Drone attacks provoke calls for revenge

In a report on the CIA’s campaign of drone warfare in Pakistan, the Los Angeles Times recounts the stories of some of the civilian victims of the attacks.

Many of the boys that Zaman Khan grew up with in the South Waziristan town of Shakai eventually joined the Taliban. He knew they had become militants, but he never thought it odd to have them over for tea.

Whether it was because of Taliban visits or the proximity of a regular Taliban meeting place 30 yards away, Khan’s house became a target March 15, 2008.

The missile struck while everyone slept, killing Khan’s brother, Wazir Khan, 40; Wazir’s wife, Zara Bibi, 30; and their 4-year-old son, Irshad. The left half of Wazir’s body had been sheared off. Zara’s and Irshad’s bodies were charred from head to toe.

Wazir’s two other children, Noor Rehman, 10 at the time, and Ishaq Khan, 3, survived. Physically, they recovered but suffer from psychological problems, Zaman Khan said.

“Ishaq doesn’t talk at all,” Khan said. “He can’t recognize his family, and he drinks only if someone helps him.”

Three weeks after that strike, a house full of civilians in the same neighborhood was struck, instantly killing cousins Sher Maan, 20, and Azeem Ullah, 30, and Azeem’s wife, Gul Anama, 25.

“It was a huge blast that shook the ground,” said Amin Ullah, 20, a Shakai farmer.

“I believe that most of the victims of these drone attacks are innocent people,” Ullah said. “Pakistan should be carrying out these attacks. Pakistan knows the terrain, knows its people and knows the militants.”

Andrew Exum, a former Army officer in Afghanistan and Iraq, has declared the drone program counterproductive and called for an end to it. In an analysis published last year, Exum and David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency advisor to the head of U.S. Central Command, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, dismissed drones as technology substituting for strategy.

“Every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement,” they wrote.

Drones have proved invaluable in Afghanistan, where they focus on surveillance, intelligence-gathering and watching over coalition troops, Exum said in an interview. But in Pakistan, the U.S. and the government in Islamabad need to make the case that the attacks are part of a joint strategy supporting Pakistani policy, he said.

“I’m not saying drones can’t be part of the solution, but right now I think they’re part of the problem,” Exum said.

Drone attacks have enraged men such as Momin Khan. On a September morning last year, Khan heard the thunderclap of a drone strike in Machis, his village in North Waziristan, and ran to see what had happened.

As he joined other villagers running down a dirt road, the 50-year-old unemployed teacher saw black smoke and flames curling out of a house about 60 yards away. The missile had killed two people there. As he ran closer, a second missile strike shook the ground.

Shrapnel from the blast cut into his shoulder and legs. He woke up in a hospital.

Four people were killed in the second strike, he said. Although Taliban militants have often used Machis as a haven, Khan said he was sure the house initially targeted had only civilians in it.

“These drones fly day and night, and we don’t know where to hide because we don’t know who they will target,” he said. “If I could, I would take revenge on America.”

Philip Alston, the United Nations special representative on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, said that without full disclosure of the CIA drone program, “the opportunities for abuse are immense.”

“The CIA is running a program that is killing a significant number of people, and there is absolutely no accountability in terms of the relevant international law,” he said.

Scott Horton, while considering some of the legal issues surrounding the program notes:

No weapons system remains indefinitely the province of a single power. Drone technology is particularly striking in this regard, because it is not really all that sophisticated. It seems clear that other powers have this technology–Israel and Iran have each been reported to be working with it, Russia and China could obviously do so easily if they desired, and the same is probably true for Britain, France, and Germany, not to mention Japan and Taiwan, where many of the cutting-edge breakthroughs in robotics actually occur. The way America uses this technology is therefore effectively setting the rules for others. Put another way, if it’s lawful for America to employ a drone to take out an enemy in the desert of Yemen, on the coast of Somalia, in a village in Sudan or Mauretania, then it would be just as lawful for Russia, or China–or, for that matter, for Israel or Iran. What kind of world is this choice then creating? Doesn’t it invariably lead us closer to the situation in which a targeted killing will be carried out in a major metropolis of Europe or East Asia, or even the United States? And doesn’t that move us in the direction of a dark and increasingly lawless world?

This is not idle speculation. The choices the United States has made are being studied very closely in capitals around the world. In Russia, for instance, national-security analysts have noted the American drone strikes with a measure of approbation, because they see such strikes as justifying lethal countermeasures of their own against perceived terrorist enemies. A number of enemies of the Russian government who were critical of policies or actions connected with the Second Chechen War have recently met violent death, often after Russian authorities linked them to Chechen terrorist groups. The Polonium poisoning of Aleksandr Litvinenko in London, for instance, or the assassination of Umar Israilov in Vienna, which Austrian prosecutors linked earlier this week to a Putin-protégé, the president of Chechnya, are two examples that suggest that Europe may have been cleared as a theater for targeted killings by a great power. The 2004 killing of former Chechen President Zelimkhan in Qatar is an example of another Russian targeted killing in the Gulf. The recent likely Israeli assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai is another instance. Targeted killings of this sort have always been with us, of course, but with the Bush-era “War on Terror” they are making a strong comeback and are gaining in claims of legitimacy and legality. The drone technology promises to take targeted killings to a whole new level.

My point here is a simple one. The United States cannot assume exclusivity in this technology, and how it uses the technology will guide others. The United States has to decide now whether it wants to legitimize a broader right of sovereign states to assassinate their enemies using drones. The consequence of such a step to the world as a whole will be severe. This also points to the danger of the United States using drones for targeted killings and keeping silent about the process, which invites the view that the practice involves an arbitrary and capricious use of power. If the United States elects to continue on its current path, it also owes the world a clear accounting for its use of drones as a vehicle for targeted killings.

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1 thought on “Drone attacks provoke calls for revenge

  1. Christopher Hoare

    Sorry, Mr Horton, the barn door is already open and the horse has escaped. The US has no moral standing to issue any guidance on the use of targeted murder — in the same way that the owner of a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons is justly accused of hypocrisy when it seeks to prevent other states from having them.
    The world looks fondly back at the good old days early in the 20th century when the US pursued an isolationist policy and didn’t try to mind everyone elses’ business. Almost everything they’ve done since 1945 has brought misery and suffering to millions — for no good end.

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