US drone attacks in Pakistan

By Ian Sinclair | ZNet, May 23, 2009
Source: Morning Star

Two weeks after Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States, former Clinton administration official David Rothkopf made the shrewd observation that the new leader’s cabinet choices adhered closely to “the violin model: you hold power with the left hand and you play the music with the right.”

This musical analogy is also useful in analysing Obama’s foreign policies – presented to the public as progressive and benign, but in reality often adhering closely to the disastrous approach of his hugely unpopular and much derided predecessor. So while the first Black occupant of the White House asked the Muslim world to “unclench” its fist in his widely praised inauguration speech, in early April the New York Times quoted senior US administration officials as saying Obama “intended to step up its use of drones to strike militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas and might extend them to a different sanctuary deeper inside the country.”

For those who thought drones were something only seen in sc-fi movies, think again. Since October 2001 the US military has been using drones – unmanned, remotely-controlled aircraft –  to gather intelligence and bomb targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. With the first operations undertaken by the smaller Predator drones, today the US is increasingly using the huge Reaper drones – “hunter-killers” with a 25-metre wingspan and up to 3000lbs of bombs that can be kept in the air for more than 40 hours by pilots working shifts at Creech airbase in Nevada. “The Reaper is a bomber in all but name”, says Paul Rodgers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University.

According to the US Government the drones are an extremely effective tool in targeting Al-Qaeda leaders and its supporters in the semi-autonomous tribal area of north-west Pakistan. To back up this claim US officials recently leaked to the press information showing the drone strikes had killed 9 of the 20 top Al Qaeda leaders.

However, in response to the US Government’s figures the Pakistani Government leaked data of its own to The News International, the second-largest English language newspaper in the country. These records revealed that out of the 60 US drone strikes that had been carried out in Pakistan since January 2006 only 10 hit their actual targets, killing 14 Al-Qaeda leaders.  Meanwhile these attacks have killed 687 Pakistani civilians (about 160 of which have been killed since Obama took office according to the Los Angeles Times).

This shocking number of civilian fatalities and disgraceful targeting history has produced some unsurprising results, with the Times newspaper reporting last month that the drone attacks are “causing a massive humanitarian emergency” with “as many as 1m people” fleeing their homes “to escape attacks by the unmanned spy planes as well as bombings by the Pakistani army.”

David Kilcullen, the top counter-insurgency advisor to General Petraeus, told the House Armed Service Committee in the US that the drones attacks are “highly unpopular” in Pakistan and have “given rise to feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism”. One such “spike” was the March terrorist attack on the police academy in Lahore, which the Pakistani Taliban said was in revenge for the remotely-controlled air strikes. Returning from a fact-finding trip to the region, the UK’s social cohesion minister Saddiq Khan backed up Kilcullen’s testimony, noting “the anger at the drone attacks was huge.  The view they [the students he met] had was the UK was somehow responsible for this… They lumped us together with the US, which to me is a poison.”

The UK is not – yet – conducting air strikes in Pakistan, but the students confusion is understandable. Not only is the UK the US’s main ally in Afghanistan and Iraq, but John Hutton, the British Defence Secretary, recently told Channel Four‘s Despatches “we’ve got to fight in Afghanistan and Pakistan”. In fact, the Ministry of Defence’s own website notes that British drones used in Afghanistan “operate from Nevada in the USA as part of the USAF 432nd Wing” – the same airbase the US uses to fly their own drones. A very cosy relationship then, and hardly one that suggests opposition to the US attacks in Pakistan.

Putting mainstream journalists to shame, the activist-run Peace News newspaper accurately described the – presumably illegal – US drone attacks against Pakistan as “state terrorism”.  However, with minimal coverage in the British media, public awareness about this important issue is unfortunately, but not surprisingly, very low. But what about the poor response from the anti-war movement?  What is their excuse? Where are the voices raised in protest against these murderous and counterproductive air strikes which kill large numbers of civilians, produce thousands of refugees, destablise the entire region and increase the terrorist threat to the UK?

* An edited version of this article recently appeared in the Morning Star newspaper.

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