- Covert Drone War
- Larry Everest
Early in the morning on December 6, two missiles, fired without warning from an unmanned U.S. drone, struck a house in the small village of Mubarak Shahi in northwest Pakistan. A Pakistani security official told the press that three “militants” had been killed. Another official reported four dead. There was no independent verification of the victims’ identities. (“US drone kills at least 3 militants in Pakistan,” AFP, December 6, 2012)
This news generated only a faint ripple in the U.S. media.
Such assassinations from above have become routine, normalized. Since taking office in 2008, the Obama administration has greatly stepped up the number of unmanned drone attacks, launching more than 300 against Pakistan alone—six times the number ordered by Bush—as well as dozens more against Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps other countries in the region. Drones have been used over Libya and are being used in spy operations against Iran. They’re being deployed from dozens of secret facilities in the Middle East, Africa, and Southwest Asia, directed from operational hubs in the U.S.—where the buttons are pushed and the missiles launched, thousands of miles away from the bloodshed.
More than 2,500 people have been murdered in these drone attacks over the past decade.
Creating a Legal Fig Leaf for Illegal Assassinations?
In 2008, Barack Obama, a constitutional lawyer, ran for president on a platform of upholding international law: “We are committed to the rule of law because that is who we are,” he said.
Yet as soon as he took office he continued—and expanded—the Bush regime’s wanton violation of the imperialists’ own international and domestic law by escalating drone strikes in which the U.S. acts as judge, jury, and executioner—killing anyone it deems an opponent, including U.S. citizens, anywhere in the world, without any due or lawful process. President Obama has personally gone over “kill lists” to decide who lives and who dies.
After steadfastly resisting any legal constraint against the right to kill anyone it wants, any time it wants, any place it wants—or even disclosing the scope and legal justification for its drone policy for four years—The New York Times reported that shortly before the November election, the Obama administration stepped up efforts to “develop explicit rules for the targeted killing of terrorists by unmanned drones, so that a new president would inherit clear standards and procedures.” During the campaign Obama said, “One of the things we’ve got to do is put a legal architecture in place.” (“Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy,” November 24, 2012)
First, it’s far from clear—now that Obama has won re-election—whether his administration will even pursue its codification of drone policy. Second, the impetus to create such a policy is not the gross immorality and illegality of these drone attacks, but rather debates and struggles among the U.S. rulers over whether and how much to expand drone assaults. Third, even if the Obama administration did come up with some legal rationale, it would be nothing more than an effort to legalize, legitimize, and normalize what is truly criminal and immoral—including their attempts to undercut the small but important and growing opposition to drone strikes.
Drone Strikes: U.S. Terrorism from the Skies
Under international law (Article 2(4) of the UN Charter), the use of military force—like drones—in or against another country is considered legitimate self-defense only in response to an imminent threat or an ongoing armed attack which is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation—in short it leaves the attacked party no other option.
Following the September 11, 2001 attack on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the U.S. launched what it claimed was a legitimate war of self-defense against the alleged perpetrators of those attacks—the so-called “war on terror.” Yet it quickly became clear that this war was not limited to or even mainly focused on going after those supposedly responsible for the September 11 attacks. Instead, this “war on terror” became the justification and catch-all for launching a global war to expand and strengthen the U.S. empire by going after all manner of forces the U.S. rulers considered obstacles or opponents—including those with no connection to the September 11 attacks, like the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
As columnist Glenn Greenwald explains, the Obama administration has continued and expanded the Bush regime’s twisting of international law and “self-defense” to justify its expansion of drone assassinations:
“This was accomplished first by advocating the vague, sweeping Bush/Cheney interpretation of the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF)—whereby the President can target not only the groups which perpetrated the 9/11 attack (as the AUMF provides) but also those he claims are ‘associated’ [with] such groups, and can target not only members of such groups (as the AUMF states) but also individuals he claims provide ‘substantial support’ to those groups. Obama then entrenched these broad theories by signing into law the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, which permanently codified those Bush/Cheney interpretation[s] of these war powers.” (“Obama: A GOP President Should Have Rules Limiting the Kill List,” Guardian UK, November 27, 2012)
Obama claims that strikes in Pakistan are “a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.” (New York Times, November 24, 2012). Early this year, in responding to questions about drone attacks, he claimed they were carried out because of “active plots that are directed against the United States.” (USA Today, January 31, 2012) In reality, the drone strikes are attacking people with no connection to September 11 and with no plan for any kind of attack on U.S. territory but who have conflicts with reactionary U.S.-backed regimes in the region. The New York Times admits, “Most strikes have been directed at militants whose main battle is with the Pakistani authorities or who fight with the Taliban against American troops in Afghanistan. In Yemen, some strikes apparently launched by the United States killed militants who were preparing to attack Yemeni military forces.”
Further, many of the strikes carried out by the U.S.—their “signature strikes”—are not against particular “terrorists.” These are conducted against groups or individuals the U.S. doesn’t even know and can’t individually identify but suspects may be involved in activities the imperialists consider against their interests. People are being blown to bits while driving in their cars, while attending funerals—even while trying to rescue those who are victims of drone strikes! The U.S. military cynically calls this a “double tap”—not only killing the suspects, but also murdering their rescuers, loved ones, neighbors, and anyone associated as well. In the overwhelming number of cases, this carnage isn’t within hundreds of miles of any battlefield where U.S. forces are engaged in combat, much less do the victims have any connection to September 11.
In the name of fighting "terror," the U.S. is committing thousands of acts of aerial terrorism with drone attacks on people from Central Asia to North Africa. Barack Obama has continued—and expanded—the Bush regime's wanton violation of international and domestic law by escalating drone strikes where he acts as judge, jury, and executioner—killing anyone he deems an opponent, including U.S. citizens, anywhere in the world, without any due or lawful process.
As A World to Win News Service reported, “‘Living Under Drones’ (a report issued by two U.S. academic research groups in September 2012) describes a 2006 drone attack on a religious school in Bajaur that killed more than 80 people, 69 of them children.... Other incidents described involve drones firing at cars and taxis, killing people so often for reasons unknown to local people that any travel is considered dangerous.... People in North Waziristan, a tribal area where most people work in subsistence agriculture or trading, have come to avoid all public gatherings, such as mosques and even funerals, which seem to be a particular target. People are afraid to sit together outside; even children cannot play together and few people venture out at night. Many parents no longer let their children attend school for fear of drone strikes.” (“Murder by Drone: The U.S. Terror War in Pakistan,” Revolution #283, October 14, 2012)
So in the name of fighting “terror,” the U.S. is committing thousands of acts of aerial terrorism from Central Asia to North Africa.
Drone strikes can also be a means of bullying and pressuring U.S. clients like Pakistan. A World to Win News Service says that “Living Under Drones” contains a “timeline that correlates the intensity of U.S. drone activity with friction between the two governments, especially around Pakistan’s arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis for gunning down two men in the street. . . . Relying on the U.S. Congressional Research Service, the report cites this as one of three incidents in which ‘[m]essaging to Pakistan appears to continue to be part of the [drone] programme’s intent.’” In short, the U.S. is committing mass murder—of civilians in many cases—to pressure the government of Pakistan to release one of its own paramilitary operatives suspected of murdering two Pakistanis.
“Precision Strikes”... Murdering Thousands
Obama claims his drone attacks are “precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates” and that “drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.”(USA Today, January 31, 2012) This is either an outright lie or a cold-blooded expression of utter disregard for human lives. According to a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in England in February, “since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children. A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.” (cited in “Drones, Deportations, Drugs—The ‘3 Ds’ of why Obama has been worse than Bush,” Revolution #270, May 27, 2012)
“[F]rom June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children... These strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals.”
In Yemen, between 2002 and 2012, U.S. drone strikes have killed between 362 and 1,062 people including between 60 and 173 civilians. In Somalia from 2007 to 2012, between 58 and 170 people have been killed including between 11 and 57 civilians. (“Obama terror drones: CIA tactics in Pakistan include targeting rescuers and funerals,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, February 4, 2012)
As Glenn Greenwald sums up, Obama is a “president who has wielded what is literally the most extreme and tyrannical power a government can claim—to execute anyone the leader wants, even his own citizens, in total secrecy and without a whiff of due process—and who has resisted all efforts to impose a framework of limits or even transparency.”
None of this has the effect of ending the scourge of violence—just the opposite. Nor is it about ending terror. It’s about perpetuating and expanding an empire of exploitation enforced by violence—whether that violence is used to assassinate genuine revolutionaries, support local opponents of the U.S., bully whole countries, take down troublesome governments, or secure whole swaths of the planet against other big-power competitors like China, Russia, or whomever. This “great game” is no game, but a deadly campaign to keep the world locked in misery and oppression.
It’s this illegitimate violence that Obama is seeking to legitimize, legalize, and normalize.
The Interests of the U.S. Imperialists are NOT Our Interests
According to a June 13 New York Times op-ed column by Ibrahim Mothana, “The first known drone strike in Yemen to be authorized by Mr. Obama, in late 2009, left 14 women and 21 children dead in the southern town of al-Majala, according to a parliamentary report. Only one of the dozens killed was identified as having strong Qaeda connections.” Every such U.S. drone attack drives people in large parts of the world into the arms of reactionary Islamic jihadism. This reality has been recognized by ruling class critics of Obama’s drone policies. For example, Mothana’s column argues: “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants... Robert Grenier, the former head of the C.I.A.’s counterterrorism center, has warned that the American drone program in Yemen risks turning the country into a safe haven for Al Qaeda like the tribal areas of Pakistan—‘the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan.’”
There is a logic to U.S. drone attacks. Every action the U.S. imperialists have taken since September 11, 2001 has been part of the “real war on terror”—which (however it has been rebranded since the Bush regime) has always been an unjust war of imperialist aggression, in whatever form, utilizing whatever tactics the U.S. government deems will advance the system’s agenda. And the military tactics of U.S. imperialism reflect its nature.
Drone attacks utilize the advanced technology available to the U.S. empire in conflict with jihadist Islam and—from the point of view of the imperialists—are more cost-effective than invading with troops (including reducing the number of U.S. troops who might die in, or return embittered from such invasions). And drone attacks provide “deniability”: the U.S. can claim it hasn’t actually invaded a whole bunch of countries. This is part of what Obama means with duplicitous double-speak about how U.S. drone attacks “limit our incursions into somebody else’s territory,” (USA Today, January 31, 2012) The attacks continue and the clash of two reactionary forces continues and deepens.
There have been important protests against and exposures of the U.S. drone war. But for the most part, people in the U.S. have gone along with the slaughter... not just silently but voting for it because this death and suffering is happening somewhere else to someone else, out of sight, out of mind as children are blown to bits. But just because in the short-term, immediate sense Americans are not risking their lives to carry out these attacks doesn’t mean they aren’t happening or that these attacks aren’t illegal and immoral.
And these drone attacks can also be part of “full on” invasions and all-out wars if the U.S. rulers decide that’s a course they need to pursue. The building tension with Iran—where spy drones are being used to collect information that would be used in a U.S. or Israeli attack—is a case in point. And when the U.S. imperialists do wage all-out wars, people in the U.S. will already have been conditioned by daily drone strikes to accept and turn a blind eye to murder thousands of miles away and NOT TO CARE about people in whatever country the U.S. imperialists claim is giving them problems.
People—especially people in this country—must reject identifying with the interests of the U.S. imperialists. U.S. drones—whether they murder people or spy on them, whether they are “legitimized” by formal policies or not—are all part of enforcing a world of exploitation, environmental devastation, and brutal oppression. That is not in the interests of the great majority of humanity, and the interests of the U.S. imperialists are not our interests.
* “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” The New York Times, May 29, 2012
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(See also “Obama Administration: Judge, Jury, and Executioner,” Revolution #263, March 25, 2012.)
This article first appeared in the December 16, 2012 issue of Revolution Newspaper.