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Obama and Drone Warfare

Serialization of Political Murder

by NORMAN POLLACK

At the last moment, checking Webster’s on serialization, I was struck by its application to music—“based on a series of tones in an arbitrary but fixed pattern without regard for traditional tonality”—which, transposed to political reality, says it all:  US  policy of armed drones for political assassination is wholly arbitrary, here, a conscious decision, Obama, taking from his predecessor the practice, and, with Brennan, escalating and intensifying it, making it his signature weapon in so-called counterterrorism, now a fixed pattern, not only maintained in complete secrecy, stretching the CIA charter mission of intelligence  into an operational capacity, but also seeking to bind future administrations through the constantly revised hit list poured over with national-security advisers on Terror Tuesdays, and, as for traditional tonality, assassination, especially personally authorized by POTUS, is way out of line—can you imagine Jefferson doing this?—and in flagrant violation of international law.

In sum, Obama the war criminal, beyond doubt.  I would have preferred leaving serialization to Schoenberg and Webern, where human beings were not vaporized, leaving only blood spats, than to our more modern (political-military) composers of death and destruction.

Drone Warfare, despite the secrecy in which USG insists it be enshrouded, is back in the news (not that the actuality had ever left us), in a New York Times article, “Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report,” (Oct. 22), by Declan Walsh and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, the report referred to being that of Amnesty International released the same day and centered on Miram Shah, in Northwest Pakistan, while also on Oct. 22 Human Rights Watch issued its report on Yemen.

Neither report, nor The Times piece, will receive national attention, an instructive point to note, because the psychological interface of targeted assassination, as applying to the American public, is indifference, or at best mild annoyance at being told of war crimes continually committed in their name.  We are reaching rock-bottom as a people, as though having fallen into an amoral dry well, the bread-and-circuses of martial victories and enticing consumerism (the goodies themselves safely out of reach) helping us to maintain a semblance of normality.  In East Lansing, Go Green! Go White! And to hell with the victims of US hegemony; they probably weren’t Spartan rooters in the first place.

Walsh and Mehsud write: “In the telling of some American officials, the C.I.A. drone campaign in Pakistan has been a triumph with few downsides.  In more than 300 missile strikes there since 2008 [itself a large number, but given the secrecy, probably a good deal more], dozens of Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and the pace of the strikes, which officials frequently describe as ‘surgical’ and ‘contained,’ has dropped sharply over the past year.”  NOT SO.  For they continue: “But viewed from Miram Shah, the frontier Pakistani town that has become a virtual test laboratory for drone warfare, the campaign has not been the antiseptic salve portrayed in Washington.”

Interviews with residents confirm the account of horrors that should, but fail to, shake the conscience of every American, from Obama on down, including the morally oblivious if not sadistic CIA directly involved (no mention is made in the account of JSOC or the private contractors who are part of the drone operation in Northwest Pakistan), as in this statement of Nazeer Gul, a local shopkeeper: “The drones are like the angels of death.  Only they know when and where they will strike.”

I would that this be inscribed on a banner floating over the White House.  It captures the real sense of TERROR felt by every villager subject to drone attacks, the constant whirring overhead all through the night, the fear, insecurity, waiting, waiting.  (The Stanford-NYU law faculties’ joint-study emphasizes the psychological-warfare aspect, the deliberate frightening into submission of a total population.)

Walsh and Mehsud continue: “Their claims of distress are now being backed by a new Amnesty International investigation that found, among other points, that at least 19 civilians in the surrounding area of North Waziristan had been killed in just two of the drone attacks since January 2012—a time when the Obama administration has held that strikes have been increasingly accurate and free of mistakes.”  (Perhaps Obama is telling the truth here—free from mistakes, in that civilians are the whole point of the attacks: kill ‘em, teach ‘em a lesson; but no, the fiction remains, no civilian casualties, and besides, targeted assassination is humane because it results in far fewer casualties—the argument goes—than if we put “boots on the ground” for these operations.)

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets Obama today (Oct. 23) and a drone debate is scheduled for the UN on the 25th—I expect little, or if somehow pressed to the wall, more self-righteousness on America’s part.  Meanwhile, Miram Shah, which, the writers point out, “has become a fearful and paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with an additional 25 in adjoining districts—more than any other urban settlement in the world.”  Again: “Even when the missiles do not strike, buzzing drones hover day and night, scanning the alleys and markets with roving high-resolution cameras.”  Yes, there are “Islamist fighters with long hair, basketball shoes and AK-47 rifles” presumably running free everywhere, but as Walsh and Mehsud seem reluctant to admit, “Unusually for the overall American drone campaign, the strikes in the area mostly occur in densely populated neighborhoods.  The drones have hit a bakery, a disused girls’ school and a money changers’ market, residents say.” (Italics, mine)

Particulars, rather than statistical tabs, are important.  Even with a drop in the strike rate, “the constant presence of circling drones—and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike—is a crushing psychological burden for many residents.”  A pharmacist in the town bazaar relates that “sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared.”    The place in fact is a living hell, militants seeking out and executing those suspected of spying for the Americans, the Pakistani security forces occupying a large base in the northern part of town, soldiers largely confined to base, and state services having “virtually collapsed.”

Finally, citing the Amnesty report, they write: “Last October, it says American missiles killed a 68-year-old woman named Mamana Bibi as she picked vegetables in a field close to her grandchildren.  In July 2012, 18 laborers, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed near the Afghan border.”  Bibi’s son and two of her injured grandchildren are coming to the US next week to discuss their experiences.  Will anyone listen?

Turning to the Amnesty report, “’Will I be Next?’  US Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” one finds a photograph of Nabeela, the eight-year-old granddaughter of Mamana Bibi, turned looking toward us, the face of a child, the eyes of a philosopher beyond her years, with her statement in italics: “I wasn’t scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder ‘will I be next?’” (Disclosure: Nabeela bears an uncanny resemblance to my own granddaughter, Laura, same age.  How Obama and his Merry Band of Killers can face themselves or sleep at night is beyond me, except that, obviously, policy is a mirror into the soul.)  The report begins: “On a sunny afternoon in October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her.  Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Mamana Bibi, who was gathering vegetables  in the family fields in Ghundi Kala village, northwest Pakistan, was blasted into pieces before their eyes.

Nearly a year later, Mamana Bibi’s family has yet to receive any acknowledgment that it was the US that killed her, let alone justice or compensation for her death.”  Tough-it-out, secrecy, push ahead—all the American Way; justice is never done in these cases, and as for compensation—which seems to trouble Amnesty, itself a somewhat moderate voice—what possible compensation can there be, to see one’s grandmother shattered to bits?

The account of the laborers is also worth elaborating, this attack occurring on 6 July 2012, in which they “were killed in a series of drone strikes in the remote village of Zowi Sidgi.  Missiles first struck a tent in which some men had gathered for an evening meal after a hard day’s work, and then struck those who came to help the injured from the first strike.  Witnesses described a macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror, as US drones continued to hover overhead.”  I’ve italicized those words to point out what one sees time after time, the strike, then the deliberate second strike, aimed at the first responders—ghoulish and worse, as also in the standard practice of striking the funerals of the victims.  In both cases the attacks are justified on the grounds that responders and attendees are fellow terrorists or sympathetic to the cause (reminiscent of the McCarthyism-mindset of rooting out fellow-travellers).

Why not more outrage?  Instead, Amnesty in its report falls into the one-said-the-other-said seesaw of avoiding outright condemnation (perhaps I’m being unjust), but calling US drone warfare as “fast becom[ing] one of the most controversial human rights issues in the world,” as though there were two sides to the moral determination of the issue, seems unnecessarily—if I can use the word—balanced.  But rather than pursue this, for, after dutifully relating the administration side, about the strikes being based on reliable information, etc., the report does use the significant phrase, “extrajudicial executions,” i.e., war crimes, in summarizing what critics say (although “some of which [the hundreds of civilian deaths]may amount to” that—why not ALL?—gives away the essential moderation), and, in any case, the important thing is the information compiled.

Amnesty is not the Enemy, in regard to drone warfare USG is.  Yet a last example: “According to NGO and Pakistan government sources the USA has launched some 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013.  Amnesty International is not in a position to endorse these figures, but according to these sources, between 400 and 900 civilians have been killed in these attacks and at least 600 people seriously injured.” (Italics, mine)

To its very sizable credit, Amnesty (and my remarks are confined to this report, not certainly the totality of its activities) provides an in-depth focus on a decisive area where drone strikes occur, and states that “by highlight[ing] incidents in which men, women and children appear to have been unlawfully killed or injured,” it “seeks to shed light on a secretive program of surveillance and killings occurring in one of the most dangerous, neglected and inaccessible regions of the world.”  Because USG “refuses to provide even basic information on particular strikes, including the reasons for carrying them out,” Amnesty “is unable to reach firm conclusions about the context in which the US drone attacks on Mamana Bibi and on the 18 laborers took place, and therefore their status under international law.”  It is, though, “seriously concerned that these and other strikes have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.” (Italics, mine)

The report concerns what Amnesty in boldface terms, “Obligation to investigate,” and faults both the US and Pakistan both for failing in this regard and, the larger failure, not protecting the victims in their human rights under international law.  It conducted “60 interviews with survivors, relatives of victims, witnesses,” etc., corroborated testimony with other evidence, verified the exact locations of the two main strikes discussed here, and found the whole task extremely difficult “due to ongoing insecurity and barriers on independent monitoring.”  The effort was indeed frustrating, both governments refusing any and all cooperation.  Hence, “none of the Pakistani authorities  answered questions regarding specific drone strikes or the possible role of some Pakistani officials or private citizens in the US drone program.”  The same on the American side: USG’s “utter lack of transparency about its drone program,” its refusal “to make public even basic information about the program” or “release legal or factual information about specific strikes.”  Calls were not returned.

I dwell on this because the drone program in its conduct takes on the character of a rogue operation at the highest levels of government.  Secrecy is the touchstone for ascertaining illegality, usurpation, moral turpitude in its fullest political sense: the absolute negation of human feeling toward others, justifying, in the depths of nihilism, annihilation-on-the-spot.  CIA, JSOC, Blackwater (whatever its new corporate name), may be target-hunting in country, but the trigger releasing the drone missile is 8,000 miles away, a guy seated in plush surroundings probably munching a sandwich.

The process of dealing death is so completely segmented that none involved has to feel pangs of conscience, assuming conscience to begin with, a big assumption when State-sponsored murder is an exercise in routinization under the banner of Protecting the Homeland.  When we turn now to Yemen and the report of Human Rights Watch, also released on the 22nd, let it not be said that Obama cannot chew gum and walk at the same time, but is quite adept at multi-tasking, in this case—while pursuing massive surveillance at home, positioning naval power in the Pacific to stare down China, easing JPMorgan Chase out of trouble with an affordable fine—revealing a sharp eye on Yemen, presumably countering terrorists yet finding pretext to establish a wider sphere of influence in the region via the flexing of military muscle.

Human Rights Watch seems less reticent about challenging authority, at least in this report, “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda,” issued in the joint news conference (Oct. 22) with Amnesty International.  Bluntly, as in the subtitle, “The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen,” Watch states that in examining six of these killings there, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-13, it found that “[t]wo of the attacks killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war; the others may have targeted people who were not legitimate military objectives or caused disproportionate civilian deaths.”

This seems par for the course throughout the sad history of targeted assassination.  And as in Pakistan, the outcome is the reverse of that intended: “Yemenis,” writes Letta Tayler, author of the report, “told us that these strikes make them fear the US as much as they fear Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”  Like Amnesty, Watch researchers conducted interviews, “more than 90 people,” including witnesses and relatives of the killed.

As usual, USG stonewalled the investigation, “refusing to take responsibility for individual strikes or provide casualty figures, including civilian deaths.”  Ditto, the Yemeni government.  How could they, given such results as these: “The six strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians.  They include a US drone-assisted attack in September 2012 in Sarar, central Yemen, that unlawfully struck a passenger van, killing 12 civilians.

Villagers who rushed to the scene found their relatives’ charred bodies dusted in flour and sugar that they were bringing home from a nearby market.  The reported target of the strike, an alleged local AQAP leader, was nowhere near the vehicle.”  I should comment, although the report does not mention this, that under Obama the term “combatant” referred to ANY male of a certain age (I believe 18-65) in the designated territory, itself considerable, was deemed one, and therefore fair-game for execution.  One reason official figures for civilians were so low was because, by that definition, practically no adult males were declared such.

Then the heart-wrenching testimony, enough to send Team Obama on a one-way coach ticket—under guard—to The Hague, this from Ahmad al-Sabooli, 23-year-old farmer: “The bodies were charred like coal—I could not recognize the faces.”  Moving closer, the report states, “he realized that three of the bodies, including those of a woman with a young girl still in her lap, were his father, mother, and 10-year-old sister.” (Italics, mine)  Ahmad al-Sabooli said, “That is when I put my head in my hands and cried.”  As should we.  But there are no tears in Washington; gung-ho patriotism would not have it otherwise.

Other examples are given.  Not a drone, but a cruise missile strike in December 2009, hit “a Bedouin camp in the southern village of al-Majalah,” in which “14 alleged AQAP fighters and 41 civilians, two-thirds of them women and children,” were killed.  In this case, “[t]he attack involved cluster munitions—inherently indiscriminate weapons that pose unacceptable dangers to civilians.”  The report refers more obliquely to my foregoing point about defining “combatant,” i.e., “the US may be using an overly elastic definition of a fighter who may be lawfully attacked during an armed conflict,” and points to a case where “an alleged AQAP recruiter” was killed, even though “recruiting activities alone would not be sufficient grounds under the laws of war to target someone for attack.”

Watch does not believe the “war model” applies to its campaign, and rather, “the US should adopt a law-enforcement approach under international human rights law in addressing armed militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and AQAP.”  In their joint news conference both organizations called on Congress to investigate the cases they documented.  They also want the Obama administration to “provide its full legal rationale for targeted killings in Yemen and elsewhere.”  And I, fork in hand, want to eat green cheese from the moon.  They and I have an equal chance of success.

My New York Times Comment on Walsh and Mahsud’s article, “Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report,” Oct. 22, follows:

NYT readers will of course be outraged, but this has to be said: Never before in US history has a president personally met with advisers (Terror Tuesdays), and from a hit list selected victims for targeted assassination. Obama may shed crocodile tears, he is a murderer, a shameless one, who pleads the disgusting fiction of surgical strikes that kill and kill again. That is his legacy, not health care.

This is premeditated killing. It is also sophisticated TERRORISM, for as the Stanford-NYU law faculties’ study revealed, the constant buzzing of these death-machines makes life a living hell for villagers in their path. Sleep. Ha. Sense of security. Ha. I wish the experience of Miram Shah, and there are countless other places in Pakistan, Yemen, etc., were replicated in small-town Ohio, Georgia, Kansas, to give Americans a taste of the cold-blooded things done in our name and by our leaders.

Cheer on the Stealth overheads at football games, the staggering military budgets wiping away vitally needed services of the social safety net, the militarism increasingly defining the American mind-set. The US acts as it does because it realizes it can no longer be the unilateral director of world affairs. Obama can move the Stennis to the Pacific, the pivot, rebalance, thinking he can isolate China and retard its growth (or possibly draw it into war), and we can continue spying on France, Brazil, wherever–but the world is saying enough to callous brutality from a pariah nation.

Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University. His new book, Eichmann on the Potomac, will be published by CounterPunch in the fall of 2013.