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How To Lose Friends and Alienate People: An Update on Drone Warfare

[Pakistani mourners for civilians killed in US drone strike. Image from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.] [Pakistani mourners for civilians killed in US drone strike. Image from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.]

On 1 August 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry made an announcement in Islamabad, where he had gone to resuscitate bilateral US-Pakistani strategic negotiations. At a press conference, he said that the United States was committed to end drone strikes in Pakistan in the near future. “I think [President Obama] has a very real timeline, and we hope it's going to be very, very soon.”

The plan to wind down drone warfare was essentially a precondition to resume negotiations between the two countries which had broken down in November 2011 following an airstrike that accidentally killed twenty-four Pakistani soldiers. By then, the negotiations were already hobbling along amidst rising anti-American sentiment over drone strikes as well as anger over the shooting deaths of two men in Lahore by a CIA contractor and the invasion of Pakistani territory to kill Osama bin Laden. According to a recent Gallup poll, Pakistani disapproval of the US government is at ninety-two percent.

Although Pakistan previously permitted the United States to engage in drone strikes, opposition has become the new official position, as Kerry’s announcement implicitly affirms. Indeed, moments after being sworn into office in June, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called for an end to drone strikes in the country’s tribal areas and along the border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s present posture toward—or, rather, against US drone warfare is driven by the rising civilian death toll. In February 2012, the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) reported that between 2009 and 2011 the CIA had engaged in the practice of second strikes (“double-tapping”), which kills and injures rescuers, and strikes on funerals. Supposedly, second strikes ended in July 2011. However, on the same day Kerry made his announcement in Islamabad, BIJ reported new findings of five CIA second strikes against rescuers between 23 May and 23 July 2012.

In June 2012, Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur for Extra-judicial, Arbitrary or Summary Executions, characterized second strikes that imperil rescuers as a war crime. In response to Heyns’ statement, Pakistan’s UN representative in Geneva, Zamir Akram, urged the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the use of drones, and called on the US “to respect the growing international opinion” that the use of drones “not only violates our sovereignty but also violates the UN charter in our view and also international law.”

On 9 May 2013, the Peshawar High Court (PHC) ruled that US drone warfare violates international law, constitutes war crimes, and breaches the country’s sovereignty. That ruling emanated from two constitutional petitions filed the previous May by the Pakistani Foundation for Fundamental Rights challenging the government’s failure to protect citizens. The PHC ordered the government to take immediate action to stop future attacks, to take the matter of US drone strikes in Pakistan to the UN Security Council (where Pakistan is currently a non-permanent member) and, if that option is blocked, to request an urgent meeting of the General Assembly. Finally, the court urged the government to seek US compensation for every civilian killed by a drone.

In July, a secret internal Pakistani report on civilian deaths was obtained by BIJ. That report, which examined seventy-five CIA drone strikes between 2006 and October 2009, found that at least 147 of the total 746 casualties were civilians, ninety-four of whom were children. These figures are based on on-the-ground investigations by local officials, and therefore authoritatively contradict the official US line that drone strikes do not pose a great danger to civilians.

John Brennan has been one of the most vocal proponents of the line that civilian casualties are rare. During his February 2013 Congressional confirmation hearing to become director of the CIA, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, sought to validate Brennan’s claims. “[F]or the past several years, this committee has done significant oversight of the government’s conduct of targeted strikes, and the figures we have obtained from the executive branch, which we have done our utmost to verify, confirm that the number of civilian casualties that have resulted from such strikes each year has typically been in the single digits.”

Chris Woods, a drone investigator for BIJ, was interviewed on Democracy Now following the release of the Pakistani internal report. He explained what he did after Feinstein made those claims:

I got in touch with every single organization that had conducted significant field investigations in Pakistan into civilian deaths, regardless of the outcome. Every single organization came back to me with the same answer: “We have never been contacted by any member of any congressional oversight committee, intelligence oversight committee, of either House of Congress or their staffers.” This idea that there’s oversight, this idea that Congress is doing its job, is looking into claims and counterclaims around civilian deaths, just doesn’t stack up. They’re going to CIA and saying, “Show us your videos. Tell us what you did.” And then they’re making an assumption based on that. There’s no independent investigating going on here. And there’s no reaching outside the U.S. intelligence community. I think until both Congress and the agency itself start to address some of these public concerns, we’re going to have this huge gulf, this growing gulf, between public perception of what the drone war is about and this claim by the US government that “It’s fine. It only kills terrorists. And you know what? We don’t ever kill any civilians. Or if we do, it’s a tiny number.”

The official US line has no caché in Peshawar, but it sells in Peoria. Large and bipartisan majorities of Americans believe and accept one or more of the following: drone strikes are effective in reducing the threat of terrorism, are justified by the fact that we are at war, are necessary for lack of alternatives to capture suspects, are legitimized by the permission of foreign governments to conduct strikes in their territory, are low-cost and accurate weapons whose use is safe for our troops, and so on.

This combination of claims was on display during President Obama’s 23 May 2013 national security speech. On the drone policy, he said:

[W]e only target al-Qaida and its associated forces, and even then the use of drones is heavily constrained. America does not take strikes when we have the ability to capture individual terrorists. Our preference is always to detain, interrogate and prosecute them. America cannot take strikes wherever we choose. Our actions are bound by consultations with partners and respect for state sovereignty. America does not take strikes to punish individuals. We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set.


Most if not all of Obama’s claims are contradicted by the empirical record of casualties resulting from drones and abundant information revealed by investigative journalists and human rights organizations about the US targeted killing policy. Therefore, given what is known and knowable about drone warfare, the president’s claims (and similar public statements by other officials) should be appreciated for what they are: propaganda.

The US government proactively and as a matter of policy misrepresents and hides from the public what it does with drones and why, and seeks to suppress or deny contradictory information. Consider one example of this malfeasant blend: According to President Obama, lethal strikes are not launched unless there is “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, the highest standard we can set.” That is flatly contradicted by what is known about the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) bombing of the Yemeni village al-Majalah on 17 December 2009.

The main target of the strike was an alleged al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) deputy in the Abayan province, and the site to be bombed was ostensibly a training camp. Contrary to Obama’s claimed standard of “near certainty,” State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh and Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson were given forty-five minutes to decide whether to endorse the strike that JSOC commander General William McRaven was urging to proceed. Authorization was granted, and two cruise missiles full of cluster munitions and incendiary material were launched from a submarine off the Yemeni coast.

What the bomb struck was not an AQAP training camp but a poor beduin village, and it killed forty-six people, including twenty-one children and fourteen women, five of whom were pregnant. (The most comprehensive account of the al-Majalah strike and its aftermath is provided by Jeremy Scahill in his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.)

Perhaps one could write off al-Majalah as an unfortunate mistake. But this does not capture the policy choices to deliberately misrepresent and obfuscate facts about the strike after the fact. Initially, the Yemeni government claimed responsibility in order to deflect public agitation against a US attack. (Indeed, this bombing was the start of the US drone war in Yemen.) This claim was immediately contradicted by tribal leaders and journalists who went to the village and discovered missile parts labeled “Made in the United States” among the remains of the victims; the Yemeni arsenal does not possess such weapons. The ruse that the bombing was Yemeni was undermined further when unnamed American officials gave statements to the media confirming that it was a US strike. In January 2010, Wikileaks released a classified diplomatic cable about a meeting several weeks after the attack between the head of US Central Command David Petraeus and then-Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in which it was agreed that Yemen would continue to claim responsibility for US attacks in the Abayan province.

On 17 April 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information about the attack on al-Majalah. What they are seeking is records on the intelligence that prompted the strike, including whether officials were aware of the presence of civilians; what if any steps have been taken to investigate the killing of civilians and to compensate survivors and victims’ families; and why a US official would plot with a foreign government to deceive the publics in both countries. To date, the government has not complied with the ACLU-CCR request by supplying the records. On the contrary, officials have not even acknowledged that the US carried out the strike, despite the abundant evidence attesting to that fact.

President Obama could have come clean about the al-Majalah massacre (faulty intelligence, civilian casualties, false-flag ruse) during his May 2013 speech—if the objective was not propagandistic whitewashing pitched to a domestic audience. Instead, his silence on al-Majalah (which is an egregious but not isolated incident) has made the president a peddler of the official lies. But he does more than just peddle; he advocates the silencing of critics: On 2 February 2011, the president personally called President Saleh requesting him to cancel a planned “pardon” for the Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye who had done the most extensive reporting on the attack. Saleh complied and kept Shaye in jail. When Shaye was finally released in July 2013, the White House registered its protest with the Yemeni government.

Under the Obama administration, drone warfare and targeted killing have become the centerpieces of US counterterrorism policy and practice. (Both were elements of Bush administration policy, but for most of those eight years, they were strategically secondary to arrest, interrogation and detention.)

The US drone policy is extremely unpopular abroad. According to a Pew Research Global Attitudes poll released on 18 July 2013:

In 31 nations, at least half disapprove of the U.S. conducting drone missile strikes targeting extremists in places such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. At least three-in-four hold this view in 15 countries from all corners of the world, including nations from the Middle East, Europe, Latin America and Asia. The only three countries where majorities support the drone campaign are Israel (64% approve), Kenya (56%), and the US itself (61%).

Views about drones also differ sharply along gender lines in many countries. For instance, in Japan, 41% of men approve of the drone attacks, compared with just 10% of women. Double digit gender gaps are also found in six of the eight EU nations polled, as well as Australia, Canada, the US, South Korea and Uganda.

This year, foreign and international pushback against the United States’s asserted right to engage in drone warfare has picked up steam. Kerry’s statement that the practice will—indeed, must—end because the government of Pakistan insists upon it is one example. Another example is the UN investigative unit that was established on 24 January 2013 by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-terrorism and Human Rights. This unit, composed of experts from several countries, has a mandate to assess not only the civilian deaths resulting from drone strikes but the legality of targeted killing as a government policy.

In a speech delivered at Harvard law school in October 2012 where Emmerson announced his intention to establish this unit with the cooperation with Special Rapporteur Heyns, he said, “If the relevant states are not willing to establish effective independent monitoring mechanisms … then it may in the last resort be necessary for the UN to act.” On the US stance that it has a global prerogative to execute people, Emmerson stated:

 

[T]he global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations… [This] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US.

 

The urgency of this investigation is driven foremost by the rapid expansion of US drone warfare and the proliferation of drone technology. Its legitimacy is driven by the global unpopularity of US drone strikes and the fact that no government, other than Israel, has asserted for itself the right to engage in drone strikes or accepted that the US targeted killing policy is lawful.

 

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