Drone Wars from Britain: How Many More?

CounterPunch, October 29, 2012

Urgent Purchase

Now we know that not only did the United Kingdom already have drones, but more are coming to join the Royal Air Force for surveillance and combat operations in foreign lands. And, for the first time, they will be controlled from Britain.

According to a report in the Guardian, the United Kingdom has made urgent purchase of five more Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles, which will double their number with the British military. Initially they will be deployed in Afghanistan and are expected to start operating within weeks. So, instead of sitting with their American counterparts in Nevada, the British “pilots” will be playing with videogame killing machines from RAF Waddington in the English county of Lincolnshire. These latest developments come as the United Nations has finally decided to investigate American drone strikes and other “targeted killings” of “terrorist suspects.”

In the main, three factors have influenced the British government’s decision: the prolongation of the war in Afghanistan beyond the military planners’ original estimates; the rise in the deaths and injuries of British and other Nato soldiers at the hands of Afghan security personnel; and President Obama’s plan to withdraw most of the U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Surely other Nato troops cannot stay in the country beyond that point.

Whether President Obama is reelected or Mitt Romney wins on November 6, it can be taken as certain that drone wars will continue in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and their use will be extended to other places. So mechanized, refined and cheap to manufacture are these instruments of the “war on terror.” In the present economic difficulties, the governing coalition of Conservative prime minister David Cameron and his Liberal-Democrat deputy Nick Clegg probably feels that Britain’s urgent purchase of Reaper drones is a “good investment.”

Sources in touch with American policymakers in Washington confidently predict that drone wars will continue. So, there seems to be no reason for the British government to withdraw its aircraft from the region. Under rules imposed by the European Union and the Civil Aviation Authority, drone missions can only be flown in certain places in Britain.

Civilian Deaths

In a recent article, I discussed a study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools. It concluded that the CIA’s targeted drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal areas were politically counterproductive, killing many civilians and undermining respect for international law.

That British drones have been in operation from Creech air base in the United States has been a less known fact. The Ministry of Defence in London insists that only four civilians have died in its drone operations in Afghanistan––in line with the Obama administration’s claims of there being very few civilian casualties. However, British defence officials say they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit.

Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the legal charity Reprieve, says that “decisions are being made that will ripple through the generations.” In a recent comment, he wrote: “Just as the secret Manhattan Project ushered in the nuclear age, so the military and their corporate colleagues are pressing forward with policies with very little public disclosure or debate.”

It is wholly inconsistent for any Western leader or government to assert that they have no idea how many insurgents have died because of “immense difficulty and risks” and yet for Prime Minister David Cameron to claim that by December 2010 British drones had “killed 124 insurgents in Afghanistan.” No wonder defence officials denied that the information came from them, and said that “they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure.” So the question arises, as Smith has raised, whether the kill-numbers are being “conjured up by politicians.”

For several years since the “war on terror” started a decade ago, the British government has sought to deny accusations that its forces have been involved in terror and torture––against mounting evidence. The Stanford and New York universities’ report is among the latest and most damning. The truth about the use of circling drones to terrify the 800000 citizens––men, women and children––in a remote tribal region is a kind of war forbidden under the Geneva conventions. But the rules of war are being changed with disregard for established conventions and law. The West’s drone policy is on trial.

In a legal challenge before the High Court in London brought by a man who lost his father in a CIA drone strike, Britain once again faces accusations of providing intelligence for such attacks and therefore of complicity. After reading a harrowing account of drone terror from Noor Khan, a resident of northwestern Pakistan, Lord Justice Moses described the evidence as “very moving.” It is our responsibility as citizens wherever we may be to read Noor Khan’s testimony and ask ourselves, “How many more?”

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The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul

CounterPunch, October 15, 2012

When the official announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election as Egypt’s president was made following a tantalizing period of uncertainty, I had raised some questions about the country’s constitutional future. I had also suggested that a multilayered battle between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals was likely (Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012). An example of such conflict has been witnessed at Tahrir Square in recent days. Clashes between liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters show simmering discontent in a polarized society as Morsi walks a political tightrope.

In his first hundred days in office, President Morsi has exercised caution, but also made some bold moves in a bid to keep many sides happy. On October 8, he announced a “blanket pardon” for all political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and finally led to free elections in which Morsi won the presidency. The announcement said that all those serving prison sentences or still awaiting trial on charges to do with supporting the revolution would be released and charges against them would be dropped. The decree excludes those convicted of murder, but pointedly includes military officers arrested for taking part in demonstrations against Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Pressure had been growing on Mubarak’s successors to announce an amnesty and Morsi could hardly have ignored it after his election as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the anti-Mubarak uprising. That he was careful to address wider sections of society, including the military, was hardly surprising. The move was aimed at helping the new administration in several ways. For forty years under Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, mostly with American support, Egypt’s military-dominated ruling elite had alienated the opposition and much of Egyptian society. The new administration must demonstrate different priorities.

On closer scrutiny, however, his “blanket pardon” was described by some commentators as insufficient. The presidential decree’s first article said that the pardon was “for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of this goal.” Amnesty International has now said that “all Egyptians tried in front of military courts need retrials, including those whose offenses did not relate to the revolution.”

Morsi’s political base is the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force in Egyptian society for decades. But his narrow victory in the 2012 election against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era and regarded as the military’s favorite, was made possible with support from moderate and secular voters. Morsi cannot shake off the Muslim Brotherhood label, perhaps he does not need to, but he was careful enough to declare that he was going to represent all Egyptians.

The task of a president in post-Mubarak Egypt is extraordinarily delicate. He has to establish civilian control over the military, which has dominated the country’s power structure for decades. Yet he has to work with the generals. He must not alienate other sections of the population as he remains a Muslim Brotherhood figure above all. He must respond to raised expectations following the old regime’s demise and his election. At the same time, he should ensure continuity and avoid a dramatic break from the past, for Egypt lives in a volatile environment.

President Morsi’s move against the military top brass, particularly ordering the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi from his posts as commander of the armed forces and defense minister in August, seemed to have been executed with remarkable ease. But recent clashes at Tahrir Square highlight the continuing tensions between secularists and minorities on one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the other. It is too soon to say that the task of reshaping the military into a force compliant to the democratically-elected government is complete. For the middle ranking and junior officers are bound to take longer to change. Meanwhile, the president needs their help to maintain order.

If Morsi’s move to change the military’s top leadership was executed with ease, his attempt to remove the state prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, has run into difficulties. The president announced Mahmud’s removal and appointment as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican after a court acquitted more than twenty senior Mubarak era officials of organizing an attack on protestors during the uprising. Mahmud’s office was held responsible for presenting “weak evidence” against the accused. But the presidential order resulted in an outcry from the judges, who complained that Morsi had exceeded his powers in dismissing the state prosecutor general. In a setback to the president’s authority, the prosecutor general said that he was going to stay in his job. And the president was forced to back down.

Another controversy is brewing over the draft constitution released for discussion. This time, Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to “amend articles in the draft constitution that undermine human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt,” The draft, it said, provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and torture and trafficking.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak was an historic victory for the people, but the outcome of the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian nation is far from certain.

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