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?”


America, Iran and an Unashamedly Interventionist Secretary of State

The war is not over yet in Libya after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi and the Obama administration has turned its attention to Iran. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement of a “plot” to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in the United States, and warnings of dire consequences for Iran, mark a new escalation between the two countries.

The Obama administration says the offender behind the “plot” is an Iranian-American used-car salesman based in Texas, Mansour Arbabsiar, who believed he was hiring assassins from a Mexican drug cartel for a meager one-and-a-half million dollars. It was a trap set up by federal agents. Not for the first time, it seems, the American law enforcement agencies are responsible for planting ideas into the mind of someone naïve and ordinary and making an arrest as soon as the individual looks interested.

The evidence has to be tested in courts. Reports say the man in custody will plead “not guilty.” But the Obama administration has already found him guilty. Further, according to the Obama administration, the trail points all the way to the Iranian regime. That the government in Tehran would use an American citizen of Iranian descent to hatch a scheme with a Mexican drug cartel to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States, involving less than two million dollars, is bizarre.

Why the Saudi ambassador and not a bigger target? For only one-and-a-half million dollars? Why would the authorities in Tehran take such a risk? What purpose would be served? Honest answers to these and other perplexing questions are hard to come by. Juan Cole, the University of Michigan scholar, raises even more questions and concludes why it could not be the work of the Iranian government. Tehran, not surprisingly, rejects Washington’s accusations.

There will be those who will see the latest developments as part of a consistent pattern of U.S. foreign policy conduct in the Middle East, especially with regard to Iran. The motive––to teach Iran a lesson in any way possible. Like the bizarre accusations against Muammar Gaddafi that he was employing mass rape of women as a weapon against opponents, to justify NATO’s war in Libya.

Human rights organizations like Amnesty plainly contradicted the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who made the fantastic claim that “we have information that there was a policy to rape in Libya those who were against the government. Apparently he [Colonel Gaddafi] used it to punish people.”

Now, as doubts increase over the “plot,” but the campaign against Iran is pushed by Washington regardless, expressions of incredulity abound. Respected magazine,Veterans Today, which represents American servicemen, has an article titled “Mr. President, We Believe Holder Lied on Iran Terror.” Senior editor Gordon Duff commented, “Within 24 hours of the announcement of a new Iranian plot, the truth started leaking out. That leak is now a flood. The FBI made up the whole thing, invented it and you and they aren’t going to get away with it. Why something this outrageous, this incompetent?”

There seems to be no limit to which Hillary Clinton’s war of vengeance will go. It is worth noting her unrestrained outburst about Iran during the final phase of her unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the 2008 presidential election. She said that as president she would “totally obliterate” Iran if it foolishly considered attacking Israel–– a scenario not very likely. Contrary to what some in Washington’s corridors of power think, the Iranians are more sensible than they are given credit for. At the time, Hillary Clinton’s opponent, Barack Obama, dismissed her outburst as “sabre rattling.”

The Obama administration’s character today is vastly different from Obama the candidate’s. Hillary Clinton, ex-New York senator and a committed supporter of Israel, is his secretary of state. I believe she is the most powerful figure to have arrived at the top in the State Department since Henry Kissinger during the Nixon presidency more than 35 years ago.

Even then, Nixon was a formidable and liberal figure in international politics. An architect of détente, his foreign policy goals were radically different from Washington’s objectives in the twenty-first century.

Hillary Clinton is arguably the most interventionist secretary of state of the past half century. While Obama struggles at home with an increasingly belligerent Congress, Hillary Clinton has, in effect, seized control of U.S. foreign policy, which she conducts with far less diplomacy than military threats. Like the Bush-Cheney administration, we are witnessing an Obama-Clinton presidency, which brazenly engages in targeted killings in any country it wishes and, at the same time, accuses another country of plotting an assassination in Washington.

A Democratic administration has embraced the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. Its aggressiveness and stupidity compete with each other. It represents the law of the jungle.


Reflections On A Savage Decade

International Policy Digest   CounterPunch 

The September 11, 2001 attack on America produced extraordinary human reaction as most events involving great violence and mass casualties do. Shock, anger, defiance and an instinct for retribution are the usual ingredients of that reaction, but societies that allow this mix to overcome themselves in the long run have to pay a price. To ensure that the price is not too high requires a sense of proportion, an agency to soothe, to reassure, to guide and to take corrective action. In the wake of September 11, that burden fell upon President George W. Bush. The leaders of the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain were minor players. The last decade has been one of poor judgment and high cost, human, economic, moral. Even the best estimates of the overall cost paid during the last decade tend to be meaningless, for  the numbers are colossal and rising.

Coinciding with the anniversary of September 11, 2001, two recent developments remind us of the nature of the long litany of failures. The inquiry by Sir William Gage into the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British soldiers, particularly the death in custody of hotel receptionist Baha Mousa, is devastating for the British army’s reputation. Sir William, a distinguished judge, described the British soldiers’ brutality as “systematic.” Robert Fisk, writing in the Independent, said it’s the lying about it that is so. First the Americans at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison; now the British in Basra. The trail of notoriety is long.

NATO this week also admitted “accidently” shooting to death a BBC journalist in Afghanistan last July. The journalist, Omaid Khpalwak, was shot eleven times by American soldiers, involved in a battle with “militants.” Khpalwak spoke good English and, as it turned out, raised his hand carrying his identity card to show that he was a journalist. Military officials, apologizing for the “mistake,” said the troops mistook him for a suicide bomber, and that they had “complied with the law of armed conflict and acted reasonably.”

Even this concession had to be pulled out of the military officials’ teeth. Their explanation immediately after the shooting was that he was killed by the “militants.” Khpalwak’s family and the BBC insisted on a proper inquiry and answers to get what we now have. His relatives say they are receiving “threats after speaking against the foreign military.”

The culture of impunity at the top has affected the thinking and behavior of people in ways not imagined a decade ago. Western leaders at the time had pledged “not to let the terrorists change our way of life,” but that is precisely what has happened.  Fear and suspicion pervade societies. Citizens are asked to be distrustful of fellow citizens and monitor neighbors and strangers. The “national security” agenda has come to dominate societies while poverty, hunger, famine, disease and climate change have been pushed back.

The wars for which the Western powers bear a heavy responsibility have produced millions of refugees, but the law governing the rights of refugees struggles to maintain its legitimacy, as Western governments pass the buck on to whoever they can. Refugees have come to be seen as a threat to national security. Leaders have been overcome by Churchillian ambition and have acquired a habit of using the language of war. Their nationalist rhetoric often has a divisive effect instead of encouraging harmony between communities.

The “war on terror” transferred casualties abroad. In the decade since September 11, 2001, more than 7,000 foreign troops died in Iraq and Afghanistan, including more than 6,000 U.S. soldiers. The number of wounded returning home is undetermined, but far in excess of half a million in America alone as indicated by disability claims. For each foreign casualty, there are multiple local victims that few care to count.

The costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars this year are some 10 billion dollars every month and unlikely to be cut in the near future. The West has suffered a catastrophic economic collapse. Governments are cutting everything else, from jobs and services to social benefits, maintenance and development of the infrastructure and education. Elected leaders are resorting to repression to deal with the outbreaks of social tension and anti-terrorism laws are increasingly in use in the larger sphere of life. The price for the follies of the last decade will have to be borne by the future generations.