Murder by Drone: the U.S. Terror War in Pakistan

From a World to Win News Service

As American drones occupy the skies across Pakistan's North Waziristan, the U.S. is continuing to lie about the many hundreds of ordinary people blasted to pieces or incinerated and the terrorizing of the entire population.

Most recently, an American embassy official in Pakistan insisted that protests against the drone strikes were unjustified in light of "the extreme process that is undertaken to avoid what is very sadly called 'collateral damage.'"

Although not allowed to reveal classified information, he said, the number of civilian casualties is "quite low" – "in the two figures." (Guardian, October 7) This statement was meant to counter international news coverage of a convoy of hundreds of people from all over Pakistan and dozens of Western antiwar activists (including women from the U.S. group Code Pink) heading for a town in South Waziristan to demonstrate against the drone attacks and the Pakistani government's complicity.

 

The report Living Under Drones issued by two U.S. academic research groups in September paints a very different picture.

"[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." (According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit news reporting agency based at City University in London whose data and methodology the report reviewed and found valid.)

The discrepancy is partially explained by the fact that "for the purpose of tracking civilian casualties, the [U.S.] government presumes that all military-age males killed in drone strikes are combatants." The report demonstrates that this is not true. Yet even the most narrow interpretation of Washington's claim, that it has recorded a "quite low" number of civilian casualties, may be a lie within a lie, since the exact figures, the identities of the human beings they represent and the circumstances of their death are all cloaked in secrecy.

Who was killed and how they died was the aim of an investigation project by law clinics at the Stanford Law School in California and the New York University Law School. Their report (available at livingunderdrones.org) was based on "nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting."

Their conclusions are moderate to a fault. Instead of calling for an end to the drone war, "this report recommends that the U.S. conduct a fundamental re-evaluation of current targeted killing practices, taking into account all available evidence, the concerns of various stakeholders, and the short and long-term costs and benefits."

"Costs and benefits" for who and for what goals? By arguing on this basis, the report ignores the question of the purpose and legitimacy of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and the drone war in neighboring North Waziristan that is a consequence and adjunct to that occupation. It also avoids the broader question of the ensemble of open and covert wars that the U.S. ruling classes are waging or threatening to wage throughout the "Greater Middle East" to protect and extend their global empire, no matter which party is in office.

By way of analogy, if someone were to reason that strikes on civilians in the West go against Al-Qaeda's overall (also reactionary) aims, this would be considered a cynical calculation and few people would be impressed by its moral stance.

But whether those involved in this report really believe in this "costs and benefits" approach or just feel that this is the only way their arguments will have impact, their careful review of the facts and first-hand accounts provide not only a damning account of the cruelty of U.S. conduct, but also evidence that this cruelty has a political purpose—that these deaths are not just "collateral damage" but rather part of a war-fighting strategy based on terrorizing the people of an entire region with no distinctions among them.

Living Under Drones describes a 2006 drone attack on a religious school in Bajaur that killed more than 80 people, 69 of them children. In another section, it reveals what really happened in what authorities described as a strike against a militant "house" where "a group of some three dozen alleged Taliban fighters were meeting."

"According to those we interviewed, on March 17 [2011], some 40 individuals gathered [in an open-air bus depot] in Datta Khel town centre. They included important community figures and local elders, all of whom were there to attend a jirga—the principal social institution for decision-making and dispute resolution in [the region]... convened to settle a dispute over a nearby chromite mine. All of the relevant stakeholders and local leaders were in attendance, including 35 government-appointed tribal leaders known as maliks, as well as government officials, and a number of khassadars (government employees administered at the local level by maliks who serve as a locally recruited auxiliary police force). Four men from a local Taliban group were also reportedly present, as their involvement was necessary to resolve the dispute effectively. Malik Daud Khan, a respected leader and decorated public servant, chaired the meeting...

"Though drones were hovering daily over North Waziristan, those at this meeting said they felt 'secure and insulated' from the threat of drones, because in their assessment at the time, 'drones target terrorists or those working against the government.' ... the maliks had even taken care to alert the local military post of the planned jirga ten days beforehand.

"At approximately 10:45 am, as the two groups were engaged in discussion, a missile fired from a U.S. drone hovering above struck one of the circles of seated men. Ahmed Jan, who was sitting in one of two circles of roughly 20 men each, told our researchers that he remembered hearing the hissing sound the missiles made just seconds before they slammed into the centre of his group. The force of the impact threw Jan's body a significant distance, knocking him unconscious, and killing everyone else sitting in his circle. Several additional missiles were fired, at least one of which hit the second circle. In all, the missiles killed a total of at least 42 people. One of the survivors from the other circle, Mohammad Nazir Khan, told us that many of the dead appeared to have been killed by flying pieces of shattered rocks.

"Another witness, Idris Farid, recalled that 'everything was devastated. There were pieces—body pieces—lying around. There was lots of flesh and blood.'... 'None of the elders who had attended had survived.''' All their family members "could do was 'to collect pieces of flesh and put them in a coffin.'"

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.

A humanitarian aid worker in Waziristan told the investigators, "Do you remember 9/11? Do you remember what it felt like right after? I was in New York on 9/11. I remember people crying in the streets. People were afraid about what might happen next. People didn't know if there would be another attack. There was tension in the air. This is what it is like. It is a continuous tension, a feeling of continuous uneasiness. We are scared. You wake up with a start to every noise."

Not only are people terrorized by what seems like random killings, they cannot forget the danger for a second because of the constant presence of drones, sometimes three or four visible at once. They circle in the sky, buzzing, all day, except when it rains. No one knows when they will fire, nor at whom.

One reason for the relatively low number of casualties in relation to deaths seems to be that the Hellfire missiles these drones shoot are thermobaric, far more destructive than ordinary explosives. The pressure wave produced by the blast alone may blow people apart in a circle as much as 20 meters in every direction, but the spray of burning aluminum and metal fragments can kill at an even greater distance. Often there is little left of the victims.

The nature of these missiles alone discredits the U.S. government's claim that these are "surgical" strikes. But the whole way targeting works also needs to be more widely understood. There are supposedly two types, "personality" and "signature."

"Personality" targets are when the U.S. puts particular individuals on a death list based on all sorts of "intelligence," including paid local informers who may have their own agenda. This was the main focus of drone strikes in Pakistan under the Bush administration.

Since Barack Obama took office, there has been a radical increase in the number of drone strikes (45-52 under Bush in 2001-09, 292 in just three and a half years under Obama). He has taken personal charge of approving who is on the kill list and all decisions to go ahead whenever the CIA does not have "a 'near certainty' that there will be zero civilian deaths."

At the same time, under Obama's leadership there has been what Living Under Drones calls "a reported expansion in the use of 'signature' strikes," which it also calls "profiling" and "guilt by association." Under the "pattern of life analysis," groups of men whose identities are not known but who meet certain "defining characteristics" can be killed on sight. These "signature characteristics" are secret, but seem to involve being "in an area of known terrorist activity," being in the vicinity of someone considered a "top Al-Qaeda operative" (which, as the strike on the jirga at Datta Khel demonstrates, can include the many, many thousands of people who might find themselves, at one time or another, at a gathering, a market or a street where someone linked to the many armed Islamist groups might also be found), or even, according to knowing jokes repeated in the report, "three guys doing jumping jacks" or "young men with stubble."

There is another element in this picture indicating that civilian deaths are not just accidental "collateral damage" but the deliberate result of U.S. policy: what American authorities cynically call "double tapping," the practice of following up on one missile strike with another one or more, minutes or even hours later, with the clear intent of killing relatives and neighbors frantically searching through the rubble for survivors and loved ones, "looking for the children in the beds," and trained rescue workers.

The report says, "According to a health professional familiar with North Waziristan, one humanitarian organization had a 'policy to not go immediately [to a reported drone strike] because of follow up strikes. There is a six hour mandatory delay.' According to the same source, therefore, it is 'only the locals, the poor, [who] will pick up the bodies of loved ones.'"

The authors emphasize that "attacks on first responders may constitute war crimes." But their report also provides factual ammunition for the argument that not only this particularly repulsive aspect but the U.S.'s whole drone war in Pakistan in general (along with the use of drones in Yemen and Somalia) is a war crime.

First of all, many careful readers of the report will conclude that killing non-combatants is not just an accidental result of policy but an American policy in itself. Secondly, even if certain known individuals are in some way tied to armed groups, the fact that their names can remain on a "kill list" for a long time means that targeting them runs counter to the international law that apologists for the U.S. government cite to justify these killings. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter considers the use of force in or against another country to be justifiable self-defense only when it is a response to an ongoing armed attack or an imminent threat, which is described as "instant, overwhelming and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation."

There is no moral justification for the U.S. drone war in Pakistan, and no apparent legal justification for it either. (The Obama government claims that it has a written legal opinion authorizing its actions, but its contents are secret!) The U.S. is not legally at war with Pakistan. This is why the drone war is being waged by the CIA and not the regular armed forces, and why the American government has to treat it as secret, even though everyone in Pakistan knows, as does everyone in the U.S. and elsewhere who wants to know.

In fact, the U.S. is still mainly allied with the Pakistani government (and especially the Pakistani military), despite serious contradictions. For the first three years of the drone war in Pakistan, then President Pervez Musharraf publicly pretended that the strikes were "either Pakistani military operations, car bombs, or accidental explosions." Since then the Pakistani government has found itself caught between outraged public opinion demanding an end to the strikes and an unyielding U.S. government.

One of the most damning, though little noticed, parts of this report is 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. At first the U.S. halted the drones "to avoid angering a population already riveted by Davis' arrest"; then, when negotiations between the Musharraf and Obama governments stalled, it launched 11 strikes in succession until the Pakistani government finally released Davis. 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 other words, at least part of the reason why the U.S. is killing people in Pakistan has little to do with even perceived military necessity but is in fact aimed at pressuring Pakistani "deciders," not because the Pakistani ruling classes and armed forces care about the lives of ordinary Pakistanis or anyone else, but because when the U.S. kills civilians in their country it makes their government look bad and provokes popular anger.

If terrorism is defined as the deliberate killing of civilians for political ends, this is an unmistakable "signature" of a terrorist operation.

The "cost" and "downside" of the drone strikes, the report warns, is that they "have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivate attacks against both U.S. military and civilian targets." This is undoubtedly true. It is also undeniably true, as the report says, that these armed Islamic fundamentalists are doing great harm as they seek to impose their rule over the people.

This report should help us understand that what the U.S. is doing in Pakistan and around the world is actually helping propel the jihadi movement. At the same time, however, although it exposes the harm caused by the U.S. with its drone war, the report does not take into account the even greater harm done by the American occupation of Afghanistan and decades-long domination of Pakistan, including its support for Pakistan's military and ruling classes and the Islamization of the country that was initially meant to make U.S. domination palatable. For both of these reasons, we should be very clear that the U.S. is the biggest terrorist of all.

A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine, a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world's Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.

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