Obama’s drone wars

January 15, 2013

Eric Ruder reports on a new weapon of choice in U.S. wars around the globe.

THE FIRST drone strike authorized by President Barack Obama took place in Pakistan just three days after his 2009 inauguration. Though the supposed target was a Taliban safe house, the missile discharged by remote control from one of the 60 American drone command centers dotting the globe landed on the home of Malik Gulistan Khan, a tribal elder who belonged to a pro-government peace committee. The bomb killed Khan and four of his family members.

Three years later, as the U.S. struggled to contain the fallout from a conventional airstrike that killed 26 Pakistani soldiers, Obama asserted in an online town hall meeting that a war-weary public had nothing to fear from "collateral damage" caused by drones. "Drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," said Obama. "For the most part, they have been precision strikes on al-Qaeda and their affiliates. It is important to understand that this thing is being kept on a very tight leash."

But when it comes to matters of war and peace, it's imperative to remember the cautionary words of journalist I.F. Stone: "All governments lie."

A MQ-1 Predator drone

According to Tom Engelhardt, a war reporter and author of The United States of Fear:

On the ground, things are of course far messier, nastier, more disturbingly human. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have, over the years, killed at least 168 children. In a roiled and roiling situation in that country...the deeply unpopular drone attacks only heighten tensions. Whomever they may kill--including al-Qaeda figures--they also intensify anger and make the situation worse in the name of making it better.

They are, by their nature, blowback weapons, and their image of high-tech, war-winning precision here in the U.S. undoubtedly has an instant blowback effect on those who loose them. The drones can't help but offer them a dangerous and deceptive feeling of omnipotence, a feeling that--legality be damned--anything is possible.

Welcome to the drone wars, a world of black ops and remote-control death made possible by the world's most high-tech weaponry--which in turn enables the U.S. government to dispatch lethal force half a world away by means that would look familiar to any teenage gamer: the joystick and the video screen.

A LITTLE more than a decade ago, drones hadn't yet entered the popular vernacular, nor had they become a significant part of the U.S. military arsenal. Then began the "war on terror" decade--with U.S. ground troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Special Forces and air strikes used in a half-dozen more countries.

"In 2000, the Pentagon had fewer than 50 aerial drones; 10 years later, it had nearly 7,500," reports activist Medea Benjamin in her book Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. "Most of these were mini-drones for battlefield surveillance, but they also had about 800 of the bigger drones, ranging in size from a private aircraft to a commercial jet."

Today, drones come in all shapes and sizes to serve a variety of purposes, including domestic law enforcement and surveillance agendas. "Micro air vehicles" (MAVs), for example, draw on the flight principles of small birds and large insects, allowing them to enter a private space through an open window in order to carry out surveillance or even attack enemy targets. The 38-inch Raven is launched by an operator throwing it into the air like a paper airplane.

According to Benjamin:

[Drone manufacturer] AeroVironment's itsy-bitsy surveillance Hummingbird Drone was featured by Time magazine as one of the best inventions in 2011. Built as a prototype for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it can fly in all directions, even backward. It can hover and rotate clockwise or counterclockwise, and is equipped with a video camera. It's shockingly light--weighing less than one AA battery--but carries, at least during the experimental phase, a shockingly hefty price tag of $4 million.

In the realm of foreign policy, the growing use of drones coincided with the failure of the American strategy of counterinsurgency--the supposed effort to win "hearts and minds" by using troop surges and boots on the ground to clear territories of "insurgents." The return of a semblance of normalcy to a war-torn region, went the theory, would then win U.S. troops the support of the local population.

But the U.S. military isn't designed to carry out such delicate maneuvers. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In any case, most people in countries like Afghanistan somehow failed to identify with the foreign troops who were responsible for plunging their lives into violence and chaos in the first place.

Enter the drones, equipped to carry out surveillance and air strikes while risking, at most, a case of eye strain for flight operators peering into their screens while trying to decide whether the indistinct blob they are ready to annihilate is, in fact, an enemy target, a wedding party or even friendly forces.

"FROM A military standpoint, drones are a dream come true."

It's customary to expect such enthusiasm about the "latest and greatest" military technology from gung-ho generals, neocon foreign policy makers and Pentagon contractors. But this statement comes from Maureen White, a high-level Democratic Party fundraiser, State Department consultant on refugee issues and former member of the board of Human Rights Watch.

In White's view, whatever negative connotations are associated with drones are because "we have failed to control the debate." In Pakistan, she continued, the Taliban is "terrorizing civilians and creating thousands of refugees. Taking out the leaders with drones is critical. It's a pinpointed, targeted, precise and successful mechanism."

But like other whizz-bang military innovations of the past--such as the tank, the fighter jet and nuclear bombs--the reality of drone warfare hasn't lived up to the hype.

According to journalist and anti-drone expert Nick Turse:

Instead, like the others, [the drone] has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities. Its technology is fallible, and its efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years. For example, the inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a continuing problem for the military's drone operations, while the CIA's judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law--and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an entire population. The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for generating opposition and enemies.

In this light, White's confidence in the pinpoint accuracy of drone strikes isn't naivety--it's another example of a government lie.

But there's a further problem even when drone strikes aren't obliterating families and other victims euphemistically known as "collateral damage."

The U.S. government has long insisted that it has the right to assassinate those it considers its enemies--any time and any place in the world. Not too long ago, a Special Forces team was the only method for carrying out such an extrajudicial killing. Today, drones are the weapon of choice. And as the technology of killing by remote control has increased the incidence of targeted assassinations, concern for due process and international law, always minimal among U.S. war makers, has diminished further. As Benjamin explains:

The U.S. government need not be formally at war with any country in which it carries out those killings, nor need it present any evidence--in a civilian trial, a military tribunal or the court of public opinion--that the target has committed a crime. In fact, in the vast majority of cases, according to the Los Angeles Times, the U.S. government does not even know the identities of those whom it is slaughtering...

The presumption of innocence, jury trials and formal declarations of war became bothersome legal anachronisms. American presidents now assert the right to be judge, juror and executioner, a de facto license to kill free from the irksome interference of checks and balances. The only law that really matters is "the Law of 9/11."

Under Obama, the frequency and character of such strikes has increased--dramatically. "In Pakistan, a nominal U.S. ally, Obama authorized four times as many drone strikes in just his first two years in office as his predecessor approved in two full terms," reports Benjamin. "Regardless of who has been in the White House, though, the excuse has always been the same: the strikes are exercises in self-defense."

What's more, the targets now include U.S. citizens. On September 30, 2011, a Predator drone strike in Pakistan killed two U.S. citizens--Samir Khan and Anwar al-Awlaki.

The Obama administration not only failed to offer any evidence of al-Awlaki's involvement in terrorism, but he was never charged with a crime. And when Obama's Justice Department fought off a legal motion to force it to provide such evidence, it got the court to declare the president's decision to order the assassination of an American citizen "judicially unreviewable."

Civil liberties advocates, antiwar activists and many more condemned the ruling. Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the ACLU, declared:

If the court's ruling is correct, the government has unreviewable authority to carry out the targeted killing of any American, anywhere, whom the president deems to be a threat to the nation. It would be difficult to conceive of a proposition more inconsistent with the Constitution or more dangerous to American liberty.

It's worth remembering that the power that the court invests in the president today will be available not just in this case, but in future cases, and not just to the current president, but to every future president. It is a profound mistake to allow this unparalleled power to be exercised free from the checks and balances that apply in every other context.

In this respect, drone strikes actually are a "clean" form of warfare--because they eliminate messy difficulties regarding the rights of the accused. In the words of Benjamin:

While a few human rights groups might complain following an extrajudicial assassination-by-drone, unlike a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, the dead man isn't a lingering pock on America's image abroad. Armed with that knowledge, politicians have an incentive to resort to lethal force first, usually sentencing people to death on evidence so flimsy it would never stand up in a court of law--or even a military tribunal.

"FOR US, drones mean death," Hamdi Shaqqura told the Washington Post. According to Shaqqura's group--the Palestinian Center for Human Rights--Israel's drones have killed more than 825 Palestinians since 2006. "When you hear drones, you hear death," Shaqqura added. "It's continuous, watching us, especially at night." The corrosive effect of such constant anxiety about when the sky might start raining death has left a majority of children in Gaza suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, according to one study.

Such nightmarish accounts have prompted a growing chorus of protest among antiwar activists in the U.S.

Meanwhile, defenders of civil liberties are alarmed at the growing use of drones in the U.S.--in Texas, for example, where a police department in a Houston suburb spent $300,000 to acquire a 50-pound drone helicopter with a camera and infrared imaging system. Though it's not weaponized, it is capable of being mounted with "less-than-lethal" weapons such as Tasers and guns that fire beanbag rounds, according to Michael Buscher, CEO of manufacturer Vanguard Defense Industries.

"The potential for abuse is vast," writes civil liberties defender and journalist Glenn Greenwald. "The escalation in surveillance they ensure is substantial, and the effect they have on the culture of personal privacy--having the state employ hovering, high-tech, stealth video cameras that invade homes and other private spaces--is simply creepy."

Already, efforts to cast light on the dark world of drone warfare have met with success. For example, 14 activists arrested in 2009 for trespassing onto the grounds used to house drone operators at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada took their misdemeanor charges to trial. Though the "Creech 14" were found guilty, they succeeded in making their trial about the commission of war crimes as part of the U.S. government's drone program.

In his closing statement at trial, Brian Terrell said:

Some have noted that the trend toward using drones in warfare is a paradigm shift that can be compared to what happened when an atomic bomb was first used to destroy the city of Hiroshima in Japan. When Hiroshima was bombed, though, the whole world knew that everything had changed. Today, everything is changing, but it goes almost without notice.

More such protests will be essential to making sure the U.S. government knows that the whole world is watching.

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