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Look Forward to the Year of the Drone

Despite the UN calling an inquiry into the flying killbots, the US are loving them more than ever before.


Photo by Todd Huffman

Over the past nine years, drone strikes have become an inescapable fact of life in parts of Yemen, Afghanistan and northern Pakistan. Almost every week, armed "hunter-killers" flown in from CIA and Air Force portakabins in Vegas and Virginia seek out apparently high-value terrorist targets, then blast them and anyone nearby with Hellfire missiles or 500-pound bombs. They're the embodiment of modern warfare – the pampered bully intentionally bashing his expensive remote controlled helicopter into other kids in the playground, only with a lot more death of innocent civilians and the complete annihilation of everything they own.     

Aside from inspiring romantic poems and a Bollywood-style club banger, the attacks have attracted a heap of criticism, not least from people on the ground. A recent report by Stanford and New York universities claims people in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan have been mentally scarred by the “constant presence of drones overhead”, forcing themselves to keep busy or let the distant buzz of propellers drive them crazy. Accounts of the strikes make for grim reading, not least that of Khalil Khan, son of a tribal leader killed in Datta Khel, Waziristan on March 17, 2011.

Khalil’s father had met with around 40 other members of a "Jirga" (a meeting of tribal elders) near a bus depot in the town to discuss a mining dispute. Alongside local government staffers and others at the Jirga were, reportedly, four Taliban militants. Despite this, the group felt safe – the authorities had been told about the planned meet. At 10:45AM, a drone-fired missile hissed through the group, killing about 20 people. Several more missiles followed, leaving at least 42 people dead. According to one eyewitness, “Everything was devastated. There were body pieces lying around” and “lots of flesh and blood”. Speaking to researchers, Khalil explained he was unable to identify his father’s body and began to “collect pieces of flesh and put them in a coffin”.

Other survivors of Datta Khel speak of memory loss, a fear of loud noises and of the funerals feeling “odd and different than before”. Between 500 and 900 Pakistani civilians have been killed in similar strikes, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which claims 362 strikes have been carried out in the region since 2004.

For the US, drones are a no-brainer. They’re cheaper than conventional planes, less politically sensitive than boots on the ground and, since they’re often run by spies rather than the US military, can be flown on deniable missions without national markings. Obama’s been especially hot for bots – since his election in 2008, the CIA has run six times as many drone missions in Pakistan as it did under Bush. Without them, says the President, the Pentagon would resort to “more intrusive military action”. It’s all secret and there’s no official mandate for the killings – even the Bureau’s Chris Woods concedes, “There’s still much we don't know, including the CIA's own understanding of who it has killed.”

Now the UN is sniffing around. In January, it announced an inquiry into the impact of drones and “other forms of targeted killing”, aimed at recommending laws surrounding their use, working out how many civilians have been killed and investigating so-called "double-tap" strikes – attacks in which drones allegedly target the same spot twice, shooting rescuers when they arrive to help out.

To get a handle on the situation, I called Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistan-based lawyer who’s been representing the families of civilians killed in drone strikes, and has tried (without much success) to sue the CIA. Unsurprisingly, he welcomed the UN inquiry. “Everyone who can afford to has moved out of Waziristan,” he said, “so it’s like a concentration camp – they have no place to go.”

Shahzad says his clients are people caught up in the periphery of a drone strike, rather than the intended targets, but the line is often blurred: “Everyone carries AKs, has a beard and drives an SUV, and a lot of people hate America, so how do you decide who’s a militant?” There’s also an undercurrent of paranoia, he claims: “If there are militants around, they’re looking out for CIA spies, so the people are either in fear of drones or in fear of the militants – people have been captured and tortured to death.”

Safdar Dawar, head of Pakistan’s Tribal Union of Journalists, has experience of the strikes. On a shaky line from Peshawar, just 100km from a drone strike hot spot, he described life in the most affected tribal regions. “If I’m in the market or in my car, I almost expect there to be an attack – a shopkeeper might be scared because a Taliban member might come to his shop and be killed.

“An attack could be anywhere, any time, on any person. I don’t know the person standing next to me and he could be wanted by the US.” Dawar accepts that drones often kill militant leaders, but says, “Many civilians die, too, because (strikes) destroy entire houses and families.”

It’s doubtful the UN inquiry will have much of an effect on the number of strikes, according to Paul Schulte of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who foresees their use remaining “an essentially mysterious business”. Although the US has agreed to play ball with the inquiry, Paul points out it hasn’t made any promises: “It’s hard to think there’s going to be a strong anti-drone reversal,” he said, “but I think there will be a push toward accountability – the perception is clearly uncomfortable for the US.”

Uncomfortable it may be, but the American drone program shows no sign of slowing. Last week it emerged that the Pentagon is poking around North Africa and planning to build a new drone base, probably in the friendly desert country of Niger. Since 2011, strikes have been launched against al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia, and now the US wants to keep an eye on Mali and a dribble of guns and baddies across the border from post-revolutionary Libya. All of which means the US is probably too attached to its drones to turn back any time soon

Not everyone is anti-killbot. Pakistani intellectual Pervez Hoodbhoy caused a fuss last year, arguing that his country has more "drones" than the US – human ones in the not quite as mechanical form of suicide bombers. “Mullah-trained and mass-produced,” he writes, “the walking drone’s trail is far bloodier than that of the MQ-1B or MQ-9 (US drones)… body parts lie scattered across Pakistan.” He accuses critics like chiselled ex-cricketer Imran Khan of “muddle-headed anti-imperialism”, whipping up populist sentiment against the “necessary evil” of drones. For Pervez, the “fascistic holy warriors” of the Taliban are the real problem, bombing girls’ schools and slaughtering doctors for dishing out polio shots.

Drones, then, are among the most toxic and divisive issues in Pakistani politics. Karachi is as happy as Washington to see militant leaders like Maulvi Nazir Wazir wiped off the map, but less happy to admit its complicity. As the secretive drone war begins to encircle even greater swathes of an increasingly dangerous world, UN rules are probably just the ticket. 

Follow Alex on Twitter: @alexchitty

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