More drone strikes looming

Last Thursday President Obama, flanked by an array of senior military officers, stood in front of the media at the Pentagon to announce a new US military plan.  The new defence plan is aimed at shaping the US military, as Obama put it, “in light of the changing geopolitical environment and our changing fiscal circumstances”.  While numerous columns have been written about the plan,  it has been summed up neatly by more than one commentator as a future of ‘drones, special ops and cyber warware’.

The US has launched two major wars over the past decade, spending billions of dollars on putting thousands of boots on the ground.  In these more strained financial times however a less  expensive (financially at least) way of waging future wars is needed and armed unmanned drones are seen as the way forward. By cutting the number of troops and ground equipment, and using ‘remote warfare’ – launching weapons from drones thousands of miles away  the US will be able to continue to maintain its military presence but at cut price.  Or so the theory goes.   The devil, as always, is in the detail but don’t be surprised when the US military budget is released next month to see  – amidst all the headlines of military cuts –  an increase in funding for drones.

Meanwhile the ‘pause’ in US drone strikes in Pakistan since mid-November continues but maybe not for much longer.

US drone strikes have been suspended since the US killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in an airstrike, causing outrage amongst the Pakistani public and a crisis in relations between the US and Pakistani governments.

However a propaganda campaign is now underway to get the drone strikes reinstated.  US officials have been briefing the main US press that the pause is harmful and allowing militants to re-group and  operate freely while in Pakistan the ground is being prepared for the reinstatement of US strikes with ‘sources’ telling the Pakistan media that ‘fresh terms of engagements’ are being agreed between the governments that will see a resumption of the strikes.  Bizarrely a petition has also been started on change.org calling on the US (and UK!) government to restart the drone strikes but so far only 27 people have signed up.

So it seems that both in the short-term and long-term more drone strikes are coming.   An unhappy New Year indeed.

As drones continue to kill, drone protests go global

Tariq Aziz attending the drone meeting in Islamabad. Photo: Reprieve

We reported two weeks ago on the killing of 16 year-old Yemeni teenager Abdul-Rahman, the son of Anwar al-Alwaki  who was himself the victim of a drone strike a few weeks previously.  However Abdul-Rahamn was not the only 16 year-old killed in a drone strike this month.

A few thousand miles away 16 year-old Tariq Khan and his 12 year-old cousin Waheed were killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan on October 31.  A few days before being killed, Tariq had attended a meeting on the drones organised by British human rights group, Reprieve with the aim of encouraging local people to document the strikes taking place in their area.  Lawyer and campaigner, Clive Stafford Smith talks about the Jirga and meeting Tariq in his piece for the New York Times piece: 

Tariq was a good kid, and courageous. My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government.  And Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile — most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.

Two thousand miles west and Israeli drones fly constantly over Gaza with the latest strike killing seven members of Islamic Jihad.  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an eye-opening interview this week with a ‘Lt Col Ido’ (his surname was withheld for security reasons) who teaches ethics to Israeli drone operators.   The Lt Col says “When people are killed by mistake, we are tormented, and that’s how it should be… I’ve met some people who had a very hard time with it. Some coped, and others wanted to leave. I told them, ‘This is dirty work. Who would you like to have do it? We would all like to be professors.'”

The whole article, looking at how Israel uses drones for “everything from gathering intelligence in what the air force calls the “third circle” – namely, the Iranian sector and its satellites – to assisting fire-fighters in the Mount Carmel forest fire and guarding worshipers at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus” is well worth reading.  Israel is also about to deploy the giant Eitan drone for use in Gaza and Lebanon as Ynet news reports.

Fifteen hundred miles south of Israel is the Ethiopian city of Arba Minch from where, according to a recent  report in the Washington Post,  the USAF are flying Reaper drones over Somalia.  While the US say the drones based in Ethiopia are for surveillance purposes only (the Ethiopian government are refusing to admit the drones are even in Ethiopia) US drones are undertaking strikes against al-Shabab in Somalia.

Meanwhile it has been confirmed this week that US drones in Iraq are to be move to the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey from where they will be used to ‘monitor’ Kurdish separatists in Iraq and presumably Turkey.

But it is not only the drones that are circling the globe.  Resistance to the drones is growing and going global too.  We have repeatedly reported on the anger in Pakistan against US drone strikes and the many protests taking place there, the latest of which saw some 2,000 people protests outside the Parliament building in Islamabad.

For the first time (as far as we know) anti-drone protests have also taken place in Yemen, with some extremely brave people coming together in Sana’a to protest the strikes there (see video below)

In the US, protestors have recently gone on trial  following a civil  disobedience action at the main entrance of Hancock Air National Guard Base on  April 22, 2011, where 38 people were arrested at a die-in protesting the  drones.  The verdict will be handed down on 1st December (see http://www.upstatedroneaction.org/  for lots more info.

And  in London tomorrow (16 November) protestors will gather outside a hotel in  central London where the drone industry will gather for two days to discuss, plan and, as there publicity states discuss ‘how to stop the public hysteria surrounding UAV operations in  the 21st Century?’   As human rights lawyer Jules Carey put it on twitter: There should be more hysteria about UAVs not less!   At our protest we shall remember Abdul-Rahman, Tariq, Waheed and all the other victims of drone  strikes young and old.  Why not join us?

TBIJ uncovers civilian deaths in US drone strikes

A man holds a piece of a Hellfire rocket in his hands after five homes were destroyed by US drone strike in August 2010, killing 20 people. Photo: Noor Behram/Reprieve

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) a not-for-profit investigative journalism organisation, has uncovered compelling evidence of  civilian deaths in US drone strikes in Pakistan.  The evidence directly contradicts the recent statement by President Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser that ‘there hasn’t been a single collateral death’ in Pakistan since August 2010

As well as reviewing all available media reports, the Bureau has worked with lawyers and researchers representing civilians reportedly killed in attacks. And they have employed researchers in Waziristan to corroborate evidence relating to particular strikes.

The Bureau has examined 116 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan between August 23 2010 and June 29 2011.  They have found that between them, the attacks have killed at least 740 people, among them 36 named fighters from al Qaeda, the Taliban and other militant groups. Hundreds of unnamed low-ranking fighters are also likely to be among the dead.

But civilian deaths have been credibly reported in more than one in five of the strikes.  To date, the Bureau has identified 45-56 civilian victims across 10 individual strikes – the most recent in mid-June 2011. The dead include six children.

For more details see the following stories on the  TBIJ website:

US claims of ‘no civilian deaths’ in Pakistan drone strikes is untrue

Get the data: Twenty-five deadly strikes

These reports raise serious questions about the UK’s own 170+ drone strikes in Afghanistan.  The MoD was forced to admit for the first time this month that Afghan civilians had been killed in a British drone strike.   They continue to maintain however that this was a on-off due to “intelligence failures on the ground.”

While military and counter-terrorism officials can blithely state from thousands of miles away that there are no civilian casualties, the story on the ground appears to be very different. I have no doubt that further details about civilain casualties from British drone strikes in Afghanistan will emerge.

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.

Doubling the Drones

The rise of the drone seems to know no bounds.  Just months after David Cameron’s pledge to double the UK’s Reaper drone fleet, the latest US military aircraft procurement plan shows that the Pentagon is also planning to double number of large US military drones over the next decade.

According to the document “the number of platforms in this category — RQ-4 Global Hawk-class, MQ-9 Reaper, and MQ-1 Predator-class unmanned aircraft systems — will grow from approximately 340 in FY 2012 to approximately 650 in FY 2021.”  Danger Room reports that

 “the U.S. aerospace industry is scrambling to meet the Pentagon’s huge appetite for unmanned planes.  In the last two years, no fewer than three new killer drones have begun flight testing. Boeing’s X-45C , Northrop’s X-47B and General Atomics’ Avenger are all vying for new Air Force and Navy contracts. Northrop and Boeing also recently unveiled new, high-flying, long-endurance spy ‘bots”.

It’s not only the major military corporation working on drones.  Many smaller companies are also working to develop small, weaponised drones such as the Arcturus T-20 UAV.  And, of course, it is not only the US and UK developing new drones with China recently testing a new unmanned helicopter, the V750.

Meanwhile drone strikes continue in Pakistan.  A drone strike on a compound on Friday 3rd June killed nine people allegedly including  Ilyas Kashmiri, a key al Qaeda operative in Pakistan.  However Kasmiri was previously announced to have been killed in a US drone strike in 2009 and the Long War Journal has raised serious doubts about the announcement of his death this time.  On Monday 6th June three separate drone strikes in North Waziristan in one day killed between 19 and 24 people.

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported this week that “fissures have opened within the Obama administration over the drone program targeting militants in Pakistan.”   However it seems that while “a slowdown in drone strikes was debated  [at] a meeting on Thursday…. CIA Director Leon Panetta made the case for maintaining the current program.”   The WSJ report continues that the result of the meeting was “a decision to continue the program as is for now.”   Hardly, a fissure then.

An excellent Channel Four Dispatches documentary this week looked at the targeted killing programme in Afghanistan and Pakistan being undertaken by the US military using special forces and drones.  It can be viewed here:  America’s Secret Killers

US drone strikes return to Pakistan with a vengeance as resistance grows

After something of a lull, US drone strikes have returned with a vengeance to Pakistan over the past two weeks, the latest of which, killed six  people this afternoon.  In addition strikes have taken place on 10th, 12th, 13th and 16 May.  According to the Pakistan Observer, 238 people have been killed and 40 injured in 39 drone strikes in Pakistan  since 1st Jan 2011 (excluding today’s strike).  The Oxford Research Group has today issued an interesting paper examining the various casualty figures reported for drone strikes in Pakistan.

This weekend, thousands of Pakistanis are expected to respond to Imran Khan’s call to protest the drone strikes by blocking NATO supply routes through Pakistan for forces in Afghanistan.  A protest will also take place outside the US embassy in London tomorrow (21st May) and UK Pakistanis plan to protest drone attacks during President Obama’s  speech to UK Parliament on May 25th.

Meanwhile US Attorney General, Eric Holder, told Channel 4 news this week that US drone strikes in Pakistan were totally consistent with International  law: 

“Anybody who is the target of any of our military action is always thought to be somebody who is thought to be a threat to the US, so there is a basis to any of the action we take, on the battlefield, in the variety of ways that we do it.”

His suggestion, that It is lawful to kill someone who is merely thought to be a threat would be laughable, if it were not so awful. However, as Tara McKelvey points out in an excellent article for the Colombia Journalism Review on the reporting of drone strikes,  many journalists seem to meekly accept these bland assurances. Challenging her fellow journalists, McKelvey suggests that

“A more whole-hearted pushback is in order, with top newsrooms banding together, backed by their legal departments, to try to force a more substantive and open public policy debate on whom and how the US decides to kill with the push of a button.”

Well, we can only hope