The idiocy of drone strikes

An unnamed military source confirmed to the Washington Post yesterday that last week’s airstrike in Somalia was carried out by a US drone. While there have been previous reports of drone strikes in Somalia, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports, this is the first time that such a strike has been confirmed.

The drone strike was aimed at members of al-Shabab group which the US alleges is building close ties with al-Qaeda.  A ‘senior US military official’ told the Post that “they have become somewhat emboldened of late, and, as a result, we have become more focused on inhibiting their activities.”

‘Inhibiting the activities of groups which have become emboldened’ is a fine euphemism for a drone strike – and one that we may hear more often due to the new counter terrorism strategy that was revealed by the White House this week.

Unveiling the new strategy, John Brennan, counter terrorism advisor to President Obama, stated (while heroically keeping a straight face) that “Al Qaeda seeks to bleed us financially by drawing us into long, costly wars that also inflame anti-American sentiment.”   Cleverly avoiding this trick (!) the US will instead, as the LA Times put it:

 “pursue a war in the shadows, one relying heavily on missile strikes from unmanned aerial drones, raids by elite special operations troops, and training of local forces to pursue terrorists.” 

When challenged about whether targeted killing was appropriate, Brennan, a former CIA officer went on to argue that in the past year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”  However, as even the LA Times itself pointed out, it was just last month that two US servicemen were mistakenly killed by a US drone strike. Tactfully the LA Times suggested that Mr Brennan must mean drone strikes in Pakistan.  However even if Brenan’s claim is limited to drone strikes in Pakistan, it is extremely difficult to square with the myriad of civilian casualty reports from there.

The Pakistani lawyer, Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who is suing the CIA on behalf of civilian victims of drone strikes, was refused entry into the US this month to take part in a human rights conference at Colombia Law School.

Mr Akbar wrote in the Guardian this week that

“If seeking justice through the law – instead of violence – is the reason for banning my travel, then mine is another story of how government measures in the name of “national security” have gone too far…  Why would the US government want to prevent me from discussing these cases at Columbia law school? Perhaps, it is because our legal challenge disrupts the narrative of “precision strikes” against “high-value targets” as an unqualified success against terrorism, at minimal cost to civilian life.”

Trying to prevent angry Pakistanis from using lawful means to pursue claims against the CIA for drone strikes instead of turning to violence seems to be purely idiotic.  Clive Stafford Smith, renown lawyer and founder of Reprieve, the organisations supporting Mr Akbar and other layers in Pakistan, took this theme up  in a short interview with Newsweek  when asked for his opinion on US drone strikes:

“Drones are idiotic. When you fire a drone, the odds are you’re wrong when you identify someone as a terrorist. Our experience in Guantanamo is that the Americans get it wrong more than two thirds of the time. The second thing the Americans have to do when they fire a drone is to identify where [the target is in real time]. The chances of getting that right are slim to none. The third thing they’ve got to get right is hit the right place. When you add these things together, the odds that they’re going to hit the right person are very small. The odds that they’re going to kill innocent people, really annoy people in Pakistan, and provoke people to hate them are very, very high. So not only is it immoral, it’s very stupid.”

Unfortunately, pointing out the stupidity of a particular policy to the military never seems to be enough.  Thankfully more and more people are beginning to take action to stop the idiocy of drone strikes.