Drone Strikes and Torture Will Cause Big Blowback

Photograph Source: AK Rockefeller – CC BY 2.0

On October 29 a Guantanamo Bay prisoner was reported as having testified about the torture inflicted on him over many years in CIA “black sites” and the US military base in Cuba where among other things he was “suspended naked from a ceiling beam for long periods, doused repeatedly with ice water to keep him awake for days. He described having his head held under water to the point of near drowning, only to have water poured into his nose and mouth when the interrogators let him up. He was beaten, given forced enemas, sexually assaulted and starved . . .”

A week earlier, on United Nations Day, the Biden White House announced that the United States is committed “to the original vision and values enshrined in the United Nations Charter” which involved “creating a rules-based international order” and ensuring “adherence to international law.”  The declaration was made two months after a US drone strike in Kabul killed ten civilians, including seven children.  As the International Red Cross points out, the “arbitrary deprivation of the right to life” includes “unlawful killing in the conduct of hostilities, i.e., the killing of civilians and persons hors de combat not in the power of a party to the conflict not justified under the rules on the conduct of hostilities.”  Consequently, according to Washington’s “rules-based international order”, it is unlawful to kill civilians.

But all the Pentagon has done about the Kabul kid-killing is to eventually and with reluctance admit that it did indeed slaughter an innocent man and many of his family — and it is most unlikely that anything would have been divulged if it hadn’t been for the work of the New York Times, which smelled a rat.  The Pentagon’s inquiry into the killings was a farce and the finding, released on November 3, was that there had been “no violation of law, including the Law of War”.

And now the Pentagon is wriggling round saying it is sorry and will throw money at the problem.  On September 20 General Kenneth McKenzie told the media that the drone-fired missile “struck the vehicle at 4:53 PM, which produced an explosive event and follow-on flames significantly larger than a Hellfire missile would have been expected to produce.”

The general probably doesn’t realize the preposterous inanity of the phrase “an explosive event” and his declaration that “we are exploring the possibility of ex gratia payments” is even more absurd.  That Pentagon Hellfire “event” killed most of the family of the vehicle’s driver, Zemerai Ahmadi, who had “worked for 15 years for Nutrition & Education International, a California-based non-profit aimed at countering malnutrition in Afghanistan”.

AP News reported that “the family said when the 37-year-old Zemerai, alone in his car, pulled up to the house, he honked his horn. His 11-year-old son ran out, and Zemerai let the boy get in and drive the car into the driveway. The other kids ran out to watch, and the missile incinerated the car, killing seven children and an adult son and nephew of Zemerai.” And then, as recorded by the NYT, the usual lies were trotted out, and “almost everything senior defense officials asserted in the hours, and then days, and then weeks after the August 29 drone strike turned out to be false.”  The Pentagon liars struck again.

Yet President Biden keeps telling us, as in his September remarks prior to the UN session, that “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”  He regretted that “we lost 13 American heroes and almost 200 innocent Afghan civilians in the heinous terrorist attack at the Kabul airport”, but there wasn’t a word about the seven kids slaughtered by his drone-fired missile.

The Hellfire “explosive event” that killed Zemerai Ahmadi and his young son and the other children who were greeting him excitedly is far from the first slaughter of innocents by US missiles.  Freedom, justice and peace have been blown apart by many a drone strike, not one of which has resulted in prosecutorial action following the killing of innocent civilians.

Back in May 2016, after President Obama had discovered the beauty of drone strikes that could demonstrate US policy around the world, I wrote in Counterpunch about the murder by drone of a Pakistani taxi driver called Mohammad Azam who was earning his tiny daily wage by picking up passengers who crossed the border from Iran into Pakistan. Usually he would take them only to nearby villages, but one day he picked up a man who wanted to go to the city of Quetta, eight hours drive away.  He drove off in his Toyota Corolla, and a few hours later, when he stopped for a rest, an Obama Hellfire struck and blasted the car to twisted shards of metal — and reduced Azam and his customer to smoking corpses.

Azam’s passenger was the evil Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor who was travelling under a false name.  His sought-for anonymity didn’t do him much good, because he had been traced and tracked, and while he was in Iran or when he was going through border crossing examination on the Pakistan side it’s likely that a US-paid agent planted a chip on him or in his baggage that signaled his whereabouts to the drone-controlling video-gamers.

Azam the taxi-driver didn’t know Mullah Mansoor and was not associated with the Taliban or any such organization. He was an entirely innocent man trying to earn enough money to feed his family — his wife, four small children and a crippled brother who stayed with them.

The Pentagon stated that  “Mansur has been an obstacle to peace and reconciliation between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban, prohibiting Taliban leaders from participating in peace talks with the Afghan government that could lead to an end to the conflict.”  So they killed him.  And without the slightest hesitation they also killed the entirely innocent taxi driver Mohammad Azam.

If a person in a foreign country that can’t retaliate to drone strikes is considered an enemy of the United States there is no question of arrest, charge and trial.  When possible, they are killed by a Hellfire missile. In this case, five years ago, the explosive event was personally authorized by President Obama who stressed that there must be “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed,”  and that the US “respects national sovereignty and international law.”  His version of respect for international law has been embraced by President Biden who strongly advocates “freedom, justice, and peace in the world.”

While killing eleven year-old boys who are driving daddy’s car in their house driveway is as obvious a war crime as blasting an innocent taxi-driver to smithereens and as hideous an abomination as torturing a captive for years, there is even more to these violations of human rights than the obvious legal and moral aspects.  There is the blowback factor.

President Biden may genuinely believe that Washington’s drone strikes and torture contribute in some fashion to justice and peace, but the effects of these atrocities around the world cannot be calculated.  We can measure the number of innocent people killed by Hellfire missiles, but we can’t measure the hatred created by their deaths.

Washington can break international law with impunity so far as instant reaction is concerned, be that on the part of international institutions or those directly affected by the havoc wreaked by the Pentagon — but for a very long time its barbaric activities have been encouraging worldwide revulsion, loathing and determination to take revenge.  Although the long-term consequences are measureless, there is no doubt that “explosive events” will blow back for a long time to come.  The military-industrial complex has been manufacturing the next 9/11.

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.