US Drone Killing Machine Now on Autopilot

For years now I have been pointing out that Obama’s lasting legacy would be his ill-advised decision back in 2009 to normalize assassination, which his administration successfully rebranded as “targeted killing”. This was supposed to be the latest and greatest form of “smart war”: the use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), or lethal drones, to go after and eliminate evil terrorists without risking US soldiers’ lives.

It all sounds so slick and, well, Obama cool. The problem is that any sober consideration of Obama’s foreign policy over the course of his eight years as president reveals that the reality is altogether different. Judging by the murder and mayhem being perpetrated all across the Middle East, “smart war” was not so smart after all.

It’s not easy to tease out how much of the mess in the Middle East is specifically due to Obama’s accelerated use of lethal drones in “signature strikes” to kill thousands of military-age men in seven different lands. For he also implemented other, equally dubious initiatives. Planks of Obama’s bloody “smart power” approach included deposing Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and massively arming (from 2012 to 2013) a group of little-understood “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria.

Adding fuel to the fire, Obama oversaw the largest exportation of homicidal weapons to the Middle East ever undertaken by a single US president. Saudi Arabia wasted no time in using its US (and also UK) military provisions to lay Yemen to waste. Conjoined with Obama’s use of drones in that land, the result has been a horrific civil war in which many civilians have been killed and many civilian structures destroyed.

As if all of this were not bad enough, Obama also managed to drop more than 26K bombs in 2016, after having dropped more than 23K in 2015. Given all of this very warlike behavior in undeclared wars, no one can truly say precisely how much drones are to blame for the ongoing carnage throughout the Middle East. What is beyond dispute is that together these measures culminated in a huge expansion and spread of ISIS and other radical jihadist groups.

At the same time, given the tonnage of bombs dropped by Obama in seven different countries, the use of drones does seem to have led directly to a willingness of the president to use also manned combat aerial vehicles, notably in countries with which the United States was not at war when Obama assumed his office. While his predecessor, George W. Bush, can be properly credited with the destruction of Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama managed to contribute heartily to the destruction of Libya, Yemen, and Syria, while attacking the people of Somalia as well.

Enter Donald J. Trump, who became the new US president on January 21, 2017. On that same day, two drone strikes in Yemen killed a slew of people, three of whom were said to be “suspected Al Qaeda leaders”. The US government has not confirmed that it launched the strikes. It is the policy of the CIA, put in charge by Obama of the drone program “outside areas of active hostilities” (in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, et al.), not to share the details of its covert operations. This would seem to imply that the drone strikes on January 21, 2017, were not the doings of the Pentagon, now under the direction of General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who was sworn in on the same day as the new president.

Trump’s choice for CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has not yet been sworn in, as his confirmation process is still underway. In other words, the drone strikes carried out under the auspices of the CIA this past weekend were done so without a director in place. Obama therefore succeeded not only in normalizing assassination as “targeted killing” when the implements of homicide used are missiles, and they are launched under the direction of the CIA, but he also left the killing machine on autopilot. Note that the former CIA director, John Brennan, who first served as Obama’s drone killing czar, before being promoted to director, has spent his time in recent days bashing the new president, not serving as Trump’s interim adviser.

The incineration of military-age men using missiles launched from drones has become so frequent and commonplace that US citizens, including legislators, did not blink an eye at the fact that the killing machine set in motion by President Obama is now effectively on autopilot. It’s worth remembering that, once upon a time, acts of war were to be approved by the congress. Now even acephalic agencies such as the directorless CIA are permitted to use weapons of war to kill anyone whom they deem to be worthy of death. All of this came about because Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack “no boots on the ground” Obama wanted to be able to prosecute wars without appearing to prosecute wars. Fait accompli.

Note: above photo credit mikechurch.com

Suspects versus Combatants: How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes (Part 2)

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It’s official: the US government has now confessed to having intentionally and premeditatedly killed at least 2,372 persons in places where US force protection was not the reason for the acts of homicide. They also admit to having unintentionally killed at least another 64 persons who were doing nothing other than going about their lives in their civil societies. These are remarkable admissions. Why? Because the approximately 2,400 acts of homicide are openly and unselfconsciously acknowledged to have taken place not where the lives of US military personnel or other citizens were at stake, but “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”.

Persons killed “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” were living in places which were not war zones. There were no “active hostilities” underway. The targets slain by lethal drones in such places were not directly threatening any other human being with death at the moment when they were killed. The more than 2,400 recently confessed homicides were committed in the victims’ civil societies. In other words, the stalking and hunting down of these people constituted acts of assassination, not acts of war. These were extrajudicial executions, authorized by the US president in the name of national self-defense.

The equivocation between criminals and soldiers began under the Bush administration, which waged full-scale wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the crimes of September 11, 2001, instigated by a relatively small group of persons most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, which strangely (or not) received a “get out of jail free” pass from the US government.

In the case of the targeted killing program using lethal drones, the US government under Obama also wishes to have it both ways, treating the targets as convicted criminals whose just desert is death, while simultaneously invoking Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and a state’s “inherent right to self defense” as the reason for killing all of these people, with the innocents written off as “collateral damage”.

Scholars of international law have repeatedly observed that Article 51 is only relevant when the nation against which military action is taken has actively initiated hostilities against the nation claiming to defend itself. In other words, Article 51 is inapplicable to these acts of homicide, because, by the US government’s own acknowledgement, they have taken place “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”. A war zone is a site of active hostility. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are identified as “areas of active hostilities” in the US government’s recently disseminated “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities.”

The persons reported on in the July 1, 2016, document were killed between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, and resided in remote territories of tribal regions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and possibly other places as well—the countries are not named because the homicides perpetrated outside of active war zones are being carried out under the authority of the CIA, not the Pentagon, and so count as covert operations.

The transparency infamously championed by Obama ends up amounting to this:

We will admit to having killed these people, but we won’t tell you who they were, when they were killed, or why (beyond the fact that we have decided that they were enemies of the state). All of that sort of information is classified. Just trust us, we know what we’re doing.

Even if the US government somehow became willing to divulge the names of their targets, it turns out that most of the names are not known anyway. The question, therefore, most be posed: How did the US government know that they were terrorists? The answer, I regret to say, is: They did not.

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The victims were all suspected terrorists, just like the persons interned at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of whom were later determined to have had no connections to terrorist groups. They may have looked like terrorists. They may have dressed like terrorists. Their comportment may have matched the “disposition matrix” of behaviors typical of terrorists—carrying weapons, wearing turbans, hollering out in anger at the invaders of their land—but most of those men, incarcerated under the authority of President George W. Bush, were not terrorists at all. They were suspects who turned out to be innocent.

The Obama administration’s manner of dealing with persons suspected of complicity with terrorist groups has been summarily to execute them all: “Kill don’t capture” or “Take No Prisoners” is, sad to say, the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Once the persons killed by drone strikes are dead, they are categorized as “enemy killed in action”, or EKIA, which we know not from the July 1, 2016, report but from classified US government documents made public by The Intercept thanks to a whistleblower.

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this fact, so let me reiterate it as plainly as I can: The persons killed by Obama “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” have precisely the same status as the persons imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. Obama’s terrorist suspects have been executed rather than rendered to secret torture facilities and held without charges for many years, but that certainly does not imply that they were guilty. Instead, it implies that Obama has committed war crimes. He has executed thousands of human beings on suspicion of their potential for possible complicity in future possible terrorist plots.

When will the Obama apologists finally open their eyes to the atrocities committed by him in their name?

 

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2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Kill-Because-Can-Soldiering-Assassination/dp/1783605472?ie=UTF8&qid=&ref_=tmm_pap_swatch_0&sr=

Do the Math: How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes (Part 1)

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 It’s hard to know where to start in addressing the US government’s “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities,” released on Friday, July 1, 2016, before the long holiday weekend, in the apparent hope that no one would read it.

Some of us did. The report claims, preposterously, that in 473 drone strikes “against terrorist targets outside of active hostilities,” a total of from 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed, along with from 64 to 116 noncombatants. These numbers are shockingly low, given the many detailed reports on drone killing issued by NGOs and human rights groups since 2009.

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Even Senator Lindsey Graham claimed back in 2013 that drone strikes had, by then, already taken out some 4,700 “terrorists”. That’s about twice the number the administration is claiming were killed during a period of time even two years longer, from January 20, 2009, when Obama killed a slew of innocent people in Pakistan in a series of missile strikes which provoked mass protests in Islamabad (captured for posterity on film, so, no, they cannot be denied), and December 31, 2015.

Should anyone care what Lindsey Graham says? Maybe not, but given that he is a foreign policy insider, and longtime member of the Committee on Armed Services, there is some reason for believing that when he boasts that nearly 5,000 “terrorists” were killed, then at least that many suspects have certainly been slain.

One possibility for the discrepancy is that Graham was including “areas of active hostilities” along with the  places covered by the recently reported numbers. The July 1, 2016, report excludes the death tallies from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, where Obama has lobbed thousands of missiles. In fact, in 2015 alone, Obama authorized more than 23,000 bombings of Muslim majority nations, which suggests that, unless the bombs are being dropped by blindfolded pilots and drone operators, at least 23,000–and likely many more–people were killed by the US government that year.ObamaPakistanProtest

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Let us set aside the somewhat disturbing discrepancies between the recently issued report and the likely death toll of Obama’s many lethal initiatives, and focus today on the simple numbers detailed in the July 1, 2016, report. I’ll follow up with everything else wrong with the report, including how it flagrantly denies what transpired in January 2009, in the series of posts to follow.

First, if the range of combatants killed is said to be greater than the total possible number of noncombatants reportedly killed, then this alone suffices to demonstrate that the latter number can only be erroneous. The reason why there is a range for combatants is because the administration does not know how many they have killed. It could be 2,372 or 2,373 or 2,374, or anywhere up to 2,581, assuming charitably that these numbers are based on some form of attempted analysis and not merely pulled out of a hat or produced using a random number generator by someone in the public relations wing of the Pentagon or the CIA.

Suppose that the lowest number of the range of “combatants” were killed, that is, 2,372. This means that another 209 people who might have been combatants killed either were not combatants, or they were persons who were not killed at all. That’s either 209 corpses of unknown identity or 209 possible corpses. Either way, the fact that the US government does not know whether those 209 people were really killed and, if so, whether they were combatants, already reveals that the highest number of noncombatant deaths reported is false.

What the report should say, if it hopes to be taken seriously by anyone at all with even the most rudimentary understanding of arithmetic, is that between 64 and (116 + 209) = 325 noncombatants have been killed. Instead, the report pretends that the range of uncertainty on combatant deaths does not imply anything about the likely range of noncombatant deaths, when it obviously does. The reason why the government cannot decide whether 2,372 or some number up to 2,581 combatants were killed is because they were unable to confirm that the 209 people purportedly slain were in fact slain or else that they were in fact combatants.

This brings us to the next, much more serious problem, to be elaborated in Part 2 of How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes: “Suspects versus Combatants”.

 

to be continued…

 

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All Smoke, No Mirrors: Appearance vs Reality in Drone Strikes

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In 2009, a reported 27,000 people were employed in the public relations wing of the Pentagon (AP). I presume that there are even more today. Their job, as is true of every state-funded Ministry of Propaganda, is to win over “hearts and minds”, while the rest of the institution focuses on homicide.

Only the extraordinary number of persons working in the capacity of propagandists for the US government can explain odd news reports such as the recent announcement that the Department of Defense attempted to kill Somalian Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, said to be a senior member of Al-Shabaab. The Washington Post’s Pentagon-parroting report then proceeds to clarify that the killers do not actually know whom they killed:

The United States carried out a drone strike last week in Somalia, targeting Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, a senior leader in the al-Shabab militant group, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

The Defense Department is still assessing whether the May 27 strike killed Da’ud.

Remarkably, the report continues on to tout the drone strike as a victory, under the provisional hypothesis that the strike did in fact kill the intended target:

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement that, if confirmed, his [Abdullahi Haji Da’ud’s] death “will disrupt near-term attack planning, potentially saving many innocent lives.”

The reason why this is remarkable is because, as Reprieve has documented, in strikes aimed at 41 named targets, 1,147 people were killed. Given the shocking findings of that study, it seems safe to conclude that it’s easier said than done to eliminate named terrorist suspects (who, as a reminder, are suspects).

Most of the victims of US drone strikes—both intended and unintended—have likely been military-age males, whom the US government defines as guilty until proven innocent. This is how the myth among the populace that targeted killing using drones is “smart war” continues to prevail. The categorization as “evil terrorists” of all military-age males in the remote tribal regions where missiles are fired (the “suspect” part appears to be elided by most people’s minds), is blithely accepted by everyone who praises the drone program. The only true requirement for conviction of “guilt” by the drone warriors is that a man be located in a zone where drone strikes are targeting suspected terrorists, whether named or unnamed. More often than not, the victims are brown-skinned Muslims.

Needless to say, there is no discussion in the article about the consequence of the drone strike intended for Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, if in fact it killed someone else altogether. What if it killed a child, who has a father? What if it killed a male adolescent’s teenage brother? What would be the consequences then?

As though the consequences of collateral damage had no strategic relevance whatsoever, the US government proceeds to kill suspects as fast as they can “finger” them in at least seven different countries, denying all of the inhabitants of those lands any rights, in a flagrant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It’s hard for most Westerners to grasp exactly how scandalous this situation is for people on the ground, but we can begin to understand the ever-more vexing quagmire in the Middle East by taking a look at this short video of a protest in Pakistan, where many “military-age males” have gathered to vow to fight back against the United States if they do not cease killing Pakistanis using lethal drones:

It’s not as though this sort of reaction to US military aggression is somehow new or unexpected. What is amazing is that no lessons appear to have been learned by the warriors from the fiascoes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, the drone campaigns have expanded, spreading across several different lands, terrorizing countless innocent people and inspiring the very same kind of outrage which was witnessed during the occupations when innocent persons were slain by US military personnel and private contractors.

Is it supposed to be wrong for a person to be incensed by the slaughter of his child or neighbors’ children because some analyst at the Pentagon has concluded on the basis of cellphone data that someone in their neighborhood was in cahoots with a radical Islamic group? Are all of the people depicted in the above video now on the US government’s hit list?

What is beyond doubt is that the direct connection between cause and effect in drone strikes—a catalyst to radicalization—continues to be ignored, as though the failure of the killing machine to secure Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Syria somehow implies that it needs only to be cranked into high gear to kill even more.

The above sort of report, exulting over a victory where there is none, when in fact the strike may have galvanized even more men to join forces with radical extremist groups to fight back, demonstrates that the Pentagon needs to halt the public relations machine, which serves only to deceive Americans into believing that they are being kept safe, and start engaging in some serious strategic analysis. (Better late than never!)

Drone strikes are a tactic which has failed to solve the problem for which UCAVs are allegedly being deployed. Even worse, they have exacerbated the problem of factional terrorism. Witness the proliferation of Al Qaeda franchises throughout the Middle East.

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Note to Obama, Sisyphean American Assassin: Dead No. 1 Taliban Leader Replaced by Somebody Else

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As President Obama’s term in office draws to a close, he has been scurrying about in a diaphanous attempt to convey the impression that he has accomplished a lot. Will he leave any significant legacy beyond having served as the country’s first Assassin-in-Chief, who normalized targeted killing—the Hannibal Lectoresque stalking and hunting of human beings—through the use of drones?

Despite shedding tears for gun violence victims in the United States, Obama managed to spread deadly weapons all over the world and provoked renewed militarism in Eastern Europe and the Far East by presiding over untold numbers of covert actions and military exercises. Remarkably, Obama even convinced Japan to renounce its anti-militarist stance spanning the decades since World War II. How about that trillion-dollar, thirty-year-plan nuclear weapons program upgrade in violation of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty? (I have to ask: has Obama himself been replaced by a machine?) In a bizarre and ironic twist, Obama plans also to be the first sitting US president to pay a visit to Hiroshima, the city entirely razed by the first atomic bomb to be deployed in history, by the United States, on August 6, 1945. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, Nagasaki suffered the same fate.

In recent weeks, Obama has been busy issuing executive actions—from public school bathroom initiatives for transgender students (was this a problem?), to extensions of overtime pay, to opening up arms trade with Vietnam (motivated by concerns about China and the TPP?). At the same time, Obama has stepped up his efforts to demonstrate that he has the terrorism situation under control. It wasn’t that surprising when two days ago he made a big show of the fact that he had authorized the execution without trial by lethal drone of Mullah Akhtar Mansur in Pakistan.

Once again, as in the case of the operation in which Osama bin Laden was slain by a group of Navy SEALS, the Pakistani authorities were not informed about the mission until after the fact. Obama claimed that the authority to assassinate Mansur derived from the tried-and-true “legitimate self-defense” pretext. The “evil” Taliban leader was said to be responsible for planning attacks on US forces in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“Today marks an important milestone in our longstanding effort to bring peace and prosperity to Afghanistan. With the death of the Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammed Mansur, we have removed the leader of an organization that has continued to plot against and unleash attacks on American and Coalition forces, to wage war against the Afghan people and align itself with extremist groups like al Qa’ida.”

What Obama omitted was that the US force presence in Afghanistan had been increased at his behest in order to provide support for killing operations in Yemen back in 2015, when President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was overthrown by a Houthi coup, and US personnel were evacuated from that country. In other words, it was Obama’s own insistence on continuing his drone campaign in Yemen which led him to send more soldiers to Afghanistan, where they met with the ire of the Taliban, the members of which naturally sought to eject the invaders from their land.

We’ve seen this all before. In fact, it has been going on since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. But rather than heeding the lessons of history—or even the dictates of common sense—the US government persists in its killing campaigns, as though they were accomplishing something. So now Mullah Akhtar Mansur, said to be an obstacle to the peace process between the Taliban and Afghan authorities, is dead. Does it matter in the least? This morning the Taliban announced that Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada has been named the new No. 1 leader.

A variation on this theme has played like a broken record throughout the absurdist Global War on Terror, during which most of the people killed are said to threaten “our interests” on the other side of the world. Other victims just happen to be located in the same neighborhood. US citizens have become so accustomed to the narrative according to which our good leaders are saving us from people just like Osama bin Laden, that they have lost all ability to consider the reality of what they are paying for.

I recently watched the film American Sniper (2014), directed by Clint Eastwood, which offers a perfect illustration of the foggy lens through which most Americans, including politicians and government bureaucrats, view military intervention abroad. US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle is depicted as a hero for killing more than 200 “enemy forces”, 160 of which were confirmed by the Department of Defense. In reality, Kyle was killing people attempting to kill the invaders of their own land, Iraq.

Does anyone seriously believe that if hordes of armed warriors made their way to US shores that residents would stand by and let them round up “suspects” and torture them, or assassinate them point blank, along with anyone who happened to be with them at the time? Is it at all plausible that no one in the United States would retaliate? Would anyone accept the “self-defense” pretext of the invaders for killing US residents in their own homeland?

The US invasions and occupations of both Afghanistan and Iraq, the removal of Muammar Gaddafi from power in Libya, and the drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia have all proven to be disastrous, as evidenced by the predictably surging ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and AQAP and Al-Shabaab and ISIS and Daesh in direct response to US counterterrorism initiatives. Even setting aside the gross moral and legal violations inherent to the US drone program, it simply does not work. It never worked, and it will not work when Obama hands over the drone warrior holster to the successor of his throne.

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Another Mass Killing in Yemen & The Drone Program Ponzi Scheme

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I was disturbed to learn of the recent mass killing by the US government of yet another group of brown-skinned persons of unknown identity, this time in Yemen. Only two weeks ago, reports surfaced of a mission in Somalia which culminated in the deaths of an estimated 150+ terrorist suspects. The victims in Yemen, as is customary, were identified post-mortem as persons all of whom posed an “imminent threat” to US forces and allies. The estimated number of deaths in Yemen from the attack on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, is more than 50, with nearly as many people harmed. None of the dead were civilians, according to US officials.

None of the dead were civilians” is a claim frequently made by drone program administrators, including John Brennan, who while serving as Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor announced in 2011 in apparent sincerity that there had been no collateral deaths from the CIA’s targeted killing program during the previous year. Later it emerged that the administration had simply redefined the concept of ‘civilian’ so as to exclude male persons from about 16 to 50 or 55 years of age. That’s right: in one of the worst examples of racial profiling in human history, able-bodied males in tribal regions are assumed to be terrorists until proven otherwise.

Should we believe US officials now, when they report that 200+ dangerous terrorists have been stopped in their tracks? I have an idea: why don’t we ask Giovanni Lo Porto or Warren Weinstein? Or perhaps we should ask the survivors of the March 17, 2011, massive air attack on Datta Khel, Pakistan, which wiped out the community’s tribal elders as they were meeting peacefully for a jirga to settle a dispute over a chromite mine.

The CIA’s ambitious agenda to rid the universe of suspects who might possibly be thinking about possibly planning to attempt to carry out possible future acts of potential terror against the people of the United States has obviously failed. But rather than draw the rational conclusion from the recent terrorist attacks on Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino, the drone killers point to the episodes as evidence that they need to kill even more. The CIA continues to clamor for more drone strikes in collaboration with JSOC in Iraq and Syria. That should go well, given the resplendent success of the Agency’s effort to arm and train “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria. For those who missed the outcome of the ill-conceived initiative: a handful—as in four or five—fighters emerged as US allies after an infusion of $500 million of military aid into the Syrian conflict.

What are we to conclude now, when the same administration insists that the mass killing of 200+ brown-skinned men in the prime of their lives was an act of national self-defense? I for one find it highly doubtful that any of those people would ever have made it to US shores. How many of them even had passports? Certainly none of them had the wealth and power and connections of Osama bin Laden. Yet the guiding sophism that every brown-skinned adult male located in a remote tribal region is an existential threat to the US republic continues to be bandied about by politicians and career administrators.

Even people who are not troubled by the racial profiling (don’t Brown Lives Matter?), and the slow lethal creep to genocide inherent to the US drone program, need soberly to assess the value of the “killing machine” for the security of the people of the Western world. All of this homicide is not making us safer. Instead, the summary execution without trial of massive numbers of alleged suspects of Arab origin is incensing people who do reside in Western lands and vow to seek revenge. Some of them have already carried out acts of violent retaliation in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels.

It’s such an obvious point—well-illustrated by the virulent insurgency in Iraq during the US occupation—but one which bears repetition: the people being killed are angry about US military intervention. Annihilating brown-skinned suspects in several different Muslim lands has not worked. Instead, it has given rise to a much more ferocious Al Qaeda, AQAP, Al Shabaab, ISIS and Daesh. The time has arrived to leap out of the lethality box and stop arming militants only to turn around and kill them.

Are we to conclude from the two recent mass homicides perpetrated by the US government in Yemen and Somalia, using both unmanned and manned combat vehicles, that “radical Islamic extremists” cannot be kept in check by lethal drones alone? Maybe that’s because the drone program was a Ponzi scheme all along.

 

 

Navigating the Christine Fair-Glenn Greenwald “Debate” on Al Jazeera, or: Why I Wrote We Kill Because We Can

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Having seen so many mentions of the recent exchange between Christine Fair, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University, and Glenn Greenwald, the founder of The Intercept, I decided to give it a listen. To be honest, most of the broadcast struck me as more of a pissing contest than a debate. The opening question posed by the moderator was this: “Do drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill?

Greenwald, invoking the recently released Drone Papers, including documents which indicate that 9 out of 10 persons killed over a five-month period by lethal drones in Afghanistan were not the intended targets, pointed to what he took to be the obvious effect of killing so many innocent people: to fuel terrorism. Fair, for her part, protested vehemently to the characterization of the persons slain as innocent. According to her research, the people being killed are primarily militants. She also insisted that Pakistan is not Afghanistan is not Yemen and that it is a mistake to conflate the various contexts where drone strikes have been carried out.

What is funny about disputes over statistics on first-order collateral damage—civilian body count—is that they do not typically scratch the surface of the fundamental moral and political problems with targeted killing. Greenwald did identify drone killing as a form of terrorism and spoke of the rage among locals in communities where strikes have been carried out. But the focus of these sorts of altercations is typically the proportion of persons killed by drone strikes who were civilians.

Greenwald assumes that the nontargets killed were innocent, though they are classified in the documents as EKIA or “enemy killed in action”. Fair essentially agrees with the US government’s retroactive classification of the persons unintentionally killed as unlawful combatants and therefore fair game for annihilation. This approach depends on a very broad conception of “associates” as virtually anyone who may be brushing elbows with persons deemed suspicious by drone program analysts.

Needless to say, I am inclined to agree with Greenwald. However, I feel that focusing on the statistics of people killed with lethal drones distracts attention from the much larger and more profound problems with the drone killing program. It is true that Greenwald asserted that terrorists are created by drone strikes, given that new recruits react specifically to the slaughter of innocent people. In support of his position, he cited published reports and statements by US military officials.

We certainly have an abundance of testimony from jihadists themselves about what they are doing and why. Why the US government has persisted in ignoring the testimony of Al Qaeda spokespersons—from Osama bin Laden up to the present day—remains unclear. Surely people who take up arms have reasons for doing so, yet slogans such as that “They hate us because of our freedom” continue to be parroted by politicians with little if any heed paid to the words of jihadists themselves.

Greenwald also took issue with drone killing from a judicial perspective, as the summary execution without trial of persons denied the right to defend themselves. Because these people are killed with missiles, rather than poisons or pistols or strangulation wires, the self-styled drone warriors are unmoved by such concerns. Indeed, administration lawyers drew up the lengthy White Paper precisely in order to explain why what the US government had already decided to do—to kill US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki—was in fact just and permitted under US and international law. Whether the document succeeded in its quest is a matter of dispute, but drone program supporters invariably defer to the legal experts working for the US government, rather than figures such as UN special rapporteurs Philip Alston and Christof Heyns, also attorneys, who issued reports in 2010 and 2013, respectively, contesting the legality of drone strikes under international law.

Little attention was paid in this exchange between Christine Fair and Glenn Greenwald to the trauma and degradation of the quality of life of the people living under drones. Fair rejected Greenwald’s assertion that the people of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan oppose drone strikes. She dismissed the appeal made by Malala Yousafzai to President Obama, saying that the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate had never visited FATA and did not know what she was talking about. Fair also insisted that all of the reports by Reprieve and related groups, in addition to the testimony of US military officers, were either advocacy or opinion. Does being a defender of human rights mean that Reprieve cannot collect data? Surely not. By the same argument, Fair, who reportedly has received hefty government grants for her work, would be disqualified for being a US government “advocate”.

Somewhat bizarrely, Christine Fair’s most unequivocal assertion on the polling data ended up being a profession of skepticism: that the many published polls are untrustworthy and ultimately we cannot know what to conclude, because hardly anyone has journeyed into the dangerous FATA territory, and most of the people polled do not answer the questions being asked anyway. She proceeded from there simply to assume that the official story is the best account we have of what is going on in FATA.

Near the end of the short program, in a surprise—and welcome—turn to civil discourse, Fair expressed a view with which Greenwald wholeheartedly concurred: that the drone program is primarily being used to remove local militants with no international aspirations to attack the people of the United States. Fair and Greenwald appeared to agree on the most disturbing political problem with lethal drones: that by collaborating with the United States, central government authorities are able to eliminate their rivals by characterizing them as “terrorists” and taking them out—going far beyond the authority granted to the US president by congress in the original AUMF (Authorization of Use of Military Force) in 2001. Why, then, does Fair continue to offer vocal support to the drone program?

Having found at least some common ground, what is really needed now to adjudicate the heated dispute between lethal drone advocates and opponents is not more polls and infinitely contestable empirical data, but an examination into the inner workings, the logic, of the drone program. Are drone proponents prepared to move beyond shouting matches about opinion polls and statistics? Are they ready to consider the morality of drone killing and what this practice logically implies? Will they finally acknowledge that long-term cultural and political costs must be considered along with short-term tactical benefits? Presenting lethal drone enthusiasts with more and more data from NGO reports and quotes from military experts has clearly not diminished their faith in targeted killing as a form of “smart war”, a view shared by much of the populace and nearly all politicians as well.

The Drone Papers were not so much a revelation as a confirmation of what had already been reported by various other sources. It’s helpful to have documents backing up the now familiar (and unsettling) fact that the unnamed men of military age (from about 16 to 50 years old) killed by lethal drones—whether in signature strikes or crowd killing or TADS or simply by mistake—are indeed being written into history by US officials as having been justly killed. Now we need to move forward and investigate the nature and basis of these people’s dissidence and militancy.

Throughout the twenty-first century, terrorists, insurgents, and militants have been conflated, as though these categories were interchangeable. Many of the men killed in Afghanistan and Iraq after the US invasions regarded themselves as defending their homeland from the foreign occupiers. In considering the use of lethal drones in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria, we need seriously to entertain the possibility that some of the men being slaughtered might very well be closer to Nelson Mandela than to Osama bin Laden.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Conclusion