Obama’s drone wars

That the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner currently operates a “kill list” for terrorist suspects will strike many as contradictory in the extreme. That this list, discussed in “Terror Tuesday” meetings, includes “a girl who looked even younger than her 17 years” is downright shocking.


This is just one of the shameful facts contained in an extensive, likely consciously leaked, New York Times report on President Obama’s escalating use of drones to target “militants” who threaten the United States. Since his inauguration, the first Black American president has targeted six nations with these armed unmanned aerial vehicles – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen. He has launched 278 drone attacks on Pakistan alone – one of the reasons Aaron David Miller, a former advisor to six US Secretary of States, argues “Barack Obama has become George W. Bush on steroids.”


For supporters of this remote-controlled warfare, drones are a precision weapon that take out “the bad guys” with, as Obama said recently, not a “huge numbers” of civilian deaths. This highly dubious assertion is only possible because, as the New York Times notes, Obama has “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatant.” Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explains: that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” In contrast to Obama’s Orwellian mathematics the UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism report that US drone attacks in Pakistan alone have killed up to 830 civilians, including 175 children.


Taking its cue from the White House’s framing of the issue, the mainstream media’s primary concern has been the ‘effectiveness’ of the strikes. Thus, Declan Walsh and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times argue drone warfare “has remained one of the United States’ most effective tools in combating militancy.” High-level Al-Qaeda operatives have certainly been killed by drones. However, many experts argue the strikes are increasing hatred of the US and therefore fuelling, not reducing, the terrorist threat. “We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from he battlefield”, Robert Grenier, the head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center from 2004 to 2006, recently told The Guardian. “We are already there with regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan.” He could also add Yemen to this list, with the Washington Post recently reporting that the ongoing US drone strikes are breeding anger and sympathy for Al-Qaeda. “Every time the American attacks increase, they increase the rage of the Yemeni people, especially in Al-Qaeda-controlled areas”, Mohammed Al-Ahmadi, the head of a local human rights group, told the newspaper.


In Pakistan, the US continues its undeclared drone war despite the fact the Pakistani parliament unanimously voted in April for an end all drone attacks. Earlier this month the Pakistani foreign ministry told the Deputy US Ambassador the strikes were “unlawful, against international law and a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” The Pakistani public is strongly opposed to the US attacks, with a 2009 Al-Jazeera/Gallup Pakistan poll finding 67% of respondents opposed drone attacks by the United States against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.


The US nearly reaped this whirlwind in May 2010 when Faisal Shahzad, a 31-year old Pakistani-American incensed by the US drone strikes, tried to plant a bomb in Times Square. At his trial he said “When the drones hit, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill everybody… I am part of the answer… I am avenging the attack.”


But as the number of drone attacks have increased, so has the resistance to them. Just last week the UN’s human rights chief stated “drone attacks do raise serious questions about compliance with international law”. Even those once close to Obama are now speaking out, with Michael Boyle, a counter-terrorism advisor to the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008, warning last week “the president has routinized and normalized extrajudicial killing from the Oval Office.”


For Drone Wars UK, a grassroots activist group doing impressive critical work on drones, the problem is deeper than Obama’s expansion of targeted killing. Instead they argue “armed unmanned technology and the concept of ‘remote war’ alters the balance of options available to our political and military leaders in favour of a military response.” How so? Because drone warfare is low-risk (to US servicemen and women) and low-cost the political cost of military intervention is much lower compared to the projection of conventional military power.


Seduced by Obama’s unparalleled PR machine, we are sleepwalking into a new era of technological warfare, with little or no democratic oversight, transparency or criticism. The question is whether we will wake up in time to raise our voices in opposition?


*Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK http://twitter.com#!/IanJSinclair and ian_js@hotmail.com.


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