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NATO summit: drone warfare challenged

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Drone warfare will be an issue at the NATO summit, though it’s a far more urgent one for many of NATO’s critics.

NATO will review the strategic agreement between the U.S. and Afghanistan, which will allow drone attacks to continue, despite Afghanistan’s attempt to negotiate an end to them. NATO will also review a deal reached earlier this year for members to kick in $1.4 billion to start building its own drone force.

Drone war is also behind the decision not to invite Pakistan [2] to the Chicago summit, although the nation is one of dozens of NATO “partners,” and an important one. The U.S. reportedly pressed for its exclusion because Pakistan refused to reopen NATO supply routes closed after a U.S. drone attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last November.

Pakistan, previously in tacit support of the drone war, has now demanded it be ended, to no avail.


Pakistan’s exclusion from the summit “makes the whole thing a farce,” said Pakistani-American human rights activist Rafia Zakaria. “You’re supposed to be figuring out the future of the Afghanistan mission and the negotiations with the Taliban, and you don’t have the country that’s integral to all of that.”

Zakaria will be speaking [3] along with Medea Benjamin of Code Pink [4], author of the new book, “Drone Wars,” [5] at the Heartland Cafe, 7000 N. Glenwood, on Monday, May 14 at 7 p.m.

The book is an attempt “to make the American people aware of how counterproductive drone warfare is, how many innocent civilians it kills, how it creates blowback and anti-U.S. sentiment – and to get more people involved in calling for an end to it,” Benjamin said.

Code Pink has protested at drone bases, as has the locally-based group Voices for Creative Nonviolence [6]. Last month VCNV and grassroots peace groups in Missouri, upstate New York, and Wisconsin held protests and committed civil disobedience at air bases where drones are maintained and deployed.

Killing civilians

They delivered a war crimes indictment [7] charging the U.S. chain of command, from the president on down, with violations of U.S. and international law including “extrajudicial killings, violation of due process, wars of aggression, violation of national sovereignty, and the killing of innocent civilians.”

Kathy Kelly of VCNV said she and colleagues “have been in Pakistan and Afghanistan and become aware of how much fear and mistrust the drone attacks have caused. We’ve talked to people who’ve lost loved ones” in drone attacks. One young girl she met in an Afghan refugee camp lost an arm in a drone attack; her brother was seriously injured; her uncle lost his wife and five daughters.

Given the secrecy in which the program is cloaked, it’s hard to know how many civilians have been killed, Kelly said. According to a VCNV pamphlet [8], “The vast majority of victims of drone strikes through the history of drone warfare have been innocent civilians.”

An extensive effort by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, based at City University in London, has identified the names of 317 civilians [9] killed in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan, including 174 children. Out of up to 3,000 or more people killed in about 300 attacks, BIJ was able to identify 171 named militants.

The actual numbers are almost certainly higher. One “precision” targeted assassination in 2009 killed the leader of the Pakistan Taliban, along with his wife and her father. But according to Rolling Stone [10], it was the fourth attempt on the man’s life; 45 civilians were killed in one earlier attempt, and 35 more, including an 8-year-old boy, in another.

A game of odds

The Obama administration has dramatically stepped up drone attacks (they’re carried out by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and by the CIA in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen). After being coy about it for a couple of years, in January the president defended the program as “very precise,” saying drone strikes “have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.”

The program appeals to the administration as “a more targeted way of waging war,” one without the political costs associated with troop casualties, according to RS. “From the moment Obama took office, according to Washington insiders, the new commander in chief evinced a ‘love’ of drones” – an enthusiasm shared by top aides including then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, [11] who “would routinely arrive at the White House and demand, ‘Who did we get today?'”

The expansion involved moving beyond targeted assassinations of top Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders to selecting targets based on suspicious activity observed by drone surveillance. When it comes to these kinds of attacks, “the decision to launch a drone assault is essentially an odds game,” according to RS. “If the agency think’s it’s likely that the group of individuals are insurgents, it will take a shot.”

A former official tells Rolling Stone: “The CIA is doing a lot more targeting on a percentage basis.”

In one case RS reports, a well-known, pro-U.S. human rights advocate was killed because the CIA confused his cell-phone number with that of a Taliban leader.

Fighting terrorism

Zakaria uses words like “absurd” and “ludicrous” to describe the program. Based in Indiana, she’s a board member of Amnesty International [12], a columnist at Dawn [13], Pakistan’s major English-language newspaper, and author of the forthcoming book, “Silence in Karachi: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon).

“You would never put people on a remotely-piloted aircraft, but we’re willing to use the same thing to kill people,” she says. (Clearly, it’s only feasible in areas where we have little concern for the welfare of the general population.)

One problem is that drone warfare is presented as a tactic against terrorism. “If you put terrorism on one side of a scale and anything on the other side, you can make anything seem defensible – torture, indefinite detention, drones,” says Zakaria.

“Drones are not a solution to terrorism,” she says. Refugees consistently say that after every drone attack, “the first people on the scene are Taliban who recruit family members of the victims,” she says. “What [drones are] doing is really providing a replacement supply of recruits for whomever is killed in a strike.”

She points out that 5,000 Pakistanis were killed in nearly 500 terrorist attacks last year. “If drones are working so well – if they’re really crippling the capacity of Al Qaeda and the Taliban – how in the world are they possibly doing 500 attacks in one year?”

Reuters’ David Rohde [14], arguing that Obama’s drone strategy is “backfiring,” points to Yemen as another case. Twenty drone strikes were carried out there in the months after a Yemeni-trained militant tried to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner in December 2009.

“In addition to killing Al Qaeda-linked militants, the strikes killed dozens of civilians, according to Yemenis. Instead of decimating the organization, the Obama strikes have increased the ranks of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula from 300 fighters in 2009 to more than 1,000 today, according to Gregory Johnsen, a leading Yemen expert at Princeton University. In January, the group briefly seized control of Radda, a town only 100 miles from the capital, Sanaa.”

Destroying Pakistan

Zakaria also raises the “secondary effects” of the drone war, with camps and cities – already lacking infrastructure and jobs — swollen by hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing areas where drone strikes are common and the hovering presence of the weapons is constant.

“Pakistan is being destroyed by the effects of the drones,” she said. “They’re supposed to be ‘surgical strikes’ excising a cancer, but the whole body is dying.”

Kelly has similar stories about swollen refugee camps in Afghanistan, where 40 people froze to death last winter, and of Kabul, where 5 million now live in a city built for 500,000.

Why do people flee areas where drones are in use? What’s it like to live under the protection of these things?

“From the ground, drones are terrifying weapons that can be heard circling overhead for hours at a time,” writes Rohde, who was held captive by the Taliban from November 2008 until he escaped in June 2009. “They are a potent, unnerving symbol of unchecked American power.”

A Pakistani attorney for 80 families of drone victim [15]s says that in the province of Waziristan, there are four or five drones in the air at any given time.

Kelly and VCNV are currently on a 170-mile peace walk [16] from Madison to Chicago to protest the NATO summit. They bring with them an alternative agenda for the summit: immediately end drone strikes, dismantle the NATO mission in Afghanistan, end diplomatic and financial support for Hamid Karzai “and the warlords in the National Assembly,” and provide reparations commensurate to the destruction caused by the U.S./NATO war.