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The Year in Drones

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2014 was a good year for US killer drones. In October, the US celebrated (if that is the word) its 400th drone strike on Pakistan. Unable to attend the festivities were the 2,379 Pakistanis killed by US drones since 2004. Of these, only 12% of the victims who have been identified have been linked to militant organizations, this according to an October report from the independent British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Drone victims have been largely invisible to Americans. An exception is the family of Rafiq ur Rehman, a Pakistani schoolteacher. On October 24, 2012, a US drone killed Rafiq’s 67-year old mother while she was gathering okra behind the Rehmans’ home in Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal areas. A year later, on October 29, 2013, Rafiq and his two young children testified before Congress. The Rehmans were brought to Capitol Hill by Representative Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Robert Greenwald, director of Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars. This was the first—and, so far, the only—time drone victims had testified before Congress. The Rehmans might just as well have saved themselves the trip. Only five members of Congress showed up to listen to the Rehmans’ testimony.

How has the US drone program fared since then?

Innocent civilians are still being killed by US drones. 104 people in Pakistan were killed in 2014, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Appalling as that figure is, there’s a small measure of comfort (very small) in the fact that the number of US drone strikes on Pakistan have declined sharply; there were 22 strikes this year after reaching a peak of 128 strikes in 2010. Yet as drone strikes on Pakistan have declined, drone strikes in Yemen have escalated. The first US drone strike on Yemen which killed four members of al-Qaeda occurred in 2002. After that, there were no further strikes in Yemen until 2010. Making up for lost time, the United States has gone on to attack Yemen with gusto. There have been 116 total strikes in Yemen which according to the New America Foundation have caused 811-1073 deaths, 81-87 of them civilians. Except for the single strike in 2002, all of the drone attacks in Yemen have taken place at the order of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama.

None of the figures on the number of dead are official US government figures. The Obama Administration isn’t saying how many people US drones have killed. Obama officials have gone no further than issuing bland assurances that drones are precision weapons which produce very few civilian casualties. US Secretary of State John Kerry claimed on May 26, 2013 that “The only people we fire at are confirmed terror targets, at the highest level. We don’t just fire a drone at somebody we think is a terrorist.” Oh, but we do. The New York Times reported on May 29, 2012 that the Obama White House employs a peculiar calculus of death which “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.”

A provision in the 2014 fiscal year intelligence authorization bill would have forced the Obama Administration to make annual reports on how many civilians and combatants have been killed by US drones.

I say, “would have.” In April, acting at the behest of DNI James Clapper, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence removed the provision. Clapper’s letter assured the Committee that “the Executive Branch is committed to sharing as much information as possible with the American people and the Congress.”

Another piece of legislation, the Drone Strike Transparency Act, introduced in early 2014 by House Members Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Walter Jones (R-NC) also required disclosure of the number of drone kills. The bill never gained traction.

No Judge, No Jury, No Trial—No Problem! 

US drones are lethal, but they aren’t toxic. Not politically toxic, not yet. Like the neutron bomb which kills people without damaging buildings, drones kill people without harming political careers. Case in point: on May 22 of 2014, the Senate confirmed David Barron’s nomination to a federal judgeship. Barron had worked in the DoJ’s Office of Legal Counsel. While there, Barron had co-authored a memo providing Obama with legal cover for the targeted assassination of an American citizen: Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born al-Qaeda member. Al-Awlaki was killed by a drone on September 30, 2011 in Yemen. Al-Awlaki’s 16-year old son was killed in a separate drone attack.

Barron’s memo remained classified until a federal appeals court forced the White House to release a redacted version on June 22, 2014…after Barron had been confirmed.

Al-Awlaki is one of four US citizens killed by drones. Shall we try for five? Last February, the Associated Press reported that the Obama Administration was contemplating a drone strike on a fifth US citizen: an al-Qaeda member living in Pakistan and known by the nom de guerre Abdullah al-Shami (Abdullah the Syrian). So far, there have been no reports of al-Shami’s demise. But the lesson to take away is that the Obama Administration still believes it can kill Americans without due process of law.

In June, the United States resumed drone strikes on Pakistan following a nearly six-month hiatus. The US had agreed to halt drone strikes while Pakistan pursued peace talks with the Pakistan Taliban. Talks collapsed after a June 8 Taliban assault on Karachi’s main airport left 28 dead. On June 11, 2014, the US resumed its drone war on Pakistan, killing three militants in North Waziristan. At around the same time the Pakistan army launched a major new military offensive in North Waziristan.

There had been no drone strikes on Pakistan since December 25, 2013. A few weeks earlier, a drone attack on November 21 had caused US-Pakistani relations, rarely on a good footing, to take a nosedive. The November 21, 2013 strike in Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province killed six people at an Islamic seminary.

This was too much for Imran Khan, KP’s political boss. Khan had pledged during his unsuccessful 2013 run for Prime Minister that he would shoot down American drones. What Khan and his allies now did was barricade the NATO supply lines running through KP to Afghanistan. Khan’s party, the Tehreek-e-Insaf (Justice Movement) kept up the blockade for 97 days, finally lifting the blockade in response to the reduction in US drone strikes.

Syria is the new theatre for lethal US drones. (The US had already used killer drones in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.) And the already inadequate protections for civilians have deteriorated further. Reacting to criticism of drone strikes, President Obama had set out restrictions on the future use of killer drones in a speech at the National Defense University on May 23, 2013. The President announced that drone strikes would be undertaken only in the face of a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

Alas, there was a catch. The Administration now admits that it will not apply this restriction to US airstrikes on Iraq and Syria. National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden let the cat out of the bag following a September 23 Tomahawk missile strike on a home for displaced persons in Syria’s Idlib province. Later, Ms. Hayden called our attention to some overlooked fine print in the Administration’s drone policy: the “near certainty” standard had always been limited to “direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time.” She added: “That description—outside areas of active hostilities—simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.”

Oh, in case you’re interested, the Free Syrian Army has said that a dozen civilians may have been killed in the September 23 strike.

The conflict with ISIS is the first war where the US confronts an enemy which also has drones. In August, a video was uploaded to YouTube, purportedly by a member of ISIS. The video shows surveillance footage shot by an ISIS drone. The subsequent hand-wringing over drone proliferation ignored two things. First, don’t expect drone dogfights between the US and ISIS anytime soon. ISIS probably has no more than a surveillance drone. (We’d do better worrying about the three fighter jets ISIS now commands thanks to defectors from the Syrian Air Force.) Second, only three countries—the US, United Kingdom, and Israel—have ever killed anyone with a drone. Guess who would rather have the world worrying about whether Burundi will get drones?

After Airstrikes, What?

There’s an old joke about a father who warns his young son: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it.” The US midwifed the birth of ISIS, but can the US take it out? As of December 15, the US and its allies have made 1,276 airstrikes by manned and unmanned aircraft on Iraq and Syria which have killed dozens of civilians. Yet Secretary of State John Kerry and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a political odd couple if ever there was one, agree that airstrikes have done little to degrade ISIS. If anything, airstrikes may be strengthening ISIS. As a headline in the British Guardian puts it: “US Air Strikes in Syria Driving Anti-Assad Groups to Support ISIS.”

Is anyone surprised? In October, the New York Times reported that a classified CIA study had concluded that airstrikes rarely defeat insurgencies. To succeed, the CIA concluded, airstrikes have to be accompanied by “American ground support.” President Obama has promised that there will be no American “boots on the ground.” Yet there are already nearly 2,000 US military advisers in Iraq with that number expected to swell to 3,000. And on December 9, Secretary Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force intended to leave the door open to deploying US troops in combat roles against the ISIS.

2014 was a great year for US killer drones. But the US war in Iraq and Syria suggests that in 2015 the best is yet to come.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

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