The Financial Times recently reported that Nobel Peace Prize recipient Barack Obama has conducted ten times more drone strikes than his predecessor George W. Bush. As far as we can tell, that number is somewhere in the ballpark of 500 strikes and spans a wide array of countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. We can’t know for sure exactly how many drone attacks have taken place, who is conducting them, how many people have been killed by them, or how many other countries have been victim.
It’s important to Obama that the extent of his drone wars remain secret. His peaceful veneer would quickly disintegrate if we had an accurate Obama-death-toll. Drone wars have been kept so secret, in fact, that Obama’s former Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, revealed that he was instructed not to acknowledge or discuss their existence. A handful of investigative journalist groups like The Long War Journal have been left conducting important but difficult guess work about Obama’s drone wars, as if putting together a large puzzle one small piece at a time.
All the while, the American public is left clueless as to the activities being conducted in their name. Obama proclaims that “a decade of war is over,” while behind the scenes he expands the scope of the War on Terror. As a result of our being kept largely ignorant of our government’s actions, we are all the more astounded when the consequences of such wars come to fruition.
The phenomenon of blowback results from the American government’s actions abroad which cause tremendous resentment within local populations. When retaliation for these actions arrives at our shores or against Americans abroad, as it inevitably does, the American public is shocked and appalled, wondering what could possibly prompt such heinous actions. Hungry for answers, Americans are then fed simple explanations by politicians, such as, “they hate our way of life,” or “their religion commands them to commit such acts.” Never are we provided the context in which such reprisals occur. And because so many Americans willingly accept the state’s spoon-fed version of events, they largely tolerate a domestic police and surveillance state that is said to keep them safe from such “terrorists.”
Tribal areas of Afghanistan surveyed about the psychological effects of drones reveal a people living in terror, unable to sleep, with children often kept home from school for fear they’ll be targeted. Though generally out of sight, drones can constantly be heard buzzing overhead, creating a persistent state of fear. Despite our being told of the precision of drone strikes, subject populations have described massive civilian casualties and widespread destruction of property.
Consequently, large swaths of these foreign populations living under drones view the United States in a negative light. One Pew Research Center study found that three quarters of Pakistanis now view Americans as the enemy. One would expect similar numbers from the many other countries across the Middle East and Africa in which America now conducts drone strikes. Blowback is not limited to those directly terrorized by drones either. General Stanley McChrystal stated “resentment created by [drones] … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
Though it’s shrouded in secrecy, this new form of American warfare will be Obama’s legacy. The “sanitization” of war offered by drones (introduced on a grand scale by Obama) all but ensures America will never again be without foreign conflict at the hands of crazed politicians. As drone technology continues to improve, the rest of the world will be more at risk of attack by the American war machine, and Americans less safe as a result. As Obama’s time in the White House winds down, let’s remember that he escalated the War on Terror. He’s offered his successors the safety of precedent to fall back on and opened new frontiers for American military demolition. Barack Obama had the opportunity to curtail America’s destructiveness around the world, and instead, he amplified it.
Seven months ago, UK Prime Minister David Cameron lamented the “sickening murder” of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kaseasbeh by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). President Barack Obama also decried the “viciousness and barbarity” of the act. In his home country, al-Kaseasbeh was remembered as a “hero” and a “martyr” by government officials. Obama even declared his murder demonstrated ISIS’s “bankrupt” ideology. The killing was seen by the Western coalition and allied Arab monarchies fighting ISIS as a symbol of the evilness of their enemies, and by contrast the righteousness of their own cause.
The act that precipitated such a strong outpouring was the purported execution of the 26-year-old al-Kaseasbeh. He was burned alive inside a cage after several months in captivity. As part of ISIS’s propaganda campaign, they posted the video on Youtube. The authenticity of the video has since been questioned, but there is no doubt that regardless of the method used, he was indeed killed.
Al-Kaseasbeh was not an innocent civilian. In fact, he was a pilot in the Royal Jordanian Air Force who was bombing territory controlled by ISIS in an F-16 fighter jet. That is to say, he was an active combatant in military hostilities. His combatant status would be equivalent to an ISIS pilot (if they had an Air Force) apprehended after bombing New York City or London. Though it was reported in the British newspaper The Telegraph that al-Kaseasbeh was “kidnapped,” a military combatant engaged in armed conflict on the battlefield cannot be kidnapped. He was captured.
According to the Geneva Conventions, Prisoners of War enjoy protected status that guarantees their humane treatment and eventual release at the end of hostilities. “POWs cannot be prosecuted for taking a direct part in hostilities. Their detention is not a form of punishment, but only aims to prevent further participation in the conflict. They must be released and repatriated without delay after the end of hostilities,” writes the International Committee of the Red Cross.
ISIS would have no legal grounds to kill al-Kaseasbeh, but it was cynical and sanctimonious for the Western coalition to react with such outrage when he was killed. Those same countries have embraced and celebrated summary assassinations and executions on a scale far more massive than anything ISIS could ever be capable of.
Several weeks ago, Cameron ordered the assassination of two British citizens in Syria alleged to be ISIS militants.
“The strike against British citizen Reyaad Khan, the ‘target of the strike,’ was committed without approval from Parliament. British citizen Ruhul Amin, who was killed in the strike, was deemed an ‘associate’ worthy of death,” writes Kevin Gosztola in Shadowproof.
The British government has not declared war on Syria and has not released any legal justification for its actions. Naturally, any legal documentation they did produce would be merely psuedo-legal cover that would never withstand real judicial scrutiny.
Cameron’s actions in ordering the murder of his own citizens follows the well-treaded path of Obama, whose large-scale drone program in as many as seven countries (none of which the US Congress has declared war on) have killed more than 2,500 people in six years. The President has quipped that he is “really good at killing people.”
By any measure, the drone assassination program has been wildly reckless and ineffective. One study determined that missile strikes from unmanned drones, launched by remote-control jockeys in air-controlled trailers in the American desert, kill 28 unknown people for every intended target. In Pakistan, a study revealed that only 4% of those killed have been identified as members of al Qaeda.
Among the victims have been 12 people on their way to a wedding in Yemen, and a 13-year-old boy who said that he lived in constant fear of “death machines” that had already killed his father and brother before taking his own life.
“A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from then and some now have mental problems. They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep,” the now-deceased boy, Mohammed Tuaiman, told The Guardian.
Before Cameron did so, Obama also targeted citizens of his own country for assassination without trial. The most well known case is of Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a drone strike in 2011. The government claimed he was operationally active in al-Qaeda, but this was never tested in court.
“It is likely the real reason Anwar al-Awlaki was killed is that he was seen as a radicalizer whose ideological activities were capable of driving Western Muslims to terrorist violence,” writes Arun Kundnani in The Muslims Are Coming!.
In other words, the Obama administration decided his speech was not protected by the 1st amendment to the US Constitution, and rather than being obligated to test this theory in court they unilaterally claimed the right to assassinate him, the way King John of England would have been able to order the execution of one of his subjects before signing the Magna Carta 800 years ago.
Three weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was killed in a drone strike. An Obama adviser justified the strike by saying he should have “had a more responsible father.”
Writing on his blog, former British security services officer Craig Murray claims that in light of the decision 20 years ago by the European Court of Human Rights that targeted assassinations when an attack was no imminent were illegal, the British government cannot claim its drone strike in Syria “is anything other than murder.”
“For the government to claim the right to kill British people through sci-fi execution, based on highly unreliable secret intelligence and a secret declaration of legality, is so shocking I find it difficult to believe it is happening even as I type the words. Are we so cowed as to accept this?” Murray writes.
So what makes ISIS’s killing supposedly morally outrageous compared to the US and British drone strikes?
Was ISIS’s killing less morally justified? Al-Kaseasbeh was a combatant who had been dropping bombs on the people who eventually killed him. That much is beyond dispute. The US and UK kill people through drone strikes merely for being suspected militants who might one day seek to attack those countries.
Were ISIS’s methods less humane? Certainly burning a human being alive is sadistic and cruel. But is it any less so to incinerate a human being by a Hellfire missile? Former drone operator Brandon Bryant told NBC News that he saw his victim “running forward, he’s missing his right leg… And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.” Is a drone strike less cruel because the operator is thousands of miles away from the bloodshed and watching on a screen rather than in person?
Were ISIS’s actions terrorism while the US/UK actions were not? As the late Mohammed Tuaiman attested, he and his neighbors were terrified by the omnipresence of the “death machines” that could at any second of the day blow him to pieces without warning or the possibility of escape. Were the people in ISIS controlled territory as terrorized as Tuaiman by the burning of the Jordanian pilot, who was specifically targeted because he had been caught after bombing the same people who now held him captive? Surely they were not more terrorized, though perhaps they might have been equally so.
It would by hypocritical to justify one form of extrajudicial killing while demonizing another. Yet that is exactly what happens when one form of violence is undertaken by a state and another is not. The New York Times is indicative of broader public opinion when it decries the “fanatical vision” of ISIS that has “shocked and terrified the peoples of Iraq and Syria,” while accepting Obama’s rationalizations of deaths via drone strikes as collateral damage, maintaining only that he should “provide a fuller accounting” to enable an “informed debate.”
The apologies for state violence enable the shredding of the rule of law as a method of accountability for those in power, while other states take advantage of technical advances to proliferate their own sci-fi violence against their own citizens and others.
“Pakistan is the latest member of a growing technological club of nations: those who have successfully weaponized drones,” writes Spencer Ackerman in The Guardian. “In addition to the US, UK and Israel, a recent New America Foundation report highlighted credible accounts that Iran, South Africa, France, China and Somalia possess armed drones, as do the terrorist groups [sic] Hamas and Hezbollah. Russia says it is working on its own model.”
One day in the not too distant future, the skies across the world may be full of drones from every country dispensing justice from Miami to Mumbai via Hellfire Missiles, relegating the rule of law and its method of trial by jury to the ash heap of history. And it will not be because of terrorist groups like ISIS that governments and the media are so forceful to condemn, but because of governments themselves and their lapdogs in the media who refuse to apply the same standards in judging violence to states that have their own Air Forces.
Reprieve | September 13, 2015
The UK Government has refused to confirm whether UK pilots have been involved in flying covert US drone strikes over Pakistan, withholding the information requested by legal charity Reprieve on grounds of ‘international relations.’
Reprieve had made Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to the Ministry of Defence asking two questions: whether the UK had flown drone missions over Pakistan; and whether British pilots ‘embedded’ in US units had done so. While the UK Government confirmed that it had not itself conducted such strikes in response to the first question, it said it would ‘neither confirm nor deny’ (NCND) whether British embedded pilots had done so.
This position is at odds with recent comments made by the UK Defence Secretary to the effect that the Government would answer questions about the activities of embedded personnel when asked. In the wake of revelations that British pilots had flown strikes in Syrian territory while embedded with the US Air Force, Michael Fallon said that “if we are asked to give details [on embeds] we of course do so.”
The new evidence of potential UK involvement in the US’ drone programme in Pakistan comes in the week of David Cameron’s announcement of a new UK ‘targeted killing’ policy which closely mirrors that carried out by the American Government. The US programme – which has been running for over a decade – has seen hundreds of strikes taken and hundreds of civilians killed. The latter is due in large part to faulty intelligence, which has seen strikes miss their intended target with the effect that individual alleged militants have often been reported ‘killed’ on multiple occasions.
The US programme – which is justified on the same basis as that of the UK, and carried out using the same technology – has also come in for heavy criticism from senior American defence and intelligence figures, who argue it has proved counter-productive. General Michael Flynn, former head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, has described it as a “failed strategy,” while General Stanley McChrystal has warned it creates “ resentment” towards “American arrogance.”
The UK Government has consistently refused in the past to comment on drone strikes in Pakistan, saying that they are a matter for “the states involved.” For British personnel to have been involved in the strikes would go far beyond the picture of the drones programme that the Government has so far presented to the British public and Parliament.
Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer at Reprieve, said: “This refusal suggests that we may be embroiled in the CIA’s secret wars in far greater ways than was thought. Given the CIA’s drone programme in Pakistan has killed hundreds of civilians while operating without public accountability, that is cause for serious concern. What more don’t we know?”
“Numerous senior military and intelligence figures have warned that secret drone programmes of this kind can actually make the situation worse, not better. Before heading down this path, we need a real debate, and real answers from the PM. We need to think very carefully about whether giving our government carte blanche to kill people anywhere in the world, without oversight, is really a good idea.”
A US MQ-9 Reaper assassination drone
Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, who is seeking Democratic nomination for the 2016 US presidential election, says he will continue the Pentagon’s assassination drone program.
In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Sanders said that he would limit the use of US terror drones, but said that he would not end the targeted killing campaign.
“I think we have to use drones very, very selectively and effectively. That has not always been the case,” Sanders said.
“What you can argue is that there are times and places where drone attacks have been effective,” he added.
“There are times and places where they have been absolutely counter-effective and have caused more problems than they have solved. When you kill innocent people, what the end result is that people in the region become anti-American who otherwise would not have been,” said the junior senator from Vermont.
Since 2001, the United States has been carrying out drone attacks in several countries, including Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia.
The aerial attacks were initiated by former US President George W. Bush but have been escalated under President Barack Obama.
Former US drone operator Brandon Bryant, who was involved in the killing of more than 1,600 people, revealed earlier this year that aerial strikes are conducted with complete uncertainty.
Bryant, who worked for almost five years in America’s secret drone program bombing targets in Afghanistan and other countries, such as Pakistan and Iraq, said operators lacked visibility and were not sure about the identity of the people they were shooting at.
“We see silhouette, shadows of people, and we kill those shadows,” he said.
Mumbai atrocities enabled by intelligence operations of India, Pakistan and the United States
A senior Indian police officer and anti-corruption investigator last month accused the Indian government of orchestrating the Mumbai terror attacks which occurred nearly seven years ago, according to an Indian government official.
R. V. S. Mani, a former undersecretary in India’s home ministry now in the urban development ministry, testified in July that a senior police officer who investigated the 2004 ‘encounter killings’ of four Indian Muslims in Gujarat by the Ahmedabad Police Crime Branch, had told him that the 2008 Mumbai attacks were “set up” by the Indian government.
The police officer, Satish Verma — currently Principal at the Police Training College in Junagadh — is well-known for his secondment to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), India’s elite anti-corruption law enforcement agency, to lead the probe into the 2004 ‘encounter killings.’
The 2004 victims were Ishrat Jahan Raza, a 19-year-old girl from Mumbra, Maharashtra, and three men — Pranesh Pillai (alias Javed Gulam Sheikh), Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar. Gujarat police authorities with the support of Indian government officials claimed that the killings were justified due to credible intelligence linking the four to Islamist terrorists.
Anti-corruption investigator blames government for terror
According to Mani, who has signed affidavits submitted to court on the encounter killings, Satish Verma privately accused successive Indian governments of “orchestrating” not only the Mumbai terror attacks, but also the December 2001 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi.
Verma made the allegations while questioning Mani on Indian government claims that intelligence proved Ishrat Jahan’s links to Islamist terrorists. According to the Times of India, the former home ministry official revealed in his affidavits that Verma had said the terror attacks were set up by the government “with the objective of strengthening the counter-terror legislation.”
Verma allegedly claimed that:
“… the 13.12. 2001 (attack on Parliament) was followed by Pota (Prevention of Terrorist Activities Act) and 26/11 2008 (terrorists’ siege of Mumbai) was followed by amendment to the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act).”
According to the Times, Verma refused to confirm or deny Mani’s account of his allegations. “I cannot speak to the media on such matters. Ask the CBI,” he said.
Neither Verma or Mani could be reached for comment.
The allegations have been used by the Indian government to cast doubt on Verma’s role in the CBI investigation
This is not the first time that the Indian government has attempted to use Verma’s work against him. In April last year, Verma complained before India’s Central Administrative Tribune that he was a target of government harassment due to its “intense dislike” of his work investigating the Israt Jahan fake encounter case, and the Gujarat government’s role in it.
Staged counter-terror operation
All three incidents — the 2001 attack on Parliament, 2004 ‘encounter killings’ and the 2011 Mumbai attacks — have been linked to terrorists from the al-Qaeda affiliated Pakistan-based group Lashkar-e-Taiba, which also has close ties to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).
The CBI’s investigation into the controversial 2004 ‘encounter killings’ found that they had been “staged” by Gujarat police forces, concluding there was no evidence justifying claims that Ishrat Jahan and her fellow victims were members of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The verdict, outlined in the CBI’s 2013 charge sheet, stated that the police attacks were carried out in cold blood, and “staged” by Gujarat police and the government’s Intelligence Bureau (IB):
“The above said fake encounter was a result of Joint operation of Gujarat Police and SIB [State Intelligence Bureau], Ahmedabad. In this operation the overt acts committed by the accused Gujarat Police officers have been established by the evidence on record.”
The CBI chargesheet corroborated the conclusions of an earlier investigation by an Ahmedabad Metropolitan court, which in 2009 had determined the killings were staged Gujarat intelligence and police officials.
Gujarat authorities claim that IB intelligence showed that Ishrat and the other men were planning to assassinate Modi on behalf of Lashkar-e-Taiba.
But according to the CBI probe, “the four people were illegally confined at three different farmhouses for days before the encounter on June 15, 2004.” India’s NDTV reported that the CBI probe had confirmed that weapons found near their bodies, including an AK-56, “were supplied by the Intelligence Bureau.”
India’s Intelligence Bureau: creating terror to fight terror
The Indian state of Gujarat, where incumbent Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi was chief minister during this period, is home to a sizeable Muslim minority.
Reviewing the CBI charge sheet and related evidence, Indian journalists Hartosh Singh Bal and Mihir Srivastava noted that the CBI probe had confirmed the role of senior Indian IB officials, “including at least in one case the then IB head in Gujarat, Rajinder Kumar,” who is close to Narenda Modi.
Bal and Srivastava interviewed several senior IB officials who confirmed that “the Ishrat Jahan case was a successful IB operation,” but denied that the encounter victims were disassociated from terrorism.
“The encounter was fake no doubt, according to them, but the information that Ishrat and the other three were part of a larger terror network was true. They went on to say that this was a successful intelligence operation, as the IB was able to infiltrate their sleeper cell and plant informers.”
Bal and Srivastava’s account of one of these interviews provides further alarming evidence of the extent to which counter-terrorism intelligence operations can facilitate terrorism. One high-level Intelligence Bureau executive told the pair:
“… there are hundreds of operations underway at any point of time where an informer has been planted in a sleeper network. This involves being in the company of drug and arms dealers, fake currency smugglers, explosive experts and contract killers. Some operations involve working with the mafia and dealing in and supplying arms. There are safe houses in which certain terrorists are kept, briefed and debriefed, then pushed back into the terror network to extricate information.”
In one particularly alarming passage, the journalists recount that IB officials confirm about 5,000 telephone numbers are being monitored in Delhi. On “special occasions” Indian intelligence services make bespoke IB simcards “available to terror networks and sleeper cells to monitor their activities…
“There have been a few cases where attacks were carried out by terrorists using IB simcards. ‘If these cases were to be investigated, the CBI would say the IB carried out terror attacks. We have a job at hand,’ says the IB official.”
In this context, the revelation that CBI Israt Jahan probe member Satish Verma reportedly accuses the Indian government of facilitating other terrorist attacks linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba raises fundamental questions about the extent to which the lack of democratic oversight over intelligence methods is compromising national security.
The triple cross behind the Mumbai atrocity
Those questions are also relevant in light of the fact that alleged Mumbai attack terror mastermind, David Coleman Headley, was a longtime CIA asset and triple agent.
A previous Times of India investigation in late 2013 found that Headley, who had worked for the CIA for eleven years, had penetrated Lashkar-e-Taiba on behalf of the US intelligence agency and collaborated closely with senior Pakistani ISI officials in planning the Mumbai attacks, which killed 166 people and wounded 304.
Senior intelligence officials from a US Joint Terrorism Task Force described Headley as a “prized counter-terrorism asset,” whose “proximity” to the attack plans allowed the CIA to repeatedly tip off their Indian counterparts. But, the report revealed, despite his instrumental role in creating and executing those plans, Headley “was allowed to remain in place even as the attack was realized.”
A US intelligence official with expertise on Afghanistan and Pakistan denied that Headley was ever connected to the CIA on condition of anonymity.
Yet Headley’s intimate ties to the US intelligence community emerged in the 2011 Chicago terror trial of Headley’s alleged co-conspirator in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, Tahawwur Rana, during which Rana’s attorney Charlie Swift described Headley as a “master manipulator” who worked simultaneously for the US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA), the CIA and Pakistan’s ISI.
Those allegations raised in court were vindicated when Swift obtained a ‘not guilty’ verdict for Rana for the Mumbai attacks, although Rana was instead convicted of providing support to Lashkar-e-Taiba.
According to the Times of India investigation by British journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, the Americans wanted to keep Headley running due to how he had gained the trust of a senior al-Qaeda operative, who was close to Osama bin Laden and among the al-Qaeda chief’s potential successors:
“Indian intelligence agents accused their US counterparts of protecting Headley and leaving him in the field, despite the imminent threat to Mumbai. Irate Indian officials claimed that Headley’s Mumbai plot was allowed to run on by his US controllers, as to spool it in would have jeopardized his involvement in another critical US operation.”
The CIA, on the other hand, pointed the finger straight back at India. One senior CIA official accused Indian intelligence of “incompetence” for failing to act on the US agency’s multiple detailed warnings of an impending Islamist assault on Mumbai.
Although many of the US bulletins even reached police authorities patrolling Mumbai, the intelligence warnings were “ignored or downplayed” by Indian officials according to the Times.
Ironically, both the CIA and Indian accusations and counter-accusations all appear to bear significant merit. US officials have maintained a studious silence on David Headley and his CIA patronage to this day, refusing to throw light on the conflict of interest that enabled the Mumbai terror mastermind to “run amok in the field,” in the words of the Times.
Simultaneously, the lack of an in-depth Indian government postmortem into the Mumbai attacks has permitted Indian intelligence agencies to evade awkward questions about their failure to pursue the CIA’s leads on the unfolding plot.
It is not just the Pakistani ISI, then, that has scrambled to cover-up its complicity in the Mumbai attacks. American and Indian intelligence agencies are also busy playing the blame game while maneuvering to conceal their own dubious roles in running ill-conceived intelligence operations enabling the terror attacks.
When under interrogation by Indian police, Headley was under the supervision of FBI officials at all times. Under his plea bargain with US authorities, he agreed to say no more than what he first confessed to the FBI, and in return will avoid the death penalty in the US, as well as extradition to India or Pakistan.
Confidential Indian intelligence records show that Headley had three local contacts on the ground in Mumbai who assisted him with his surveillance and reconnaissance activities in preparation for the terror plot. Yet for reasons unknown, Indian authorities chose not to investigate Headley’s local connections as identified in these files.
Even Headley’s alleged Pakistani handler, ISI officer Sajid Mir (also known as Sajeed Majeed) who played a major role in the Mumbai attacks, continues to operate with impunity.
This has not stopped US and Indian intelligence agencies from giving each other a helping hand where it counts, while still pointing fingers.
Under US supervision and constrained by the terms of his plea bargain, Headley told Indian intelligence officers who had flown to Chicago in July 2010 that Israt Jahan was a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s suicide bomb squad.
Yet Headley’s reconnaissance missions for Lashkar began two years after Jahan and three other men were killed in the ‘fake encounter’, staged by Indian authorities according to a CBI investigation.
Headley’s claim was leapt on by Gujarat authorities to justify their story of the 2004 encounter killings.
Both US and Indian authorities, it seems, are keen to discredit the shocking conclusions of the CBI’s anti-corruption investigators.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an investigative journalist, bestselling author and international security scholar. A former Guardian writer, he writes the ‘System Shift’ column for VICE’s Motherboard, and is also a columnist for Middle East Eye.
He is the winner of a 2015 Project Censored Award, known as the ‘Alternative Pulitzer Prize’, for Outstanding Investigative Journalism for his Guardian work, and was selected in the Evening Standard’s ‘Power 1,000’ most globally influential Londoners.
Nafeez has also written for The Independent, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Scotsman, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, Prospect, New Statesman, Le Monde diplomatique, New Internationalist, Counterpunch, Truthout, among others. He is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Faculty of Science and Technology at Anglia Ruskin University.
Nafeez is the author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It (2010).
WASHINGTON — The US armed forces are using a growing number of mercenaries or contractors to operate lethal drone attacks as regular troops are increasingly unwilling to do so, experts told Sputnik.
“‘Private contractors’, mercenaries, have been involved in US drone surveillance and attack for some time, certainly with the CIA, and most probably not only in intelligence analysis, but also in the roles of pilots and sensor operators,” KnowDrones.com Coordinator Nick Mottern told Sputnik on Friday.
The sensor operators are the people who pull the trigger to launch Hellfire missiles and bombs, he said.
Mottern noted the need to hire mercenaries indicates that the US military is not able, for whatever reason, to find enough people within its ranks to do such work.
“This is… because it is involving an increasing amount of killing, and, I suspect, an increasing amount of PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder].”
The situation, Mottern continued, presents a major legal problem for the contracting companies and the military alike, because of the question who should be held accountable for the killing going on conducted by drones.
“[T]he critical decisions of identifying ‘the enemy’ are being made by civilians who are under no official chain of command,” he added.
All drone killing remains clearly in violation of international law and US domestic law against assassination, Mottern pointed out.
Yet, “here we have the US paying civilians to do illegal killing without even the legal accountability applied to the US military,” he said. “[T]he mercenaries are accountable only to their employers who most assuredly are encouraging high kill totals to ensure continued contracts. “
This lack of accountability and of any clear chain of command “obviously means dramatically increased jeopardy for the people under surveillance and drone attack; that is a dramatic increase in the number of people being killed and terrorized,” Mottern explained.
The unwillingness of the US military to comment on this situation is evidence of its illegality, the activist argued.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), Mottern said, has documented up to nearly 6,000 people killed by US drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, not including those killed in Afghanistan before 2015, or those killed by drone attacks in Iraq, Libya or possibly Syria.
“The extent of drone surveillance, killing and terrorism going on is very likely far beyond what is documented by [the BIJ figures],” Mottern warned.
Upstate Drone Acton activist Ed Kinane told Sputnik on Friday that the scale of drone operations and the amount of carnage they will inflict looks likely to increase in coming months.
“The problem isn’t ‘lack of personnel’; the problem is an overabundance of opportunities for surveillance and killing — thanks to the US military’s drive for assassination, intervention and invasion,” Kinane said.
The continued and increasing cycles of war generate further profit for major defense contractors in the United States and its close allies, Kinane claimed.
“More war equals more profit, [therefore] perpetual war equals perpetual profit [and] more regional instability equals more opportunities to secure control over resources of fractured nations,” Kinane argued.
The intelligence analysts now employed by the Pentagon will likely eventually be involved in domestic police and intelligence work as well, Kinane predicted.
Reprieve | July 28, 2015
The Home Office is refusing to reveal the true extent of secret funding to Pakistan which risks implicating the UK in a wave of executions currently underway.
Human rights organization Reprieve has brought proceedings before the Information Rights Tribunal (IRT) challenging ministers’ refusal to reveal whether Government guidelines were followed when funneling at least £12 million into anti-drugs efforts in Pakistan, largely carried out by the Pakistani Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF). The ANF is responsible for sending more than a hundred alleged drug mules to Pakistan’s 8,500-strong death row, and lists these numbers on its website as ‘Prosecution Achievements.’ Several British citizens are understood to be among those facing execution on drugs charges.
Pakistan has executed some 180 people since resuming executions in December 2014, having widened its hanging campaign in early 2015 to cover all prisoners on the country’s death row – including drug offenders, others convicted of non-violent offences, juveniles, and mentally ill prisoners.
The UK’s Overseas Security and Justice Assistance (OSJA) guidance requires ministers to consider the potential risk to human rights of government overseas assistance. However, the Government is refusing to reveal crucial details of its decision-making about the funding, despite the recent resumption of hangings. The Home Office is arguing that publishing the information would both damage its relations with Pakistan, and reveal information which could “relate to” the British security services.
At the Government’s request large portions of the hearings so far have been heard in secret, without the presence of Reprieve, its lawyers, or a Government-appointed security-cleared lawyer known as a ‘Special Advocate’. Reprieve is currently seeking permission to appeal the judge’s decision to refuse the presence of a special advocate.
Commenting, Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said:
“The British public deserves to know how much of its money is funding hangings in Pakistan, particularly as the country continues its aggressive execution spree. If the UK is contributing to putting vulnerable drug mules – including British nationals – on death row in countries like Pakistan, this is a matter of huge public interest. The Home Office should stop hiding behind spurious national security arguments in an effort to dodge taxpayer scrutiny, and instead come clean about the true extent of its aid for executions”.
Fresh controversy has emerged about RAF airmen embedded in an American drone unit, which is known to be carrying out airstrikes in Syria after the charity Reprieve gained access to a joint US-UK memo.
Responding to Reprieve’s request in November, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said there were “currently” no RAF personnel embedded with the United States Air Force’s (USAF) 432nd unit based at Creech airbase in Nevada.
It now appears that the response was not given in good faith – while there may have been no personnel at Creech in November, RAF airmen have been embedded there since 2008 and are there presently.
The MoD confirmed on Wednesday there were indeed UK armed forces personnel currently at the base.
If UK personnel are involved in strikes in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, with whom the UK is not ‘legally’ at war, there may be legal issues.
Strikes on Syria would also be illegal given a 2013 parliamentary vote on bombing within the borders of the war-ravaged nation.
The memo concerns the embedding of UK personnel in US units in order to make up for manning shortfalls. It referred to them as “a gift of services to fulfill US air force operational requirements.”
The three-year postings for pilot and sensor operators for both Reaper and Predator drones are described as involving a role in “worldwide operations” and taking part in operations that determine and hit viable targets “in conjunction with the combined air operations center rules of engagement, but always adhering to the legal framework for the operation in question.”
Concerns over the activities of embedded personnel have been under the spotlight over the last two weeks since they emerged after a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, also by Reprieve, that UK pilots had been bombing targets in Syria despite the 2013 vote and resulting democratic ban on doing so.
It was later confirmed that each mission, reportedly carried out by Royal Navy pilots operating from US aircraft carriers in the Gulf, received specific parliamentary authorization.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has since defended the operations, saying that UK personnel embedded with allied forces were effectively “foreign troops.”
By Sherwood Ross | Aletho News | June 20, 2015
President Obama was, of course, right to denounce the massacre in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and to call for an end to such violence.
But this begs the question of whether he will stop his own illegal drone strikes in the Middle East that are just as deadly and a hundred times more numerous than the attack in South Carolina.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism(BIJ), London, just since Mr. Obama came to power, at least several thousand innocent persons (all are presumed innocent unless proven guilty by trial) in Pakistan alone have been murdered by his agents in the CIA and Pentagon. Among the dead are several hundred children. Here are BIJ’s distressing figures for that nation:
All actions 2004 – January 31 2015
Total Obama strikes: 362
Total US strikes since 2004: 413
Total reported killed: 2,438-3,942
Civilians reported killed: 416-959
Children reported killed: 168-204
Total reported injured: 1,142
The Bureau’s reports regarding covert US drone attacks cover both the missions of the CIA and the Pentagon’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).
If nothing else, the horror of Charleston should inform the American public of the shock and awe their president is inflicting with grim regularity in the Middle East. His is a campaign that, to our shame and sorrow, is creating immense blowback against America.
Mr. Obama has maintained U.S. forces take great care that only terrorists are killed but an April 26th article in The Wall Street Journal by Adam Entous reports “he secretly approved a waiver giving the Central Intelligence Agency more flexibility in Pakistan than anywhere else to strike suspected militants…”
Entous continued, “The rules were designed to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. Mr. Obama also required that proposed targets pose an imminent threat to the U.S.—but the waiver exempted the CIA from this standard in Pakistan.” Why, you ask?
Mr. Obama, (who is reputed to be a former CIA employee,) according to RealClearPolitics is “In Thrall to CIA Killing Machine.” Writer Toby Harnden wrote of him on April 16, 2013: “The man who ran as a liberal, anti-war candidate has brushed away concerns about the (drone) attacks. During one meeting he responded to a request for an expansion of America’s drone fleet by saying: ‘The CIA gets what the CIA wants!'”
In his comments about the church murders, Mr. Obama said, “once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun.” (Much less directing America’s trillion-dollar-a-year killing machine!)
Mr. Obama said further, “let’s be clear… It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency, and it is in our power to do something about it.” (Oh, yes it does! It happens far more often in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, among other places, and the man who is responsible for them and who can do something about it is the same man wearing the long face in the White House.)
With reference to this article, the eminent Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, Champaign, commented:
As the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior said a generation ago, the United States government is ‘the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.’
It is a terrible tragedy and a great shame that nothing has changed today under our first African American President and my fellow graduate of the Harvard Law School who knows better. The massive violence that America perpetrates abroad brutalizes the American People at home. President Obama has taught the world that in his opinion ‘violence works.’ Doctor King is now crying in Heaven.
By Sherwood Ross | Aletho News | May 30, 2015
Today, May 30, 2015, is the 584th anniversary of the day on which Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the British forces occupying France.
The “Maid of Orleans” had the ill luck to be captured while she was rallying her countrymen to throw off the English yoke and a pro-English Bishop, Pierre Cauchon, after a grossly unjust trial, sentenced her to death by fire. “Bishop, I die through you!” she reportedly told him.
Saint Joan, as she is known since her canonization by the Roman Catholic church, was only 19. Despicable as the Bishop’s conduct was, he at least made a pretense of a legal proceeding.
Contrast this with the conduct of President Barack Obama, who likely may be responsible for the drone killings of more than a thousand innocent civilians across the Middle East, and who dispenses entirely with legal niceties.
How is it that Bishop Cauchon is reviled for a single murder yet President Obama routinely wipes out human life on a grand scale and is not prosecuted? How is it that foreign leaders will shake his hand?
Perhaps an indifferent American public is proving Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin correct when he told U.S. ambassador to Moscow W. Averell Harriman, “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism(BIJ), London, a non-profit organization known for its meticulous research, reported last month that 515 U.S. drone strikes since 2002 have killed at least, 2,887 people in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
The drone strikes, inaugurated by President George W. Bush, “increased during the Obama administration as did the number of casualties,” the BIJ reports. And McClatchy news service, citing a leaked CIA document, reported “the CIA killed people who only were suspected…” of association with militant groups.
As for the right of President Obama to murder people, which is the correct description of what he is doing, Professor Francis Boyle of the University of Illinois and Magna Cum Laude graduate of Harvard Law School, says:
“The ‘honors’ graduate of Harvard Law School President Obama has set himself up as the sole Judge, Jury and Executioner of thousands of human beings in violation of international law, human rights law, the laws of war and the United States Constitution. Harvard Law School taught me that makes Obama a felon and a war criminal and impeachable.”
The president openly admits authorizing the drone killings. As pacifist/author David Swanson of Charlottesville, Va., pointed out in his book “War No More,” Obama killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, who “was never charged with a crime, never indicted, and his extradition never sought.” Indeed, many of President Obama’s drone victims could have been arrested and tried had the U.S. gone to local authorities with evidence of their culpability. We need to ask ourselves, “What kind of nation prefers to murder people without a trial? Would you call it Fascist, Communist?”
Swanson cites figures to show that, in Pakistan alone between 2004 and 2013, America made 372 drone strikes, killing between 2,566 and 3,570 individuals, of whom as many as 890 were civilians, including nearly 200 children—every one of them by definition—younger than Joan of Arc.
Imagine, on this 584th anniversary of her death, a nation called America, a country whose evil genius has invented the deadliest killing machines ever, a country spending a trillion dollars a year on war, with 1,000 military bases overseas, and 11 battle fleets patrolling the Seven Seas, and troops in 175 countries, and with its lying spokespersons claiming it is all for ‘defense,’ is turning the clock back to the Medieval Period. Apparently, Americans have lost their sense of proportion, their ethics, their faith, their humanity, and worst of all, even their pity for the victims of their crimes. Saint Joan, be with us today!
When President Barack Obama apologized on April 23 to the families of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, an American and an Italian, both hostages killed in a drone attack in Pakistan in January, he blamed their tragic deaths on the “fog of war.”
“This operation was fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region,” he said, and based on “hundreds of hours of surveillance, we believed that this (the building targeted and destroyed by drone launched missiles) was an al Qaeda compound; that no civilians were present.” Even with the best of intentions and most stringent of safeguards, the president said, “it is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.”
The term “fog of war,” Nebel des Krieges in German, was introduced by the Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz in 1832, to describe the uncertainty experienced by commanders and soldiers on the battlefield. It is often used to explain or excuse “friendly fire” and other unintended deaths in the heat and confusion of combat. The term raises vivid images of chaos and ambiguity. Fog of war describes incredible noise and trauma, volleys of bullets and artillery shells, bone jarring explosions, screams of the wounded, orders shouted out and countermanded, vision limited and distorted by clouds of gas, smoke and debris.
War itself is a crime and war is hell, and in its fog soldiers can suffer from emotional, sensory and physical overload. In the fog of war, fatigued past the point of endurance and fearful both for their own lives and for those of their comrades, soldiers must often make split second decisions of life and death. In such deplorable conditions, it is unavoidable that “mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur.”
But Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto were not killed in the fog of war. They were not killed in war at all, not in any way war has been understood until now. They were killed in a country where the United States is not at war. No one was fighting at the compound where they died. The soldiers who fired the missiles that killed these two men were thousands of miles away in the United States and in no danger, even if anyone were firing back. These soldiers watched the compound go up in smoke under their missiles, but they did not hear the explosion nor the cries of the wounded, nor were they subjected to the concussion of its blast. That night, as the night before this attack, it can be assumed that they slept at home in their own beds.
The president attests that those missiles were fired only after “hundreds of hours of surveillance” were carefully studied by defense and intelligence analysts. The decision that lead to the deaths of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto was not reached in the crucible of combat but in the comfort and safety of offices and conference rooms. Their line of sight was not clouded by smoke and debris but was enhanced by the most advanced “Gorgon Stare” surveillance technology of the Reaper drones.
Protest at Beale Air Force Base.
The same day as the president’s announcement the White House Press Secretary also issued a release with this news: “We have concluded that Ahmed Farouq, an American who was an al-Qa’ida leader, was killed in the same operation that resulted in the deaths of Dr. Weinstein and Mr. Lo Porto. We have also concluded that Adam Gadahn, an American who became a prominent member of al-Qa’ida, was killed in January, likely in a separate U.S. Government counterterrorism operation. While both Farouq and Gadahn were al-Qa’ida members, neither was specifically targeted, and we did not have information indicating their presence at the sites of these operations.” If the president’s drone assassination program sometimes accidently kills hostages, it also sometimes accidently kills Americans alleged to be members of al-Qa’ida and apparently the White House expects us to take some consolation in this fact.
“Hundreds of hours of surveillance” notwithstanding, and despite being “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts,” the order to attack the compound was given in the absence of any indication that Ahmed Farouq was there or that Warren Weinstein was not. Three months after the fact, the United States government admits that they blew up a building that they had been watching for days without the slightest idea who was in it.
The “cruel and bitter truth” is actually that Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto were not killed in a “counterterrorism effort” at all, but in an act of terrorism by the United States government. They died in a gangland style hit that went awry. Killed in a high-tech drive-by shooting, they are victims of negligent homicide at best, if not of outright murder.
Another “cruel and bitter truth” is that people who are executed by drones far from a battlefield for crimes they have not been tried for or convicted of, such as Ahmed Farouq and Adam Gadahn were, are not enemies lawfully killed in combat. They are victims of lynching by remote control.
“Predators and Reapers are useless in a contested environment,” admitted General Mike Hostage, chief of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command in a speech in September, 2013. Drones have proven useful, he said, at “hunting down” al Qa’ida but are no good in actual combat. Since al Qa’ida and other terrorist organizations have only flourished and multiplied since Obama’s drone campaigns took off in 2009, one might take issue with the general’s claim for their usefulness on any front, but it is a fact that the use of lethal force by a military unit outside of a contested environment, outside of a battlefield, is a war crime. It might follow that even the possession of a weapon that is useful only in an uncontested environment is a crime, as well.
The deaths of two western hostages, one an American citizen, are indeed tragic, but no more so than the deaths of thousands of Yemeni, Pakistani, Afghan, Somali and Libyan children, women and men murdered by these same drones. Both the president and his press secretary assure us that the events in Pakistan last January were “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts,” business as usual in other words. It seems that in the president’s view, death is only tragic when it is inconveniently discovered that western non-Muslim people are killed.
“As President and as Commander-in-Chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni,” said President Obama on April 23. From the time President Ronald Reagan took full responsibility for the Iran-Contra arms deal to the present, it is clear that a presidential admission of responsibility means that no one will be held accountable and that nothing will change. The responsibility that President Obama accepts for only two of his victims is too paltry for consideration and, along with his partial apology, is an insult to their memories. In these days of governmental evasions and official cowardice, it is crucial that there are some who do take full responsibility for all of those killed and act to stop these acts of reckless and provocative violence.
Five days after the president’s announcement of Weinstein’s and Lo Porto’s murders, on April 28, I was privileged to be in California with a dedicated community of activists outside of Beale Air Force Base, home of the Global Hawk surveillance drone. Sixteen of us were arrested blocking the entrance to the base, reciting the names of children who have also been killed in drone attacks but without a presidential apology or even, for that matter, any admission that they died at all. On May 17, I was with another group of anti-drone activists at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri and in early March, in the Nevada desert with more than one hundred resisting drone murders from Creech Air Force Base. Responsible citizens are protesting at drone bases in Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, New York at RAF Waddington in the United Kingdom, at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, at the White House and other scenes of these crimes against humanity.
In Yemen and in Pakistan, too, people are speaking out against the murders taking place in their own countries and at great risk to themselves. Lawyers from Reprieve and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights have filed suit in a German court, charging that the German government has violated its own constitution by allowing the U.S. to use a satellite relay station at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for drone murders in Yemen.
Perhaps one day President Obama will be held responsible for these murders. In the meantime, the responsibility that he and his administration shirks belongs to all of us. He cannot hide behind a fog of war and neither can we.
Brian Terrell is a co-coordinator for Voices for Creative Nonviolence and event coordinator for the Nevada Desert Experience. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
As if the Mideast weren’t troubled enough, we now learn from Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times that Saudi Arabia has apparently “taken the ‘strategic decision’ to acquire ‘off-the-shelf’ atomic weapons from Pakistan.”
This and many recent similar stories blame the emergence of Saudi Arabia’s alleged nuclear ambitions on President Barack Obama’s perceived failure to check Iran. “Saudi Arabia is so angry at the emerging nuclear agreement between Iran and the major powers that it is threatening to develop its own nuclear capability — one more indication of the deep differences between the United States and the Persian Gulf Arab states over the deal,” commented The New York Times in an editorial on May 15.
Saudi Arabia has been playing the nuclear card for years, however. In 2003, the Saudis leaked a “strategic review” that included the option of acquiring a “nuclear capability” as a deterrent. The Guardian, which broke the story, called it a “worrying development” that reflected “Riyadh’s estrangement from Washington” and “worries about an Iranian nuclear programme.”
In 2006, Saudi Arabia announced its interest in developing a nuclear energy program with other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. As journalists reported at the time, “Few observers doubt that promoting the idea of a joint atomic energy program between the predominantly Sunni Arab states is a way for Saudi Arabia to send a message to the United States that the Arab state will match Tehran’s nuclear power if it needs to.”
Years have passed without the Saudis making good on these threats. And, there are strong reasons to question the veracity of leaks about Riyadh’s nuclear intentions now. Many experts seriously doubt whether the Saudis really intend to break their treaty obligations and risk international sanctions by trying to acquire nuclear weapons, particularly when they have lived with a nuclear-armed Israel for years.
Saudi Arabia would require many years to build nuclear weapons from scratch; the country has only a very modest atomic energy research program, not a single nuclear power reactor, and no known enrichment facilities. Thus Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions only make sense if Saudi Arabia has, as often claimed, arranged with Islamabad to obtain fully armed nuclear weapons in exchange for financing Pakistan’s nuclear program.
Such claims, while not totally implausible, remain “speculation,” according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a leading NGO devoted to proliferation issues. Stories about the Pakistan connection originated with a former Saudi diplomat who defected to the United States in the 1990s. He also claimed that Saudi Arabia provided almost $5 billion to Saddam Hussein to finance an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.
“Riyadh has denied the veracity of Khilewi’s statements, and most experts dismiss their credibility,” according to NTI. “Most analysts believe it highly unlikely Pakistan would ever follow through with such an agreement, were it to even exist, given a host of disincentives.”
The story has been kept alive over the years by Israeli intelligence leaks. As BBC news reported in 2013, “it is Israeli information – that Saudi Arabia is now ready to take delivery of finished warheads for its long-range missiles – that informs some recent US and NATO intelligence reporting. Israel of course shares Saudi Arabia’s motive in wanting to worry the US into containing Iran.”
Pakistan called the claim of a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia “speculative, mischievous and baseless.” Of course, Islamabad would say that even if the deal were real. But Pakistan would face “huge disincentives” against transferring nuclear weapons, including the threat of international sanctions and the loss of military aid from Washington, notes Philipp Bleek, a proliferation expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
“Moreover,” Bleek writes, “Pakistan is locked in an arms race with archrival India, and New Delhi’s long-term nuclear weapon production capabilities significantly exceed those of Islamabad, so the latter can ill-afford to spare a meaningful number of nuclear weapons.” Pakistan’s recent refusal to send troops to support Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen is further evidence that it is no puppet of Riyadh.
Bleek observes that the very frequency of leaks about Saudi Arabia’s nuclear intentions weighs against the seriousness of that threat:
“History suggests that while some states have trumpeted their potential desire for nuclear weapons — think Germany in the early years of the Cold War, or Japan more recently — they tend not to be those that later went on to actually acquire them. And for good reason: calling attention to proliferation intentions is counterproductive if one is intent on actually proliferating. Instead, states tend to draw attention to their potential proliferation in the service of another goal: rallying others to address the security concerns that are motivating potential proliferation, and especially securing protection from powerful allies.”
Saudi Arabia’s latest nuclear leaks may be having their intended effect of bolstering the Arab monarchy’s bargaining leverage with Washington. Although President Obama stopped short of promising a formal military alliance at the recent summit with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, he reaffirmed America’s “ironclad commitment to the security of our gulf partners,” and promised more wide-ranging military aid, including creation of “an early-warning capability for a regional missile defense system.”
The Obama administration should stop making such concessions in the face of dubious Saudi proliferation warnings. It should simply stick to its course of seeking a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran. Such an agreement remains the best guarantee of Saudi Arabia’s long-term security. And in the short term, the Saudis have no legitimate reason to fear Iran’s nuclear program, which is one of the most closely inspected on Earth.
Iran has no known nuclear weapons capability and has enriched uranium only to levels useful for medical or peaceful atomic energy applications. The International Atomic Energy Agency has uncovered no substantiated evidence of Iran attempting to break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Saudi Arabia is also a signatory.
If the Saudis ignore such evidence and really do seek nuclear weapons from Pakistan, the White House should take a hard line and follow the example set by the Ford administration in 1976, which warned South Korea that it would “review the entire spectrum of its relations” if Seoul moved to develop nuclear weapons.
Ideally, the United States should also begin exploring a more productive strategy for reassuring both Saudi Arabia and Iran without making concessions to either one. Instead of selling more arms, reaching new defense pacts, or cracking down further on Iran, why not get behind Saudi Arabia’s longstanding support for a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East?
That goal was endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2012. It may be a political non-starter for now in Washington, but the surest way to reduce the risk of proliferation in the Middle East would be to inspect, control, and eventually eliminate the region’s one existing nuclear arsenal — in Israel.