensated for their loss. In Yemen, money has been given to families for their loss but it is not clear whether it actually comes from the US. The money is disbursed by Yemeni government intermediaries, nominally from the Yemeni government’s coffers.
Tariq Khan was a 16-year-old from North Waziristan who attended a high-profile anti-drone rally in Islamabad in October 2011. Only days later, he and his cousin were killed in a drone strike.Tariq was the youngest of seven children. He was described by relatives as a quiet teenager who was good with computers. His uncle Noor Kalam said: “He was just a normal boy who loved football.”
On 27 October, Tariq made the eight-hour drive to Islamabad for a meeting convened by Waziri elders to discuss how to end civilian deaths in drone strikes. The Pakistani politician Imran Khan, his former wife Jemima, members of the legal campaign group Reprieve and several western journalists also attended the meeting.
Neil Williams from Reprieve said Tariq seemed very introverted at the meeting. He asked the boy if he had ever seen a drone. Tariq replied he saw 10 or 15 every day. He said they prevented him from sleeping. “He looked absolutely terrified,” Williams said.
After a four-hour debate, the audience joined around 2,000 people at a protest rally outside the Pakistani parliament. After the rally, the tribesmen made the long journey home. The day after he got back, Tariq and his cousin Wahid went to pick up his newly married aunt, according a Bureau reporter who met Tariq at the Islamabad meeting. When they were 200 yards from the house two missiles slammed into their car. The blast killed Tariq and Wahid instantly.
Some reports suggested Wahid was 12 years old.
An anonymous US official acknowledged the CIA had launched the strike but denied they were children. The occupants of that car were militants, he said.
Picture credit: Neil Williams/Reprieve
Most of the dead from CIA strikes in Pakistan are unnamed Pakistanis and Afghans, according to Naming the Dead – a research project by the Bureau. Over three years the Bureau has painstakingly gathered names of the dead from US drone strikes in Pakistan. The project has recorded just 732 names of people killed since 2004 – 329 of which were civilians.
The fact that so many people are unnamed adds to the confusion about who has been killed.
A controversial US tactic, signature strikes, demonstrates how identities of the dead, and their status as a combatant or non-combatant, eludes the US. These strikes target people based on so-called pattern of life analysis, built from surveillance and intelligence but not the actual identity of a person.
And the CIA’s own records leaked to the news agency McClatchy show the US is sometimes not only ignorant of the identities of people it has killed, but also of the armed groups they belong to. They are merely listed as “other militants” and “foreign fighters” in the leaked records.
Former Deputy US Secretary of State, Richard Armitage outlined his unease with such internal reporting in an interview with Chris Woods for his book Sudden Justice. “Mr Obama was popping up with these drones left, right and down the middle, and I would read these accounts, ’12 insurgents killed.’ ’15!’ You don’t know that. You don’t know that. They could be insurgents, they could be cooks.”