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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Exactly how many “suspected No 2 ISIS leaders” are there?

Yet again, all of the usual suspects have collaborated with the US government by spamming across the media the “news” that the suspected “No. 2 ISIS leader” du jour has reportedly been taken out by Predator drone. Anyone with any semblance of a memory capacity must be wondering how many of these “No. 2” evil leaders there can possibly be! The latest No. 2, Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, was described by the White House as the Islamic State’s “Baghdad military emir and the emir of Ninawa Province.” Clearly, we should be very impressed that the target suspected to be Al-Hayali has now reportedly been eradicated from the face of the earth. Then again, maybe it was just somebody who looked like him.

The journalists dutifully parroting the “news” fed to them by the Pentagon are usually careful to qualify the announcements. The culprits are “suspected” and the fact of their demise is “reported”. No facts are ever really being exchanged in these announcements, which serve the purpose only of conveying the impression that the government is working hard to keep all of us safe. In reality, most readers of the headlines (usually too busy to digest the full article) now appear automatically to elide from their mind the words ‘suspected’ and ‘reportedly’ as they read, thereby arriving at the felicitous conclusion that, in fact, the “No 2 ISIS leader has been taken out!” Now No. 3 is the new No. 2, and he’s up next!

Some of the media outlets are helping even more, by changing ‘suspected’ to ‘likely’, or even dropping the qualifications altogether and appending, “says White House” to the end of the headline or embedding it more deeply within the article itself. Here’s an example of how the original, guarded announcement is subsequently picked up and redisseminated to “confirm” that in fact we are being kept safe:

Chalk up another high-value militant killed by a U.S. drone strike,” exults Brendan McGarry at the opening (the first line) of an article for Defense Tech.org.

If it later emerges, as has happened in the past, that the “suspected militants” were really tribal elders meeting to resolve a dispute in a jirga, or a group of happy families congregating for a big wedding, or a Bedouin camp of utterly harmless people, or even a grandmother picking okra in a large field all alone, nearly none of the mainstream media outlets ever seem to want to bother sharing the emended news. What would be the point of depressing their devoted readers and listeners? And why risk the loss in ratings, when there is so much other, more upbeat news to report?!

Instead, the big newspapers persist in focusing on the most recent round of “suspected” militants “reportedly” slain. Small wonder that most Americans continue to scratch their heads and puzzle over the perennial question: “Why do they hate us?”

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 9: Death and Politics

Obama-speak Drone Warfare Lexicon and the meaning of “near certainty”

For years now, the Obama administration has been following in the grand tradition of the George W. Bush administration by giving old words and expressions new meanings and basing institutional killing policy upon their neologisms and redefinitions. Bush got the ball rolling with offense = defense, but Obama has gone above and beyond the call of propaganda duty:

  1. imminent no longer implies immediacy. Imminent really means potential.
  1. combatants are military-age males located in hostile territories. Combatants need not bear arms, and need not pose any direct threat to the life of any human being when they are killed. They may be killed when the “opportunity” arises, because
  1. last resort now means feasible
  1. hostile territories are places where the US government may kill unarmed persons with impunity because of the infeasibility of capture, which usually translates as “not worth the trouble and expense”. In special cases (Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki), infeasibility of capture really means that “death is the preferred outcome”. Hostile territories need not be declared war zones, but they are the new battlefields.
  1. battlefields are the places at which the US government (CIA or DoD) has decided to launch missiles from weaponized drones lurking and stalking above where suspected militants are said to hide.
  1. suspected militants become terrorists upon their execution by the US government, unless they happen to be Western hostages, in which case the president himself will issue a public apology to the families of the victims and send them a large bag of money so that they will “let bygones be bygones”, in other words: shut up.
  1. acts of war need not be carried out by military personnel. Acts of war may be carried out by intelligence agents or private contractors (formerly known as mercenaries).
  1. All covert actions are now acts of war, but because they are still covert, there is no need to disclose to the public any of the gory details. Three magical words are all that are needed:
  1. State Secrets Privilege, which means that the US government can do whatever it wants to whomever it wants for whatever reasons it deems sufficient. CIA Director John Brennan said it best: “What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues and at the same time optimize secrecy”. So the “transparency” part is where we are (transparently) told that all information is privileged and therefore secret, and need not be shared with any citizen, not even the bereft survivors of tragic targeting errors.

Near certainty is the epistemic standard which must be met before carrying out a drone strike, according to President Obama in a speech delivered on May 23, 2013. There must be near certainty that no civilians are present before a missile is launched at the intended target. One way to achieve that lofty aim is to reason as follows:

  1. All military-age males in hostile territories are unlawful combatants incapable of surrender, because they are metaphysical terrorists who may be dispatched en masse in cost-effective (!) crowd killing.
  2. In a signature strike, a target’s actions reflect a disposition matrix of known terrorist behavior patterns. Every savvy analyst affirms that men who bear arms in remote tribal regions = terrorists. And a fortiori when they are Arabs.

In reality, the US government regularly kills people without having the slightest idea who they are, as was demonstrated in April 2015 when two hostages were slain along with a group of suspected terrorists. Therefore, in Obama-speak:

  1. near certainty means absolute uncertainty.

George Orwell must be turning over in his grave.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (the whole book).