Drone Wars, P2: The Empire Strikes Back

A widening discussion of the use of Drones for targeted assassination in war and in covert actions in countries where we are not at war, has developed since early 2010 when I first began actively protesting their use in these contexts.   When I first began tracking news on drones for the Upstate Drone Action website in late 2010, it was slim pickings.   I fit the entire first year of news on a single web page.   Yet that was the peak of activity in the covert drone wars.    Since then, discussion has increased while active drone strikes by the United States have decreased.  According to the New America Foundation, the number of covert Drone Strikes per year has fallen from 122 in 2010 to 21 so far in 2013. Of course the more prolific strikes in Afghanistan aren’t covert, therefore aren’t counted or noted anywhere that I can find.

A year ago, President Obama defended his weekly meetings to select drone victims, and the use of something called a Matrix of Disposition.   However he released very little concrete information, even in the course of Congressional hearings earlier this year, little concrete information emerged.   Open lies were allowed to stand.   The assertion was made repeatedly that  there were zero civilian victims in the covert drone war, even after more than a hundred photos were brought out of children killed in drone attacks in Pakistan.   Government officials admitted that all males of military age are counted as ‘militants’.   It became apparent that many of the ‘militants’ killed were never identified before or after their deaths.   

In response to increasing public pressure, Obama made many promises about limiting casualties, reining in signature strikes where the identities of the victims are not required to be known, transparency with regard to the material particulars and legal justification of these strikes.   None have been honored.   The number of strikes seems to have decreased, but the use of signature strikes, double tap strikes targeting rescuers, targeting men in their homes and communities where they are surrounded by innocents, and the secrecy surrounding these decisions continues.   The ACLU brought a case in federal courts for Nasser Awlaki, an American educated Professor and Minister of Agriculture in Yemen, contesting the legitimacy of the killings of his son Anwar, killed by a drone strike without due process and and his grandson Abdulrahman, an innocent teenager, both U.S. citizens.   Even the judge was openly disturbed when the  executive (the President and his agencies)  suppressed the case, claiming that any judicial explication of the relevant facts of the case  would constitute a national security breach.

A ray of light cut through the stranglehold of propaganda when Malala Yousefzai, a Pakistani Teenager from Swat visited with President Obama while touring the U.S. earlier this year.   Yousefzai, a prominent supporter of education for girls, was shot in the neck by men claiming to represent  the Pakistani Taliban last year, while I was there with the CodePink Peace Delegation.   The event was followed by flood of vitriol in the Pakistani press against the Taliban, and  instantly cut off the wonderful stream of anti-drone publicity we were generating with our visit.    Many middle class Pakistanis (far from the majority of the population) found themselves questioning their interests in this new light.   However, when questioned as to what they talked about after her visit with the American President, Malala Yousefzai said that she had expressed her concerns about Drone attacks fueling terrorism and killing innocents.  She said that support for education in Pakistan would be much more effective to bring peace.  I was told while visiting Lahore, that most young people drop out of school after the third grade.

The issue of Drone strikes in the FATA (Tribal Lands) of Pakistan along the Afghan border was a significant factor in the national elections in Pakistan that took place last spring.   Nawaz Sharif, the new Prime Minister, asserted from his first day in office, that he would not condone U.S. Drone attacks on his country for any reason.   In a press conference after his meeting with President Obama on October 23rd,  Sharif stated that he had advised President Obama that Pakistan considers Drone strikes on their territory a criminal violation of their sovereignty.   American press coverage stated that President Obama had given Sharif  $1.5 billion in  badly needed financial resources for his country, which raised the issue of complicity.   But Sharif’s statement was not only a reflection of his own policy thus far, but the policy unanimously voted for by Pakistan’s Parliament and reaffirmed by a Judge in Peshawar High Court., who determined that the strikes are criminal even if, as rumored, some Pakistani Official consents to them in secret.

Just one week after Sharif’s return, on the eve of a planned peace negotiation between the TTP, the Political face of the Pakistani Taliban and the Nawaz Sharif’s government,  a massive drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the TTP, along with some of his close associates as they returned from a meeting where they were preparing for the pending negotiations.   As many as twenty five people were killed in the strike and more injured.   Government negotiators who had arrived in Miran Shah, an old British fortress that serves as the capital city of North Waziristan, for the first day of talks returned home, their mission aborted. The opportunity for negotiation was lost.   Imran Khan, who heads the Justice Party (PTI) in Pakistan, which currently governs Khyber Pakhtunkwa, said that the murder of Hakimullah Mehsud was a deliberate sabotage of the peace negotiations.   He said There is no way the United States was not aware of the pending talks.  PTI has called for a blockade of NATO supplies to Afghanistan passing through Pakistan, a protest they have successfully orchestrated in the past.

The significance of the peace negotiations was brushed off in western news reports as uncertain and unlikely to succeed.    Hakimullah was high on the U.S, hit list because, in revenge for his predecessor’s murder, he  planned a suicide bombing that killed  seven Americans including CIA Officers on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.  Caught in the web of revenge, the U.S. had a $5 million bounty on Hakimullah’s head, though most likely he was tracked down because one  of his closest aids was captured by the Americans a few weeks ago. But you never know.  Perhaps there was a local who dropped a chip on him, and is now counting his cash in a witness relocation program somewhere far from the Tribal Lands of Pakistan.   Only four years after Hakimullah Mehsud replaced Baitullah Mehsud,  who was killed in a Drone strike in 2009, as head of TTP he has  met the same fate.  Hakimullah’s replacement has already been elected.    The TTP cannot be destroyed by killing the leader because the leader is an expression of the organization and not the other way around.   Every Drone strike creates new recruits who will eventually become seasoned warriors and potential leaders.

U.S, papers trumpeting victory in the death of a wanted killer miss the point.  They dismiss the loud and clear protests over these killings and talk about quiet approval.   They imagine a wink and a nod.   But this is real life in Pakistan and the TTP is an integral problem in their society.   It is a problem they cannot manage themselves in an environment of  irresponsible interference by those with no interest in Pakistan’s local concerns whatsoever.   Many think the group can be absorbed into the political structure of the country, a right possibility long denied to residents of Pakistan’s Tribal Belt, and only recently enabled through federal legislation.   Giving them a path to legitimate empowerment would neutralize the necessity of violent resistance and facilitate the integration of the FATA with the rest of the country.   Of course this would require a process of truth and reconciliation which would necessarily begin with peace negotiations, which will not happen this time.


Protests against military installations and corporations that support drones has surged this past year.   There have been civil resistance  protests from CIA Headquarters in Langley VA to Whiteman Air Base in Central Missouri to Beale Air Force base near San Francisco and General Atomics Offices near San Diego California.  Sixty eight protesters have been arrested at Hancock Air National Guard Base in upstate New York since the beginning of last October.  CodePink has enacted numerous colorful, noisy, widely publicized protests against Drone warfare in front of the White House and inside the halls of Congress.   Drone news and commentary has proliferated to the extent that I can no longer contain it all in my archive.   There is mounting pressure, not only on the military and the civilian government to address concerns about the use of Drones, but also on the corporations that manufacture and market them.

At the same time, the corporate researchers, manufacturers and sponsors of drone technology have proliferated massively.   Drones are expected to be flying in large numbers in domestic skies within a few years.    Drone use in covert operations may have been reduced in the places we know about, but the bases they will fly from in the future are proliferating across the globe.  No one has even counted the Drone strikes in Afghanistan where Drones are a central feature of the air war in a place where air raids are the primary method of battle.    It’s ostentatious and aggressive to ride out in a tank to confront guys with Kalashnikovs riding around in pickup trucks.  A tidy drone strike from above the clouds is much cleaner.    Business is booming at all levels.  Sales are up,  research is expanding, and the civil society resources necessary to support a drone saturated world are under construction.

The month of October saw a massive surge of Pro-Drone propaganda from a Corporate Community already feasting on on the profits from the Pentagon and CIA black resources, and poised to make a killing on foreign sales of military drones and a proliferation of domestic drones.   There  were conferences all over the country beginning October 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 20, 22 and 23, in Las Vegas, NV, Tel Aviv, Israel, Fort Benning, GA, Pendleton, OR, San Diego, CA, New York, NY, Washington DC, Arlington, VA, and Santa Clara, CA. The Month was a veritable celebration of Drone Technology,

On October 11-13 NYU hosted a Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference (DARC) celebrating the possibilities for civilian use of drones that featured legal subjects like “Comparative Drone Law” (is there any Drone Law?) and “Innovation Law and Policy”, and deep subjects like”Unmanned Government: From the Pentagon to the Park Service”, “The Pinnochio Complex: How Category Confusion Affects Drone Law and Policy”, and “License Plates and Drone Information Requirements”and fun stuff like “Intro to Personal Drones”, I, II and III.  We ave  “Farm Drones”, “Aerial Photography” and “Drones for Good”.  There’s more, but you get the drift.  It’s a veritable feast for Engineers and legal wonks with a futuristic or Scifi influenced mindset.   There was also single panel called “Living Under Drones“.

The venue for this conference is notable because just about a year ago, the Stanford / NYU report, Living Under Drones, presented a body of research clearly showing that U.S. Drone attacks in the Tribal Lands of Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan cause a significant number of civilian deaths and much suffering for the people who live there.

Here is an excerpt from the ‘About:’ page on the DARC website:

DARC [Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference] is a multidisciplinary conference about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and drones—with an emphasis on civilian applications.

Attendees will take part in a far-ranging exploration of these technologies and see firsthand the latest advancements in aerial robotics. In addition to looking at the cultural impact, legal challenges, and business potential, we’ll also examine specific applications for drones including: agriculture, policing, wildlife conservation, weather, mapping, logistics, and more.

I guess they don’t want us to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ as the old saying goes.   And I’m OK with that.    There is no doubt in my mind that drones can indeed contribute technological support for any number of useful tasks.   However, the conference was sponsored by AUVSI, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, whose Executive Committee is populated by executives from Northrup Grumman, manufacturer of the Global Hawk Drone, EADS North America and L-3, all big players in the military Drone business.  Perversely, the AUVSI  website looks like a cool club where anyone can join the insiders building  the future, a pleasant face for the purveyors of death.  On the DARC website as well, ultra progressive sponsors are named including some of the bright lights of Open Source Technology, Free Press advocates and NYU Law School.

They did plan for a panel addressing the issues of Life Under Drones though it did not include any of the researchers at NYU who had collaborated in Living Under Drones, a devastating condemnation of the covert drone war in North Waziristan and published a year ago.   Unfortunately, one of the speakers on this panel, Shahzad Akbar, was not present despite the fact that he also had a date with Congress the following week, and that he has been in the U.S. a number of times in the past, because his current visa request has been repeatedly denied.   Akbar is a Pakistani Lawyer who, through his Foundation for Fundamental Rights, supports the victims of drone attacks and their families in legal challenges against the perpetrators of these strikes.   He has sued the Pakistani Government and the British Government on their behalf, and though the U.S. Courts have not accepted his cases, he has threatened to take the U.S. Government before the ICC.

Madiha Tahir, a Pakistani American from New Jersey, who recently completed a documentary film called Wounds of Waziristan, was on the panel.   I asked her what it was like to be there and she replied

“I sent this photo [a photo of Madiha with one of the Waziri Drone victims] to them when they requested a bio pic for their website and was told then, via email, that they would like another photo because there had already been grumbling about some of the language on the site and they would like to get people to show up rather than turning them off by publishing this photo.

After the panel, the organizer who sent me that email spoke to me and said that she had not been instructed as such and had miscommunicated. Instead, she told me that the reason for wanting another photo was that they wanted only one person in each photo for technical reasons on the site. She said she misspoke on the email out of anxiety.”

On the Panel, Madiha reminded the audience of the gap between our perceptions of the Pakistani frontier, which is based on stories the American Frontier, an historical artifact of colonialism and racism, and the reality of the lives of the people who inhabit the Pakistani frontier, long suffering under the burden of racism and colonial history.  It is a matter, perhaps, of perspective.   She compared the remarks of an earlier speaker about the potential use of drones to preserve certain animal species, and their current usage to kill and terrorize human beings.   She calls out the organization who sponsored this speaker and the event as a whole, AUVSI, as an organization that represents the Drone industry, largely composed of companies who develop and market military drones along with other technology to serve the military.  She says,

“These organizations are not about the care of animals or species, but rather about the destruction of humans being reduced to animals.”

Fellow Panelist, Wazhmah Osman went on to say:

This is the context, the larger context within which drone strikes are going on.  To think about what it is like to live under drones, at least in Pakistan, we also have to ask what is it like to live in FATA (the Tribal Area of Pakistan).  What is it like to live in a place in which you don’t have any rights vis a vie your own government; where your own government, your own military has abandoned you?  . . . And that’s the context in which the United States is then conducting drone strikes and assassinations.

I am a software engineer who spent my youth immersed in the wonderful science fiction of the 50s and 60s.    I fully appreciate the wonders that technology can offer to our lives.   But, technology provides tools for the corrupt elements of our civilization as surely as the constructive. As a rule, the first money is in the war toys.    Nuclear medicine is a peripheral development from the technology developed to create nuclear bombs.  Nuclear power found it’s first home in nuclear submarines.    A man walked on the moon and we have filled the space around our earth with satellites monitoring the weather, maintaining a global network of information distribution, and guiding Drones using technology developed for cruise missiles and space wars, still in parallel development.   In every case it is the most corrupt and destructive elements of society who present the constructive possibilities of new technologies as a lure, a decoy, to distract our attention from the horrific reality that they are supporting right now.      This discussion should be about priorities and the deployment of resources.    It is only the case that the military uses of technology precede the civilian benefits because in our society military initiatives take precedence over civilian ones.

The remarks of the members of the Life Under Drones panel make it clear that security is not the critical issue.    The targets of our drones represent  not a clear and present danger, but rather a people who can ‘safely’ be  dispensed without a public backlash. The wars and the weapons have a life of their own, and a self serving mythos that makes them indispensable to society in many subtle ways.    We might conclude, in this context, that the military itself represents the clear and present danger – surely to the people of the Tribal Lands (FATA) in Pakistan, but potentially to every living thing.   If we turn our priorities to peace, perhaps all these wonderful possibilities that derive from the wars will go away.   But it may be that like an addict who finally clears the drugs from his system, we will see the world in a new light and find that we have new potentials to manifest in our lives and society that are yet unimagined.

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