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Obama drones on

interior-obamadronesPublished in the Sunday Herald on June 2, 2013.

Little is known about the death of Wali ur-Rehman, other than that he was killed by a missile fired by a drone belonging to the United States of America. Like most victims of these remote-controlled killing machines, the Pakistani Taliban’s deputy leader was blown to bits in a remote area of Waziristan, beyond the reach of the state.

One local, Bashir Dawar, said that “tribesmen recovered seven bodies…The bodies were badly damaged and beyond recognition.” The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper, printed a partial list of the “militants” killed, including Nasarullah, Shahabuddin, Adil, Nasiruddin, Fakhr-i-Alam and Saeedur Rehman. For three days, neither the Taliban nor the US government would even confirm that ur-Rehman was dead.

This absence of reliable information is not unusual. Bill Roggio, who runs the Long War Journal, described the process of tallying drone strikes as “peering into a black box, reaching in to grab whatever piece of data that we can.” His website estimates that around 2,650 people have been killed by drones in Pakistan since 2006, 153 of them civilians.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s baseline figure is 2,500 deaths, including at least 411 civilians and possibly as many as double that, but an accurate accounting is impossible. As Firoz Ali Khan, a shopkeeper whose father-in-law’s house was hit, put it: “These missiles are very powerful. They destroy human beings… Whatever is left is just little pieces of bodies and cloth.”

The attack that killed ur-Rehman was the first since President Barack Obama’s speech at National Defence University, in which he announced new guidelines governing the use of drones. “This war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands,” Obama said. “A perpetual war – through drones or special forces or troop deployments – will prove self-defeating, and alter our country in troubling ways.”

This was the Nobel Prize-winning, Iraq war-opposing President that liberals had longed to hear. Obama said that from now on, only confirmed terrorists that cannot be captured and present an imminent threat to the USA will be subject to lethal force. A New York Times editorial described it as “the most important statement on counter-terrorism policy since the 2001 attacks, a momentous turning point in post-9/11 America.” Five days later, before dawn, missiles slammed into the mud house where ur-Rehman was staying, apparently killing everyone inside.

The Pakistani Taliban planned the suicide bombing at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan in 2009 which killed seven CIA operatives, but the vast majority of its attacks have been directed at its homeland. No evidence of a current plot against the USA has been presented. “In the wake of the ur-Rehman strike, all bets are off,” said Chris Woods, from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It’s not clear to us at the moment what strikes that happened a year ago might not be permissible today.”

Roggio said the strike was justifiable, but not on the administration’s stated terms: “The threat that these guys pose is over the long period. The CIA understands that a guy like Wali ur-Rehman is a threat to the United States, so they’ll target him, and then say that he presented an imminent threat. There’s a bit of dishonesty there.”

In policy notes released to coincide with Obama’s speech, the White House listed five criteria that must be met before a targeted killing can occur: near certainty that the terrorist target is present, near certainty that no civilians will be killed, an assessment that capture is not feasible, that local authorities cannot address the threat to United States citizens, and that there are no reasonable alternatives.

“I’m very sceptical how much of a difference it will actually make,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, a senior lawyer at the Centre for Constitutional Rights, which has challenged the legality of drone strikes. “The way the president broke down imminence and infeasibility of capture was very vague and left a lot of room for interpretation.”

The legal justifications underpinning the Obama administration’s use of drones are contained in classified memos. Much depends on slippery definitions of imminence and who al-Qaeda’s “associated forces” are. McClatchy newspapers speculated that the president’s speech actually loosened the definition of a legitimate target, by dropping a reference to “senior operational leaders” that had previously been used to justify killing an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki.

“There was so much missing in terms of clarity and specificity,” Kebriaei said. “When will they be implemented? Does it apply to Pakistan? It was astounding that after months of debate, what we got was another policy speech, and then a fact sheet, but still no legal memos or rationale.”

Until recently, the United States government has classified all military-age males killed by drones as enemy combatants. Obama announced that this would change. “It is a hard fact that US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars,” he said. “For the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss. For me, and those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live.”

The question is whether the new guidelines would rule out an attack such as the one on the village of Zeraki, three days after Obama’s inauguration, which killed at least seven civilians. Would they have prevented the bombing of a regional council meeting in Datta Khel, North Waziristan, on March 17, 2011? According to witness statements, the Pakistani military and an Associated Press investigation, around forty people were killed, only four of them with links to the Taliban, but the US government continues to insist that there were no civilian casualties.

In Pakistan’s recent elections, two parties that have been highly critical of drones made gains. Cricketer turned politician Imran Khan said his administration would shoot them from the sky. Obama once had solid ratings in Pakistan, following his speech in Cairo about American engagement with the Muslim world, but he is now less popular than George W. Bush ever was – just 12% approve of his actions as president.

In the aftermath of the most recent attack, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated that “the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.” Wali ur-Rehman had offered to sit down with the authorities, but hope of a negotiated settlement died with him. A Taliban spokesman, Ihsanullah Ihsan, said: “We are suspending all kinds of contacts and revoke the peace talks offer with the government. Soon we shall be responding with full force.”

Blowback is a taboo subject in the United States. Attempts to explain what motivates anti-American attacks are routinely mischaracterised as justifying terrorism, despite plenty of evidence that torture, detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay and extra-judicial drone killings serve as powerful recruitment tools for extremists.

In the note that he scrawled on the boat where he hid from police, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev equated the Boston bombing’s victims with Muslims killed by the US military. Faisal Shazhad, who attempted to blow up a car bomb in New York’s Times Square, asked the agents who interrogated him: “How would you feel if people attacked the United States? You are attacking a sovereign Pakistan.”

Michael Adebolajo , one of the men who hacked Drummer Lee Rigby to death on the streets of Woolwich, was even more explicit: “When you drop a bomb, do you think it hits one person or rather your bomb wipes out a whole family? By Allah, if I saw your mother today with a buggy I would help her up the stairs… I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same.”

Obama spoke of “addressing the underlying grievances and conflicts that feed extremism,” but the core of his speech was a defence of the war on terror’s basic premise, even as he once again rejected that terminology. “America’s actions are legal,” he said. “Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces… this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defence.” So while some heard him say that there will be fewer drone strikes, fewer civilian casualties and greater oversight, others observed that the veil had been lifted on an indefinite programme of extra-judicial assassinations.

“At bottom, he reasserted the premise of the programme. He reasserted war,” said Kebriaei. “Maybe as a matter of policy there are these narrower criteria, but as a matter of law, he believes his administration has the authority to target people under the laws of war wherever they are. The legal precedent that has been set and is now being codified is troubling.”

Woods agreed: “A lot of energy has been expended by the American government to lay down the rules, but if your starting point is the acceptance of a targeted killing programme, where does that leave you with Russia? Where does that leave you with Iran? Any nation can just point and say ‘the US has a targeted killing programme, why shouldn’t we?’”

Whether due to elections in Pakistan, war winding down in Afghanistan or the introduction of stricter guidelines behind the scenes, there has been a marked decrease in the number of drone attacks. The strike that killed Wali ur-Rehman was only the thirteenth in Pakistan this year. “The government wants to have its cake and eat it,” Roggio said. “It’s trying to say ‘we’ve won the war on terror’ while continuing with the strikes to keep al-Qaeda on the back foot.”