In his first public comments on the US drone campaign in Pakistan, President Obama described it as “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases, and so on.” In 2011, then-national security advisor to the president John Brennan said of the CIA drone campaign that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” Popular American mythology in the Obama era has held that drones are the surgeon’s tool in the endless, global war on terror. American soldiers and spies can knock off terrorists without bogging down the military in ground occupations, or killing civilians.
So says the myth. The reality is starkly different, according to scholar Micah Zenko.
Zenko examined civilian deaths from US military operations and found that drones kill more civilians than do piloted US aircraft—not fewer. “Drones are far less precise than airstrikes conducted by piloted aircraft, which themselves also conduct “precision strikes.” Drones result in far more civilian fatalities per each bomb dropped,” Zenko writes.
Zenko’s analysis shows us that the claims officials have long made about the supposed accuracy of drone strikes are dead wrong. But we don’t know why, in part because the US government refuses to disclose basic information about how it designates drone targets, or under what circumstances commanders order killings. It could be, as Zenko posits, “that the standards that need to be met before authorizing a [drone] strike are less rigid than Obama’s purported principle of “near certainty that the terrorist target is present.” This wouldn’t be surprising given that Obama continued the George W. Bush administration’s practice of “signature strikes” — killing anonymous suspected militants who appear to be associated with terrorists based upon their observable activity.”
If that’s the case, the US public and the victims of drone strikes have a right to know. But government secrecy and judicial evasiveness have conspired to keep us all in the dark about even the most basic legal theories upon which the CIA and military base their drone programs.
That secrecy has recently been reified. Just last week, a Washington D.C. federal appeals court tossed an ACLU lawsuit against the CIA seeking information about its drone operations. The court sided with the government, holding that releasing information about the drone program “could reasonably be expected to damage national security.”
As ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer said, “Secret law is always invidious, but it’s particularly so here because of the subject matter.” Now we know the stories officials have been telling us for years about the laser-like accuracy of drone strikes are false. But thanks to secret law, we don’t know why.
A man claiming to be on a western “kill list” of people to be targeted by US airstrikes has appealed to both the British and American governments to stop trying to kill him.
Malik Jalal, a tribal elder from Waziristan, a border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, says he has been targeted in at least four drones strikes, narrowly missing what he believes are attempts on his life.
Traveling to Britain following an invitation from Lord Ken MacDonald, the former Director of Prosecutions, Malik Jalal told BBC Radio 4 that he had been warned by various authorities in Waziristan that he is on a western “kill list” adding that his children are “terrified” of dying in an attack.
In one close call, he says a missile hit a car traveling behind him.
“I heard the explosion and the back window of my car shattered. The car behind was in flames and the passengers were in pieces.”
A tribal elder of the region, Malik Jalal believes he is being targeted because of his connection with the North Waziristan Peace committee (NWPC) — a group facilitating peace talks between the Taliban and the Pakistani government.
While Malik Jalal says he plays an important role in trying to bring peace to the region, there have been criticisms of the NWPC, with some suggesting the committee provides Taliban members with a safe haven in Waziristan.
‘I Came Close to Being Bombed Four Times’
In a letter, addressed to UK Home Secretary Theresa May, who is responsible for MI5 and the National Crime Agency (NCA), and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who has responsibility for GCHQ and MI6, Malik Jalal has called for a meeting to clear up concerns that he may be on a government kill list.
“I had a special role to improve security and we were making progress and that’s why I think Americans targeted us […] I came close to being bombed four times, so in the end I realized they were on to me,” he told the BBC.
“I have had to leave Waziristan. In my own family there are six people who are mentally destabilized because of the strikes. In Waziristan there are more than 400,000 people who have mental problems because of the drones. My own son is too scared to go back to Waziristan.”
The US ambassador to the UK has also been copied into the letter, with Malik Jalal calling on Britain to try and influence the US to stop what he believes have been attempts on his life and others in Waziristan.
“I have a peaceful role in Pakistan. I am not involved in terrorism. I came to Britain because I feel like Britain is like a younger brother to America. I am telling Britain that America doesn’t listen to us, so you tell them not to kill Waziristanis.”
Concerns Over Long-Term UK Involvement in US ‘Kill List’
The comments follow the release of an explosive report, accusing British law enforcement and intelligence agencies of drawing up an extra-judicial kill list targeting some of the world’s most wanted terror suspects and drug smugglers.
The report, released by human rights organization Reprieve, claimed that the UK has been a long-time partner in the US’ “shoot to kill” policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the report alleging that drug smugglers, as well as terrorists were among those targeted.
The findings follow a separate Vice News investigation that claimed that UK military personnel were exploiting a legal loophole to play a “critical” role in the US drone kill list program in Yemen.
Citing interviews with more than two dozen current and former British, American and Yemeni officials, UK forces were alleged to have taken part in so-called “hits” in Yemen, “triangulating” intelligence for kill lists, and preparing “target packages.”
The reports of long-time collaboration with the US shoot to kill policy have led to suggestions that UK Prime Minister David Cameron misled parliament on September 7, 2015, when he said that the assassination of two British nationals in Syria was a “new departure” for the UK.
Commenting on the latest developments, Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, said: It is horrifying that, in the 21st Century, we have drawn up a list of people we want to kill.
“For a country that loudly proclaims its opposition to the death penalty even after a fair trial, the notion that we would execute him without a trial at all stunningly hypocritical. Malik Jalal puts a very human face on the horror of this policy.”
The UK government has said they don’t comment on matters of intelligence.
Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to scale back US military engagement in the Middle East and to keep America’s soldiers from getting bogged down in never-ending regional civil wars. President Obama has kept park of that campaign promise, with America’s troop presence abroad reduced. But US military engagement, as a whole, has increased significantly, through the use of unmanned drones and the deployment of troops in combat and security situations in more countries than in 2009.
Obama’s White House ended the previous administration’s Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom — combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan that continued to fester following George W. Bush’s attempts at regime change in Baghdad and the bombing of mountains into submission around Kabul. Today, despite recent reports that the Defense Department has understated the US troop presence in Iraq, troop levels in each country are down.
Nonetheless, Obama followed up his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize by expanding US military actions to nearly every country in the Middle East and North Africa, while reviving a Cold War posture toward Russia and China.
For instance, during the so-called Arab Spring, the US undertook a military campaign against Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, leading to the leader being deposed and killed in the streets. The ousting of Qaddafi turned the once thriving country into a hotbed for Daesh extremists and today Libya is largely considered a failed state.
Under Obama, the US has expanded drone wars in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria with limited results and many civilian deaths.
Reports by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism suggest that the majority of US drone strikes result in civilian casualties, but under Obama these casualties have been defined away by invoking a macabre redefining of the “kill box” – anybody within a certain proximity to targeted victim is deemed a combatant.
The US today now finds itself performing aggressive joint military exercises with the South Koreans, seen as dress rehearsals for a full-scale invasion of North Korea — a nuclear capable country. American and NATO forces are posted along the Russian border in Norway to prepare for potential offensive actions against Moscow justified by the fantasy of Russian military aggression in Europe. US forces are now fighting in not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in Syria, Libya, and Yemen.
The paradox of the Obama Administration is how a president who campaigned on getting us out of war in Iraq and Afghanistan has now committed the US to the escalation of several recent wars.
Obama is no dove, and the world is no safer. With unmanned drone use increasing overseas, perpetual war has never been rebranded so effectively.
For the second time in 2016, Pakistani Prime Minister, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, paid an official visit to Riyadh in March. He took part in the closing ceremony of the Northern Thunder military exercise in the Saudi desert. The intensity of the visits is dictated by the importance of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in the foreign policy of Pakistan, as well as the need to maintain a balanced approach to the countries of the region as a whole, given the recent intensification of relations with Iran. It is noteworthy that it is also the second time that the Prime Minister was accompanied by Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif on a foreign trip to the KSA. Much remains yet to be clarified.
Military contacts between Islamabad and Riyadh have been maintained for several decades. The first bilateral agreements were signed back in the 60’s; in the 80’s, two teams of Pakistani ground troops were stationed in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, the commands of the two capitals hold annual joint military exercises, for example, Al Shihab-1 in 2015.
Despite the significant financial support from the KSA of social, economic, military and other projects in Pakistan, the relationship between the royal dynasty and the military and civil administration of Islamabad were not always smooth. The most recent failure occurred in March 2016. The royal family appealed to the Prime Minister, N. Sharif (and he publicly promised) to post part of the Pakistani army in the zone of military conflict in Yemen against Huthis Shiite in support of the KSA. But after ten days under the pretext of protecting only the holy places, the National Assembly of Pakistan (the lower house of parliament) refused. The Pakistani media wrote about a certain pressure the generals applied to parliamentarians.
The latest of Riyadh’s military appeals to Islamabad, announced in December 2015 as part of an alliance of 34 countries to combat the terrorist threat in the region, once again caused a lot of questions from the military leadership of Pakistan, as well as Malaysia and Lebanon about the goals and objectives of the new military campaign, the place and role of each participating country. For a long time, issues remained unclear related to the operational strategy, antiterrorist working methods, management, control and composition of the proposed cooperation. For two months, Islamabad did not comment. Sharif’s visit to Riyadh in March lifted the veil. According to the Pakistani media, Rawalpindi (the location of the Army headquarters) plans for its participation to include the exchange of intelligence information, the supply of military equipment and the development of counter-extremist propaganda.
Pakistan once again refused to participate in the armed conflict, putting forward several arguments: first, the reluctance to get involved in a so-called “foreign” war; secondly, the desire to avoid the explosion of separatist and sectarian movements within Pakistan; and thirdly, that new and promising markets (Iran) and possibilities are opening up, given the recent geopolitical developments in the region.
In the February issue of this year’s Pakistani military magazine Hilal, the author of the article entitled ‘Balanced Approach Towards the Middle East’ underlines the importance as never before, of the diplomatic efforts to solve the “raging” conflicts. It’s hard not to agree with Mr. Masood Khan and his statement: “it is not clear, in which direction the Middle East will move in 2016 … fine balancing is required … in order to prevent a major war in the region, protect our interests and save Pakistan from sectarian faults.” Thus, in contradiction to the centrifugal tendencies conducted by KSA in the vast region, Pakistan, on the contrary, promotes and supports centripetal forces. Its policy of non-participation in armed conflict puts obstacles in the way of splits, the formation of secessionist movements and / or fragmentation of its territory. Islamabad experienced the disease of separatism in 1971, allowing the separation of the Eastern Province and the proclamation of the independent Republic of Bangladesh on the territory in 1973.
At the same time, Pakistan is aware of the need to preserve traditional solidarity with the Saudi royal family, yet maintain that the time of its leadership in the region is in the past.
Islamabad is opening itself to radically new transnational projects of the 21st century in the region. Islamabad regards rapprochement with Tehran as a positive direction, despite the fact that, in general, Teheran’s step towards the Western world has made the region “feverish” (in the words of Mr. Masood Khan). In February 2016, Pakistan also lifted sanctions against Iran, supporting the decision of the “Six” (the permanent UN Security Council members and Germany). In addition to the prospective energy and hydrocarbon supplies to the country, Pakistan is set to earn a huge profit by using its strategic geographical position. The area will act as a transport bridge from the Chinese border and further to Central Asia, Iran, and then to the West under the revived China’s Silk Road project (one belt – one road). In February 2016, Beijing and Tehran signed a series of agreements.
Despite the fact that in January 2016 the Minister of Defense of the KSA rejected the mediation efforts of Pakistan in resolving the crisis with Iran (after the rift in diplomatic relations in early January 2016), Islamabad, for various reasons, remains one of Riyadh’s few opportunities to maintain civilized dialogue with Tehran and to stabilize the situation in the region.
The position of neutrality, which Pakistan upholds, and above all, the Army generals (given that the Pakistani army is one of the strongest in the region), is a guarantee their own security.
At the same time, the Northern Thunder military exercise (participated in by 21 states), led by the KSA, is a kind of demonstration of military force of the Sunni wing of Islam to the Shiites, in particular the leadership of Iran and the Yemeni Huthis.
The non-interference policy of a number of states in the region, in particular, Islamabad, is a deterrent to the further military ambitions of the new leaders of the Saudi dynasty and thus counteracts the emerging destabilization mechanisms. The Middle East will not sustain another armed conflict.
Natalia Zamaraeva, Ph.D (History), Senior Research Fellow, Pakistan section, Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Since 2001, the United States has been killing people with weaponized drones, most times not knowing the identities of the victims.
The victims of drone strikes are nameless and invisible, despite the fact that most of them are civilians.
The Pentagon announced this week that more than 150 al-Shabab fighters have been killed by a U.S. drone strike in Somalia. The Pentagon spokesmen repeatedly talked about “fighters” and “terrorists” which “posed an imminent threat to the U.S.” But as usual, he offered no proof of his claims.
This kind of language has become normalized when it comes to the U.S. drone war, which is not just taking place in Somalia, but also in countries like Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. What is significant regarding the regular attacks in these countries is the media coverage. In fact, it practically does not exist. The many victims of drone strikes are nameless and invisible. And if they appear in any media reports, all of them are completely dehumanized and described as “terrorists,” “suspected militants” or any other similar euphemism.
This was also the case after the latest strike in Somalia, a country the U.S. is officially not at war with. Shortly after the Pentagon’s announcement, many news outlets adopted the U.S. government’s version of the incident. The New York Times, for example, wrote about the killing of “150 fighters who were assembled for what American officials believe was a graduation ceremony.” “Militants” was also the term the Washington Post used to describe all the victims. It is necessary to point out that many other well-known media outlets from all over the world did the very same thing. As usual, there was a huge lack of any critical scrutinizing. Instead, media once again became a mouthpiece of the U.S. government by quoting its military officials and spreading their one-sided views constantly.
Since 2001, the United States has been killing people with weaponized drones, most times not knowing the identity of the victims. As of today, at least 6,000 people have been killed by these drone strikes. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, only 4 percent of drone victims in Pakistan were identified as a-Qaida members. But vastly more than 2,000 people have been killed there by drones during the last years.
Another country which is suffering heavily under drone strikes is Afghanistan, the most drone bombed country in the world. Between 2001 and 2013, 1,670 drone strikes took place in the country. It was in the city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s former stronghold, where the first strike by a weaponized drone took place in October 2001. The target, Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, was not killed on this day, but many other unknown people have been in the years since.
One of these people was Sadiq Rahim Jan, a 21-year-old food vendor from Paktia, eastern Afghanistan. He was murdered by a drone strike in July 2012. A few days later, media outlets in Kabul described him as a “Taliban commander.” The family members of Aisha Rashid have also been killed by a drone strike. The Afghan girl was four years old when a missile hit the pick-up of her family in Kunar, also in the east of the country. Fourteen passengers, including Aisha’s parents, were murdered. Only she survived – barely – with a ragged face. Initially, all the victims were described as “militants” by Afghan government officials and local media outlets.
Tariq Aziz, from North Waziristan shared a similar destiny. The 16-year-old anti-drone activist was killed by a drone strike in November 2011, together with his 12-year-old cousin Waheed. Unlike the case of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pashtun girl which was nearly killed by a member of the Pakistani Taliban and received a Nobel Peace Prize, Tariq’s case is widely unknown.
In all the mentioned cases, as well as many other, significant media coverage was nonexistent – or it described the victims as terrorists, extremists, militants, al-Qaida members, and so on. This is happening on a daily basis and there are also reasons why it is happening.
In the case of Sadiq, for example, his family became outraged after they noticed that local media outlets described their son and brother as a “Taliban commander.” On that day, the young Afghan was the only person who has been killed in the area. He never had any connection with any insurgent group, not to mention being a commander of them. One of the media outlets which spread these news was Radio Azadi, an Afghan branch of the US government’s external broadcast services. It should be more than obvious that the main aim of such a media platform is not spreading objective information.
Another example for this behaviour is Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s leading mainstream television channel. Last year, the channel’s news website reported that in July 2015 drone strikes in the eastern province of Nangarhar killed “nearly 250 Taliban and Daesh [Islamic State] insurgents.” The main source for this “reporting” was the National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence service, which was built by the U.S. in the first days of the NATO invasion.
Tolo TV was created in 2004 by Saad Mohseni, an Afghan businessman who is being called an “Afghan Rupert Murdoch” and is considered one of the most powerful men in Afghanistan. The channel’s creation was mainly funded by the notorious United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is widely known as one of the most important foreign policy tools of the White House.
In general, one can assume that many media outlets in Afghanistan were not created to support journalism and press freedom but to install media institutions who can be useful to represent particular interests. This is also the case in other countries which suffer from drone strikes.
Noor Behram, an investigative journalist from Northern Waziristan, is known for taking pictures of the drone murder scenes and spreading the victims’ faces. After Behram talked with journalists from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, he experienced that for them, a beard, long hair and a turban or a pakol, a traditional Afghan cap, is enough to describe male drone victims as “terrorists.” But nearly every man in this area looks like that. According to this logic, everyone, even myself when I am staying there, must be a terrorist.
Besides, Behram’s results fit into Washington’s practice that all military-aged males in a strike zone are considered as “militants.”
The U.S. and its allies needed propaganda organs to construct and justify their war on a medial level. Despite the question if this is moral or not, one should agree that it is also very logical because every war is based on propaganda – it was always like that and probably will never change.
But what remains is the question why so many people still believe such a biased media coverage and its constructed narrative of a good war which is only hitting the bad guys.
Emran Feroz is an Afghan-Austrian journalist, writer and activist currently based in Germany. He is the founder of Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims.
Deadliest strike in America’s drone war calls into question how US defines “combatants”
US airstrikes targeting what the Pentagon is calling an al-Shabaab training facility in Somalia killed over 150 people on Saturday. In an announcement Monday, the Pentagon classified the dead as “militant fighters” who were allegedly preparing a large-scale attack against US and African diplomatic personnel.
International human rights groups quickly contested the Pentagon’s official narrative, however, asking how a strike killing in excess of 150 people could be anything but the product of widespread collateral damage.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism scoffed at US assertions calling the death toll from the strike “unprecedented.” The Saturday strike was the deadliest single US counterterrorism action since the group began monitoring drone strike reports in 2010.
The Pentagon countered that not only were the dead only al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists, but also that the “fighters” were scheduled to carry out an imminent attack against US interests.
Controversial drone program likely resulting in massive, unreported civilian deaths
The US drone program, a lynchpin in America’s global war on terrorism, has faced widening condemnation by the international community in recent years. Legal experts argue that the strikes cannot be legal without a proper congressional war authorization or the presence of ongoing hostilities, or a “hot war,” within the targeted territories.
More concerning to human rights advocates, however, are reports in recent years that many of those killed in drone strikes are civilians, who are then reported by White House officials as having been combatants. One report on Nevada-based drone operators observed that they “often do not know who they are killing, they are making a guess.”
Furthermore, investigations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and other advocacy groups, who are backtracking news reports on drone strikes to the locations, indicated they have found startlingly different results than those suggested by the White House.
Repeatedly, when traced to the scene of strikes in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya, family members and witnesses on the ground decry the attacks as collateral damage, and claim that their slain family members were civilians.
Washington defines away collateral damage by use of “kill-boxes”
The death misreporting may be legal sleight-of-hand, as anyone who is present in a so-called “kill-box” is a legitimate target. Kill boxes are areas defined as small geographic spaces of hostility in which those present are automatically defined as a combatant.
This notion of a kill box made sense in conventional wars – civilians had notice and would stay away from battlefields. Today, however, a kill zone is defined as a perimeter around a high-level target or targets that actually moves with the target. In effect, US lawyers have simply defined away collateral damage.
Obama’s pledge of more transparency over legally dubious drone wars not likely to pan out
News of the attack comes as the White House announced Monday that it will disclose the death count of its controversial drone operations under President Barack Obama.
Obama’s counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco, told reporters that the death count will be released “in the coming weeks” as part of the administration’s transparency commitment. In subsequent years, the US is scheduled to report death counts associated with drone warfare annually.
The report is limited to only Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa, but will not include death totals for strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria where hot wars continue.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest stated, “There will obviously be some limitations on where we can be transparent, given a variety of sensitivities – including diplomatic.”
Nonetheless, the increased reporting by the Obama Administration is welcomed by the human rights community and will include both official combatant and civilian death totals. It is all too likely, however, that official combatants are unofficial civilians, as America’s deadly game of international domination is sanitized with legal jargon.
Promoting the American Way of War in Campaign 2016
The crowd that gathered in an airplane hangar in the desert roared with excitement when the man on stage vowed to murder women and children.
It was just another Donald Trump campaign event, and the candidate had affirmed his previously made pledge not only to kill terrorists but to “take out” their family members, too. Outrageous as that might sound, it hardly distinguished Trump from most of his Republican rivals, fiercely competing over who will commit the worst war crimes if elected. All the chilling claims about who will preside over more killings of innocents in distant lands — and the thunderous applause that meets such boasts — could easily be taken as evidence that the megalomaniacal billionaire Republican front-runner, his various opponents, and their legions of supporters, are all crazytown.
Yet Trump’s pledge to murder the civilian relatives of terrorists could be considered quite modest — and, in its bluntness, refreshingly candid — when compared to President Obama’s ongoing policy of loosing drones and U.S. Special Operations forces in the Greater Middle East. Those policies, the assassinations that go with them, and the “collateral damage” they regularly cause are based on one premise when it comes to the American public: that we will permanently suspend our capacity for grief and empathy when it comes to the dead (and the living) in distant countries.
Classified documents recently leaked to the Intercept by a whistleblower describe the “killing campaign” carried out by the CIA and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command in Yemen and Somalia. (The U.S. also conducts drone strikes in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya; the leaked documents explain how President Obama has institutionalized the practice of striking outside regions of “active hostilities.”) Intelligence personnel build a case against a terror suspect and then develop what’s termed a “baseball card” — a condensed dossier with a portrait of the individual targeted and the nature of the alleged threat he poses to U.S. interests — that gets sent up the chain of command, eventually landing in the Oval Office. The president then meets with more than 100 representatives of his national security team, generally on a weekly basis, to determine just which of those cards will be selected picked for death. (The New York Times has vividly described this intimate process of choosing assassination targets.)
Orders then make their way down to drone operators somewhere in the United States, thousands of miles from the individuals slated to be killed, who remotely pilot the aircraft to the location and then pull the trigger. But when those drone operators launch missiles on the other side of the world, the terrifying truth is that the U.S. “is often unsure who will die,” as a New York Times headline put it.
That’s because intel on a target’s precise whereabouts at any given moment can be faulty. And so, as the Times reported, “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.” In 2014, for instance, the human-rights group Reprieve, analyzing what limited data on U.S. drone strikes was available, discovered that in attempts to kill 41 terror figures (not all of whom died), 1,147 people were killed. The study found that the vast majority of strikes failed to take down the intended victim, and thus numerous strikes were often attempted on a single target. The Guardian reported that in attempts to take down 24 men in Pakistan — only six of whom were eventually eliminated in successful drone strikes — the U.S. killed an estimated 142 children.
Trump’s plan merely to murder the relatives of terrorists seems practically tame, by comparison.
Their Grief and Mine
Apparently you and I are meant to consider all those accidental killings as mere “collateral damage,” or else we’re not meant to consider them at all. We’re supposed to toggle to the “off” position any sentiment of remorse or compassion that we might feel for all the civilians who die thanks to our country’s homicidal approach to keeping us safe.
I admit to a failing here: when I notice such stories, sometimes buried deep in news reports — including the 30 people killed, three of them children, when U.S. airpower “accidentally” hit a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, last October; or the two women and three children blasted to smithereens by U.S. airpower last spring at an Islamic State checkpoint in northern Iraq because the pilots of two A-10 Warthogs attacking the site didn’t realize that civilians were in the vehicles stopped there; or the innumerable similar incidents that have happened with remarkable regularity and which barely make it into American news reports — I find I can’t quite achieve the cold distance necessary to accept our government’s tactics. And for this I blame (or thank) my father.
To understand why it’s so difficult for me to gloss over the dead, you have to know that on December 1, 2003, a date I will never forget nor fully recover from, I called home from a phone booth on a cobblestone street in Switzerland — where I was backpacking at the time — and learned that my Dad was dead. A heart attack that struck as suddenly as a Hellfire missile.
Standing in that sun-warmed phone booth clutching the receiver with a slick hand, vomit gurgling up at the back of my throat, I pressed my eyes closed and saw my Dad. First, I saw his back as he sat at the broad desk in his home office, his spot of thinning hair revealed. Then, I saw him in his nylon pants and baseball cap, paused at the kitchen door on his way to play paddle tennis. And finally, I saw him as I had the last time we parted, at Boston’s Logan Airport, on a patch of dingy grey carpet, as I kissed his whiskered cheek.
A few days later, after mute weeping won me a seat on a fully booked trans-Atlantic flight, I stood in the wan light of early December and watched the employees of the funeral home as they unloosed the pulleys to lower Dad’s wooden box into the ground. I peered down into that earthen hole, crying and sweating and shivering in the stinging cold, and tried to make sense of the senseless: Why was he dead while the rest of us lived?
And that’s why, when I read about all the innocent civilians we’ve been killing over the years with the airpower that presidential candidate Ted Cruz calls “a blessing,” I tend to think about the people left behind. Those who loved the people we’ve killed. I wonder how they received the news. (“We’ve had a tragedy here,” my Mom told me.) I wonder about the shattering anguish they surely feel at the loss of fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children, friends. I wonder what memories come to them when they squeeze their eyes closed in grief. And I wonder if they’ll ever be able to pick up the pieces of their lives and return to some semblance of normalcy in societies that are often shattering around them. (What I don’t wonder about, though, is whether or not they’re more likely to become radicalized — to hate not just our drones but our country and us — because the answer to that is obvious.)
Playing God in the Oval Office
“It’s the worst thing to ever happen to anyone,” actor Liam Neeson recently wrote on Facebook. He wasn’t talking about drone strikes, but about the fundamental experience of loss — of losing a loved one by any means. He was marking five years since his wife’s sudden death. “They say the hardest thing in the world is losing someone you love,” he added. I won’t disagree. After losing her husband, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg posted about “the brutal moments when I am overtaken by the void, when the months and years stretch out in front of me, endless and empty.” After her husband’s sudden death, author Joan Didion described grief as a “relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”
That squares with the description offered by a man in Yemen who had much of his extended family blown away by an American drone at his wedding. “I felt myself going deeper and deeper into darkness,” the man later told a reporter. The drone arrived just after the wedding party had climbed into vehicles strewn with ribbons to escort the bride to her groom’s hometown. Everyone’s belly was full of lamb and it was dusk. It was quiet. Then the sky opened, and four missiles rained down on the procession, killing 12.
U.S. airpower has hit a bunch of other weddings, too. And funerals. And clinics. And an unknown and unknowable number of family homes. The CIA’s drone assassination campaign in the tribal regions of Pakistan even led a group of American and Pakistani artists to install an enormous portrait of a child on the ground in a frequently targeted region of that country. The artists wanted drone operators to see the face of one of the young people they might be targeting, instead of the tiny infrared figures on their computer consoles that they colloquially refer to as “bugsplats.” It’s an exhortation to them not to kill someone else’s beloved.
Once in a while a drone operator comes forward to reveal the emotional and psychic burden of passing 12-hour shifts in a windowless bunker on an Air Force base, killing by keystroke for a living. One serviceman’s six years on the job began when he was 21 years old and included a moment when he glimpsed a tiny figure dart around the side of a house in Afghanistan that was the target of a missile already on its way. In terror, he demanded of his co-pilot, “Did that look like a child to you?” Feverishly, he began tapping messages to ask the mission’s remote observer — an intelligence staffer at another location — if there was a child present. He’ll never know the answer. Moments later, the missile struck the house, leveling it. That particular drone operator has since left the military. After his resignation, he spent a bitterly cold winter in his home state of Montana getting blackout drunk and sleeping in a public playground in his government-issued sleeping bag.
Someone else has, of course, taken his seat at that console and continues to receive kill orders from above.
Meanwhile Donald Trump and most of the other Republican candidates have been competing over who can most successfully obliterate combatants as well as civilians. (Ted Cruz’s comment about carpet-bombing ISIS until we find out “if sand can glow in the dark” has practically become a catchphrase.) But it’s not just the Republicans. Every single major candidate from both parties has plans to maintain some version of Washington’s increasingly far-flung drone campaigns. In other words, a program that originated under President George W. Bush as a crucial part of his “global war on terror,” and that was further institutionalized and ramped up under President Obama, will soon be bequeathed to a new president-elect.
When you think about it that way, election 2016 isn’t so much a vote to select the leader of the planet’s last superpower as it is a tournament to decide who will next step into the Oval Office and have the chance to play god.
Who will get your support as the best candidate to continue killing the loved ones of others?
Go to the polls, America.
Mattea Kramer is a TomDispatch regular who writes on a wide range of topics, from military policy to love and loss. She blogs at This Life After Loss. Follow her on Twitter.
Copyright 2016 Mattea Kramer
A United Nations meeting in Geneva this week could have enormous implications for United States national security, but it is being ignored by most of the media and by America’s political leaders. It deserves serious attention.
A new policy-making body called the Open Ended Working Group will consider ways to break the current impasse in efforts to reduce the danger of nuclear war. The group expects to make formal recommendations to the UN this fall. The initiative is especially important given recent studies on the catastrophic effects that would follow even a limited use of nuclear weapons.
The group was established by an overwhelming majority at the UN. The U.S. and all of the other nuclear weapons states voted against and are boycotting the meeting. Why?
Robert Wood, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Conference on Disarmament, recently defended the American decision in a tweet: “agenda ignores security dimension of nuclear weapons. Only practical and realistic efforts will lead to a world w/o nukes.” His claim would have more weight if the United States were pursuing “practical and realistic efforts” instead of planning to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades to maintain its nuclear arsenal indefinitely.
The real reason for the boycott is that this meeting will explore ways to make the nine nuclear weapons states, which include Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom, live up to their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, which requires them to negotiate the abolition of their nuclear arsenals. It very well may recommend negotiation of a new treaty that will effectively ban nuclear weapons, defining their possession as a violation of international law.
Based on the medical evidence, the nonnuclear weapons states are right to call for the elimination of these weapons.
Over the last three years, a series of major global conferences have explored the medical consequences of nuclear war. The new scientific data presented at these meeting have demonstrated the unacceptable, existential threat to humanity posed by nuclear arsenals.
Representatives of the International Red Cross have testified that the world’s leading disaster relief organization can do nothing significant to mitigate the consequences of even a single nuclear explosion, let alone a nuclear war.
Climate scientists and medical experts have presented new data showing that even a very limited nuclear war would cause catastrophic effects worldwide. The fires caused by as few as 100 small nuclear weapons, less than one-half of one percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals, directed against urban targets, would cause global climate disruption. The resulting decline in food production would trigger a “nuclear famine” across the planet and put up to two billion people at risk. A famine on this scale would be unprecedented in human history. While it would not mean the extinction of our species, it would almost certainly mean the end of modern civilization.
A limited war between India and Pakistan, using less than half of their current arsenals, could cause that kind of famine, as could the use of the nuclear warheads on a single US Trident submarine. The US has 14 of them and an arsenal of nuclear bombers and land-based missiles as well.
A full-scale war between the US and Russia using all of these weapons would cause a “nuclear winter,” with ice-age conditions across the planet persisting for a decade or more. The collapse of food production under these circumstances would lead to the death of the vast majority of the human race. It might cause our extinction as a species.
The US and Russia are now engaged in a new game of nuclear chicken in Europe and the Middle East, with the ever-present danger that one side or the other will miscalculate, or that an accident will trigger a nuclear exchange. There have been at least five occasions since 1979 when either Moscow or Washington prepared to launch a nuclear war, in the mistaken belief that they were already under attack.
The determination to hold on to these weapons stems from a deeply held belief that they somehow make a nation more secure. For most of human history, having more powerful weapons did protect us. But as Albert Einstein observed at the beginning of the nuclear era, the splitting of the atom changed everything, except the way we think and thus we head for unprecedented disaster.
If the use of even a tiny fraction of our nuclear arsenal will cause a global holocaust that engulfs us as well as the rest of humanity, how can these weapons be seen as agents of our security? They are suicide bombs. By possessing them, we are a nation of suicide bombers.
Nuclear weapons, the evidence, is now clear, are the greatest threat to our national security. We need to make their elimination our highest national security priority. The U.S. should start by joining the working group in Geneva and, as the next step toward that goal, working for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
Ira Helfand MD practices internal medicine at an urgent care center in Springfield, MA. He is a Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility and is currently the Co-President of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the 1985 Nobel Peace Laureate.
US President Barack Obama’s administration has failed to implement reforms regarding the controversial drone policy to make it more transparent, accountable and consistent with national security interests, according to a report by the US think tank Stimson Center published Tuesday.
“Little progress has been made during the past year and a half to enact reforms that establish a more sensible US drone policy consistent with America’s long-term security and economic interests. The lack of a clear drone policy risks leaving a legacy on drone use that is based on secrecy and a lack of accountability that undermines efforts to support the international rule of law,” the report reads.
In 2014, the Stimson Task Force, comprising senior military and intelligence officials, recommended public disclosure of targeted drone strikes, thorough review of past and present drone strikes and their effectiveness and detailed reports explaining the legal basis of the US lethal drone program, among other recommendations.
The proposals were later backed by UN experts, including the adviser to Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Sarah Knuckey.
The US military has increasingly relied on drones to conduct operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria and Iraq. Critics have slammed the practice for resulting in a significant number of civilian deaths and the destruction of infrastructure unrelated to terrorists.
Data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism shows that US drone strikes have killed up to 1,000 civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen over the past 10 years.
Of thousands killed in US drone attacks in Pakistan since 2004, less than one third of the victims have been identified, including a record low number of ten last year, according to an international investigation.
A UK-based not-for-profit organization revealed the figures in the framework of their “Naming the Dead” project. Initially created for tracking US drone strikes in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, the project seeks to identify casualties, calling for accountability for the attacks.
According to project data, of 2,494 people confirmed killed by American drone strikes in Pakistan, only 729 have been identified. In 2015 the names of those killed was extremely small – only ten of 60 allegedly killed by drones.
Five of ten victims were pronounced members of Al Qaeda, another three were named Pakistani Taliban fighters and the last two were aid workers from Western states.
The US carried out 13 drone attacks in Pakistan in 2015, killing about 60 people. While unnamed sources revealed to Naming the Dead that the vast majority of victims in the six attacks were Uzbeks, the data on the rest of those killed remains scarce.
In 2015, Pakistan authorities declined to assist in the identification process of victims, for the first time since the US launched its drone campaign.According to Common Dreams, ISPR, the Pakistani military propaganda division, could have banned the release of data pertaining to the issue. Islamabad has started a military campaign against terrorists and other non-state groups in Waziristan in 2014, preventing data from being leaked.
ISI, Pakistan’s spy agency, is reportedly keeping secret the names of those murdered in drone attacks across the state’s tribal areas. Before 2015, the agency used to provide reporters and officials with the lion’s share of information on casualties, including those caused by American unmanned aerial vehicles.
ISI is still providing journalists with the names of Taliban and al Qaeda members murdered by US drones in Afghanistan.
But, as the Bureau announced, both Afghan and Pakistan officials tend to underestimate the number of casualties in bordering regions. They reported on 700 killed in drone attacks in 2015. In reality, Naming the Dead says at least 100 more people were killed.According to Washington, a total of 411 air and drone strikes were conducted in Afghanistan last year. But that’s all the authorities announced, leaving no specific information of number of killed people there.
Taliban Denies Group’s Responsibility for Pakistan University Attack
pakistan-army_140093kPakistan has become an intermediary between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the Islamic Republic of Iran against the background of increasing fears that a prolonged bilateral confrontation could potentially have serious consequences for the entire region. With a view to resolving the conflict, the civil and military leadership of Pakistan visited Riyadh and Tehran in January 2016. Both capitals responded favorably to the visits of the high-level guests, the tone of the Iranian leaders changed, the world stood still in anticipation of the detente… but no miracle happened. A few days later Riyadh firmly rejected both the mediatory role of Islamabad and the possibility of a dialogue.
Iran-Saudi tensions were escalating throughout 2015. Riyadh’s irritation grew after diplomatic missions of the Kingdom in Iran were raided, as well as in connection with the lifting of sanctions against Tehran by the United States and the European Union on January 16, 2016, which immediately promised to supply considerable stocks of crude oil to the world market to restore the status of the main hydrocarbon competitor of the KSA.
The mediatory role of Islamabad was quite understandable. Firstly, its concern was caused by the request of the Foreign Ministry of the KSA for the military establishment in Pakistan not only to send land forces into the zone of a potential conflict, but also to use nuclear weapons, the development of which had been actively financed by Riyadh for many years. In the past, Islamabad repeatedly declared the inadmissibility of a military intervention in a conflict on the side of any state within the Muslim Ummah.
Secondly, it was caused by Iran’s reaction to the establishment of an anti-terrorist alliance under the leadership of the KSA in December 2015. Islamabad was registered as its member, but it learned about it from statements of officials in Riyadh. The list included 34 more states, with the exception of Iraq, Iran and Syria. As the Saudi authorities explained later on, these countries had not been invited because of a lack of confidence in them.
Thirdly, Islamabad feared another surge of Sunni-Shiite massacres in its country, especially after the wave of protests that swept neighbouring Iran in early January 2016 in connection with the execution of the well-known Saudi Shiite preacher Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr by the leadership of the KSA on January 2, 2016.
Pakistan demonstrated impartiality during the growing tension between the two countries. It did not openly condemn the actions of Iran in connection with the attack on the diplomatic mission of the KSA, but it did not sever diplomatic relations with it either, as did a number of countries of the Persian Gulf; it stressed its neutrality even during the visit of the Foreign Minister of the KSA to Islamabad in mid-January this year.
Riyadh’s request to send several thousand Pakistani soldiers at the disposal of the authorities of the KSA changed the subsequent course of events. Islamabad immediately canceled a visit of the civilian Defense Minister H. Asif to Tehran in mid-January this year. In a short time, the Pakistani military and, in particular, the Army Chief of Staff General R. Sharif, initiated a project of mediation in the Iran-Saudi conflict.
On January 18 this year, two Sharifs (the namesakes – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Chief of Army Staff General R. Sharif) visited Riyadh with a mission to settle disputes by peaceful means in the interest of the unity of the Muslims in these difficult times. The leadership of the KSA was sympathetic to the mission of Islamabad and handed over a list of items to the Pakistani delegation to be further discussed with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, assuring the guests from Islamabad that if the Islamic Republic of Iran showed positive signs, diplomatic relations could be restored.
The next day, on January 19, the civil and military leadership of Pakistan arrived in Tehran. It is fair to say that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was the first world leader who visited Iran after the lifting of sanctions. As reported by the Pakistani media, he managed to obtain a positive response from the Iranian leadership in respect of initiating the Iran-Saudi dialogue and regulating the issue of coordinators, whose mission, as planned, was to maintain business contacts with officials of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The mediation of Pakistan yielded positive results. On January 20, 2016, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly condemned the attack on the embassy of the KSA in Tehran for the first time.
It seems that Riyadh and Iran heard each other thanks to the efforts of the intermediary. But instead of a triumph, Islamabad’s diplomacy failed once again. On January 25, 2016, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the KSA Adel Al Dzhubeir said that Tehran was pursuing a hostile policy towards the Arab world, and interfered in the internal affairs of foreign countries inciting religious strife and supporting terrorism. Of course, the efforts of Islamabad turned out to be useless against this background.
Riyadh’s refusal of Islamabad’s services in the development of dialogue with Tehran is due to several factors: the change in the overall political and military situation in the Middle East, the intensification of the military cooperation of the KSA with the United States and India (Indian military and, consequently, their arms are taking up the positions of Pakistani military trainers stationed in Riyadh under the previous agreements) and Islamabad’s repeated refusal to send land forces at the disposal of the KSA. We should recall that in late March 2015, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif promised the Saudis to send his troops at the disposal of Riyadh, but in early April the parliamentarians, under pressure of the generals, refused to send their troops to fight against the Huthis in Yemen.
The mediation failure of the civil and military leadership of Pakistan to establish Iran-Saudi dialogue means that this time Riyadh excluded Islamabad from the list of its allies for a long time, and it will greatly reduce the amount of financial assistance and expand trade and economic, military and other contacts with its old rival – New Delhi.
The domestic policy of Pakistan is also in anticipation of change …The issue of the extension of the term of office of the Chief of Army Staff General R.Sharif (official retirement in late November this year), that has long been discussed in the country, has already been decided. On his return from a tour of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif refused to extend General R.Sharif’s term of office. The army commander had nothing to do but to publicly declare his refusal to continue service and his retirement upon reaching the retirement age. The generals of Pakistan are one of the strongest and most masterful government institutions and have seized power in the country four times; the Army Chief of Staff is the de facto first person in the state. Thus, the completion of the anti-terrorist campaign initiated by General R.Sharif delivered has been jeopardized.
Reprieve – January 23, 2016
Today marks seven years to the day since President Obama’s first drone strike in office, which he was reportedly informed afterwards had killed innocent civilians.
Faheem Qureshi, was 14 years old at the time of the strike. It killed several members of his family and left him without his left eye and severely burned.
At the time, Faheem was a high school student whose favourite subject was chemistry. Several of his cousins and uncles were killed in the strike, which Faheem survived only because he was able to drag his body far enough away that people felt it was safe to provide aid. Faheem was hospitalised for 24 days in Peshawar before he was recovered enough to leave. To this day, he still requires medical treatment for head injuries suffered in the attack.
During his time in office, President Obama has significantly expanded the CIA’s covert drone programme in Pakistan and Yemen, launching over 500 strikes in those two countries alone. He has never fully acknowledged the programme’s existence nor apologised to any of the hundreds of Yemeni and Pakistani civilians who have been killed since the drone programme began. Analysis of data by international human rights NGO Reprieve in 2014 found that 1,147 people – including women and children – were killed in attempts to target 41 men, raising serious concerns about the ‘precise’ nature of strikes.
Last year, US citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto were mistakenly killed in a US drone strike. For the first and only time, President Obama admitted the US’ error and publicly apologised to the families of the two men. Attempts by Pakistani and Yemeni victims to get a similar apology have been met with silence.
Speaking about his ordeal this week to international human rights organization Reprieve, Faheem Qureshi said:
“On January 23rd 2009, a hellfire missile tore my family’s lives apart as they sat down to dinner. The drone strike – President Obama’s first – killed three members of my family. As the sole survivor, I lost my left eye and suffered serious head injuries. I was only 14 years old at the time, but I can still remember as if it was yesterday the feeling of my body burning and how I had to crawl from the rubble to get help. I am told reporting has since revealed that the President was told, almost immediately, that a mistake had been made. He had killed innocent civilians – my family – in the strike.
“In the years since, I have witnessed hundreds of drone strikes in my community that have killed many more innocent civilians. People became scared to go to funerals because drones targeted them. They became scared to remove bodies from the aftermath of a drone strike in case another strike hit. The constant threat from drones dominated every minute of our lives. And yet, seven years on, President Obama will not even fully acknowledge the existence of the covert drone program. The only ‘mistakes’ he acknowledges are an American and an Italian he accidentally killed last year.
“What about the hundreds of innocent Pakistanis who have also lost their lives in drone strikes? What about my family? President Obama knows we were innocent and yet we’ve never received an explanation for why we were targeted, much less an apology. As President Obama prepares to leave the White House, he needs to bring his drone programme out of the shadows. It is past time he face up to what his drones really do and apologise to me, to my family, and to all the other innocent people who have been killed by these terrible weapons.”
Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at international human rights organization Reprieve, which investigates civilian casualties from drone strikes, said: “For seven years, secret drone strikes have been President Obama’s weapon of choice in the War on Terror. Taken covertly in places where the US is not at war, these strikes have killed and injured hundreds of innocent men, women and children just like Fahim. Yet, even as is own Generals warn how counterproductive the programme is, President Obama has refused calls for even basic transparency.
This is a legacy no president should want to leave. President Obama needs to bring a halt to this illegal and counterproductive programme. He needs to open it up to scrutiny and he needs to extend the same apology to the innocent Pakistani and Yemenis he has killed, as the one he extended to the families of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni La Porto. Fahim deserves nothing less.”