Killer Drones

Saturday, 02 February 2013

The US – the leading rogue democracy of the West – claims the right to kill anyone, anywhere. It’s a law unto itself as the “world’s only superpower”. Still the UN (following a request by China, Russia and Pakistan last year) is to belatedly investigate evidence that missiles fired from drones – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or Remotely Piloted Aircraft – cause disproportionate civilian casualties. The UN’s man, Ben Emmerson, says there should be standards and safeguards; investigations into botched attacks and reparations; consensus on the legality of using lethal robots. It is of course entirely in the UN’s interest to sanitise murder and state terrorism that it is powerless to stop.

Customised killer drones are the progeny of 9/11. A week after the attacks Congress passed the Authorisation for Use of Military Force giving the US president the power to blitz nations, organisations and people across the globe in retribution or to prevent future acts of terrorism. The dreadful choreography of planes smashing into skyscrapers which dramatically crumbled into dust spooked Americans into trading civil liberties for homeland security. Constitutional rights were duly shredded. US citizens can now – along with everyone else – be indefinitely detained without trial, put-on classified “kill lists” and executed without due process by an expanding fleet of drones.

In May last year the New York Times revealed that President Obama personally signed-off the hit list. He’s appeared on CNN, saying the decision to target individuals for killing rather than capture involves “an extensive process with a lot of checks”. The assassination of “high-value” targets are trumpeted by officials and faithfully repeated in the media. There are reports of a “disposition matrix” for identifying targets and the development of a “rules of force playbook” codifying strike procedure. But the terminator programme is still secret and unaccountable. The administration deflects requests for information by insisting the killings are lawful and that it is targeting terrorists who threaten national security.

The US has more than 7,500 drones in operation, up from 50 a decade ago. Some 400 of these are attack drones. There are about 125 “multidrones” which can both spy and strike. In the next ten years there will be 500. Drones account for 95 percent of all targeted killings since 9/11. George W Bush authorised 50 as he ramped-up drone warfare in the last eight months of his presidency. But Barack Obama has clearly earned his title of ‘The Reaper President’ with 350 hits to his credit so far.

Reaper and Predator drones – fully loaded with munitions – can remain airborne for up to fourteen hours at a time, 3 or 4 times longer than fighter jets and ground attack aircraft. They provide an almost instant response, pounding targets within seconds, often before their faster than sound missiles are heard by people on the ground. Critically they allow the US to kill from afar without immediate risk to American lives; to wage persistent war everywhere, intimidate at large and destroy at will. Drones are also considerably cheaper than conventional war planes. They will be coming to Africa in large numbers.

Figures from the Bureau for Investigative Journalism in London show the attacks thus far have been concentrated in Pakistan (362), Yemen (64) and Somalia (23). The Bureau estimates 3 800 people have been killed, about 3 000 in Pakistan. They include over 800 civilians and 200 children. Almost 25 percent of those killed were ordinary people.

The situation is actually much worse. The other 3000 victims are “militants” or “terrorists” largely by default; a New York Time’s exposé revealed that the US considers all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent”. It helps explain why an April 2009 report by the respected Pakistani terrorism expert Amir Mir – based on internal Pakistani government sources –alleged that from January 14, 2006 to April 8, 2009, U.S. drones killed 687 civilians and 14 Al-Qaeda operatives. That’s a civilian death rate of 94 percent.

There is another reason for the shocking number of civilians killed. People identified on the kill list are targeted in “personality” strikes. But according to US authorities there are also “profile” or “signature” strikes based on a “pattern of life” analysis. These are groups of men who bear certain defining characteristics associated with terrorist activities. In short, people who look suspicious on computer screens half-way across the world in Nevada. There’s a joke in Washington that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks” they think it’s a terrorist training camp.

And so wedding guests, religious celebrants, schoolchildren gathering wood, village councillors at open-air meetings, mourners at funerals, worshippers outside mosques and Pashtuns with a proud tradition of hospitality all end up dead.

Notorious, cold-blooded and calculated “double-tap” attacks increase the civilian body count. Drone operators wait for people to rush to the aid of victims and then strike again. The case studies are grim reading; the dead and maimed children have names. None are called collateral damage.

“Living under Drones”, a report by the laws schools at Stanford and New York University says: “In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false.”

They don’t just kill and injure. “Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorises men, women, and children giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.” It is easy to show that terrorising civilians is in fact the prime objective.

America’s justification for its drone strikes on Al Qaeda “militants” is that they pose an imminent threat to the US and must be killed. The 9/11attacks – according to the official narrative – proved Al Qaeda could rip out the heart of America. The story leaks like a sieve. If the warmongers in Washington were concerned about national security they would have questioned Bin Laden about his magic carpet. Instead he was shot in the head and tossed into the sea – or so they claim.

Bin Laden denied any part in 9/11. “I have already said that I am not involved in the 11 September attacks in the United States. As a Muslim, I try my best to avoid telling a lie. I had no knowledge of these attacks, nor do I consider the killing of innocent women, children, and other humans as an appreciable act. Islam strictly forbids causing harm to innocent women, children, and other people.” If Bin Laden was the mastermind his refusal to claim responsibility for 9/11 simply defeats the purpose. In 2005, Rex Tomb, Chief of Investigative Publicity for the FBI confirmed, “He has not been formally indicted and charged in connection with 9/11 because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11.”

The US “war on terror” is really a war of terror which flouts international law. Even if consideration is limited to civilian casualties the US is at the very least in breach of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, and more especially the Additional Protocols of 1977. These formed part of the legal framework of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They apply to apartheid brutality but clearly do not constrain the slaughter of innocents by the US.

International criminal law is a farce. It’s a lawless world. In his book “How America gets away with murder” law professor Michael Mandel painstakingly charts the return to barbarity. The US has delegitimated and marginalised the UN and ensured that the International Criminal Court accepts that “the crime the imperialists uniquely commit, the supreme crime of aggressive war is not a crime at all”. International criminal law now amounts to legalised aggression and repressive American rule. Its function is public relations, rounding up and trying the usual suspects, the leaders of nations bombed in the first place by the West. “But Israel has nothing to fear from international criminal law because it is under the protection of the United States, which provides it with both military invincibility and war-crime impunity.”

Undeterred, Henry A Crumpton, a former CIA counterterrorism chief, makes the moral case for drones. “We said, ‘Let’s be as precise as possible, because that’s our mission — to kill Bin Laden and the people right around him’…Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare what we’re doing today.” Igor Primoratz, professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem has done just that.

In a collection of essays “Terror from the Sky” he writes: “The bombing of German cities and towns has a special place in the history of state terrorism…the Allies’ bombing of Germany in World War 11 was the first to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians, make millions homeless, devastate scores of cities across an entire country, and destroy untold cultural treasures. It introduced a new era in the history of warfare and terrorism, an era we still live in.”

The components of the bombing campaign, “violence” against the “innocent” intended to “intimidate” and “coerce”, are the defining traits of terrorism. American-style drone warfare fits the bill, precisely.


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