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The Drone Boom

In 2010, the UN special representative on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston released a 29 page report on the growing use of deadly drone, or unmanned, aircraft by the United States. In a statement that accompanied the report, Alston described the political problem for the US, “I’m particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe. But this strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.”

In the sedate chambers of the UN, such language is rare: it asserted that the continual US use of drones is not only a violation of current norms, but it is a threat to the architecture of conflict resolution and the rules of war. Alston wanted to convene a conference of the “key military powers” to consider new rules for the drones. No-one was interested.

The US response was unsurprising: it was at war, and in war, such attacks are legal. Since the US has claims that its War on Terror has no identifiable battlefield, it feels emboldened to use its drones to attack targets in regions where it is not directly at war, such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and so on. It is this inflation that worried the UN. In March 2012, Attorney General Eric Holder dismissed Alston’s commitment to legality. He decreed it constitutional (in US terms) for his government to even kill its own citizens without judicial review in very specific circumstances (in mind was the New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in the deserts of Yemen, in 2011). President Obama signed a law on February 14, 2012 to extend drone use in the United States for commercial purposes (crop dusting, monitoring oil spills) and eventually for law enforcement. More, not less, drones are on the horizon.

The $5.9 billion drone industry looks to double its size. There is a Congressional Unmanned Systems Caucus (co-chaired by Henry Cuellar and Buck McKeon). The US used to have fifty drones in the arsenal before 9/11, but the airforce now has 7,500 in use. Northwestern Michigan College has pioneered drone studies to prepare “pilots” for a lucrative career. A recently released Air Force’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan, 2009-2047 notes, the drones are essential “to increasing effects while potentially reducing cost, forward footprint and risk.” To reduce the risk to nothing, the Air Force has developed the X-47B which is not only unmanned but is also unpiloted. It is a robot, which will determine on its own where to go and what to strike. The Northwestern Michigan College graduates might face redundancy before they finish their degrees.

Since 2005, the US drones have killed 2175 people in Pakistan. Those killed are always characterized as “suspected militants.” There is little verification about their real identities. Court cases by civilian victims of the drone attacks, helped along by the campaigner Reprieve, have not been able to make much of a dent. In a rare case of flexing its sovereignty, the Pakistani parliament in late March called for an end to drone strikes, with a parliamentary committee asking the US to respect the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” of Pakistan. Pakistani noise has little impact on US policy. The drone attacks continue.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has recent reported that the US has increased its use of drones in Yemen, despite the change of its president (from Saleh to his deputy Hadi). The US has consistently denied that its cruise missile killed forty-four civilians on December 17, 2009 in southern Yemen (eight families were wiped out by the attack). A Wikileaks-released cable tells us otherwise. General David Petraeus rushed to Sanaa, where he met Saleh who told him, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”

Subsequent to Saleh’s removal, the Yemeni parliament formed a commission to study that attack. A spokesperson for Sheikh Himir Al-Ahmar, the commission’s chairman and now Yemen’s deputy speaker, told the BIJ, “The families of the victims were indeed paid appropriate compensation by the Yemeni Government (according to the standard of compensations given out to victims in Yemen). The American authorities did not get involved in this process in any way.” The Americans like the “can’t confirm or deny” stance regarding what is taking place in plain sight. This is the reason that the Obama administration has blocked the requests by the ACLU to gain information on the CIA’s use of drones for targeted assassinations.

The US media is forced to report massacres when these are conducted by troops on the ground. The most recent story concerns the killing of sixteen Afghan civilians by Army Staff Sgt Robert Bales. Even here the story was followed with limited depth. As Alexander Cockburn reported this weekend,  it was Australia SBS’s Yalda Hakim who went beneath the surface and produced a remarkable report that suggested that Bales likely did not act alone in the villages of Alkozai and Najiban (a view supported by the investigation conducted by General Karimi for the Afghan president). At least reports of these massacres come to the press. Nothing of the kind happens when drones kill civilians. There is little consideration of drone strikes, and little anger at the murder of ordinary people by drones.

Drones create little global outrage. The drones have no names like Bales (and his confreres). Their pilots are faceless young people who sit in Nevada or upstate New York. They drink a Coke, play with their computers which send kill messages to their drones. They will have nightmares. With drones there are no stories. No narratives to create outrage. Just bodies of dead people. They have no history.

Last week, a US drone killed four people in Miranshah in northern Pakistan. The Pakistani authorities claim that these are Uzbek militants. There is no confirmation. They might have been anyone.

In the 1920s, Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan, had a British base, from where RAF planes went out on frequent bombing raids against the Afghans and the Waziris. It was from Miranshah that Arthur “Bomber” Harris ran some of his most vicious sorties. A rather miserable T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) sat in his room on the base bemoaning his fate while Harris went on his celebrated runs. Lawrence had his own views on the bombings. “I have a bird,” he wrote. “It looks like a sparrow. It nests over my shelf of files. A dirty bird: I have brought in varnished fabric cover to shield the files from its droppings. A misanthropic bird; a solitary bird; a silent bird. It comes in at sunset & departs at dawn. Plop, plop. Our bombing machines can only drop six bombs, at full war load. This my sparrow puts the RAF to shame. Since sunset it has made eleven hits.” Lawrence had his eyes on the bird, and on the horizon. “Miranshah is busy,” he wrote as the bombers returned. “A moral operation is being carried out in the hills to the SW.”

Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press.


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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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