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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On War, Humiliation and the Making of History

CounterPunchJune 18, 2012; The Nation, June 20, 2012

The “global war on terror” started by President George W. Bush more than a decade ago has taken a new and more sinister turn. Now we know that Barack Obama, the current president, goes through the profiles of people he wants eliminated (New York Times, May 29, 2012). He decides their fate in escalating drone wars in a growing number of countries.

Those to be killed may or may not be combatants engaged in war against America. They may or may not even be involved in an armed struggle against a brutal dictatorship which is America’s regional proxy. Mere age of others or their relationship and proximity to the “target” in a loose tribal community can be enough to be given the label of “militant”––a crime punishable by death. In Obama’s world, what else could their motive be if they were in the same area as a “terrorist?” It is a license to kill at will.

But never underestimate the cost of humiliation. For in war victory is never clean, because it empowers the vanquished or their successors to struggle in the future. Recent wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world confirm this, often unheeded, lesson of history. From Alexander the Great, king of the Macedonian Empire, nearly two-and-a-half millennia ago to date, imperial powers far afield have sent their rampaging armies to conquer and to humiliate the populations of vast fertile lands, cradles of civilization, close to the four great rivers, the Nile, the Euphrates, the Indus and the Hwang He. What has transpired forms a pattern.

Those lands include modern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the South Asian subcontinent, Pakistan and India in particular. Amid extreme volatility in this region, there has existed something consistent. Alexander’s campaign of conquest finally ran out of steam on the banks of the Hydaspes, modern-day Jhelum river in India and Pakistan. Exhausted, his troops mutinied, refusing to march any further. The rebellion continued later at Opis, a Babylonian city on the east bank of the Tigris, where Alexander gave a stirring speech admonishing his troops. But his rhetoric failed.

Elsewhere in the Kunar and Swat valleys, tribes put up extraordinary resistance forewarning one of history’s greatest military geniuses. However, the message from those uprisings was not enough for Alexander to overcome his hubris. After the Battle of Hydaspes, he retreated to Persia, leaving governors he had appointed in charge. They, too, misbehaved. Alexander was exhausted, injured, his aura of invincibility having abandoned him. Alexander became even more brutal. He retreated to Persia and died three years later. A remark attributed to him at the time: “I am dying from the treatment of too many physicians.”

The hills and valleys of Swat and Kunar, together with lands of the vast region of South and West Asia, have been subjected to repeated invasions through the centuries. The soil is soaked in blood spilled in violence between invaders and defenders, communities and tribes, whose fortunes and failings have attracted eagle-eyed predators far and near. The soil is fertile for resistance as it is for agriculture. Foreign armies have found this to their detriment time and again.

Subjugation by external forces renders victims helpless, but consolidates their long-term resolve. It breeds local resistance to foreign occupiers and their culture. It results in the colonization of lands occupied by foreign troops, mercenaries, and those wearing civilian hats as administrators and advisers. They engage in activities to extract and sell local assets, manufactured and agricultural goods through market mechanisms created and managed by themselves, not by those who owned them in the first place. Or they use the location of occupied lands to extend their control further.

In Chapter V of The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli discussed three ways to hold newly acquired states that once had their own sovereign laws. His methods were: by devastating them; going and living there in person; or by letting them keep their own laws, extracting tribute and setting up an oligarchy which will keep the state friendly. Machiavelli’s work is associated with corrupt, manipulative and totalitarian government.

Examples are provided by Spartans and Romans. The Spartans ruled Athens and Thebes through the oligarchies they established there, although in the end they lost them. The Romans, in order to hold Capua, Carthage, and Numantia, destroyed them and so never lost them. They wanted to rule Greece almost as the Spartans did, freely, under its own laws, but they did not succeed. So, in order to maintain their power, they destroyed many cities in that province.

Five centuries after, Machiavellianism, a mishmash of cunning and duplicity, lives on–– despised if words of condemnation were to be believed, but witnessed extensively in practice.

Since the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Soviet communism, the terms of the United States-led Western military campaign for unrestrained access to petroleum and other strategic resources have altered. War today is fought for “freedom” against “terrorism” when both terms remain highly contested. Definitions, when attempted, are arbitrary, incoherent and irrational. The right to use unreserved force under the pretext of “self-defense” for the powerful has superseded the underdog’s right to self-defense and to resist.

We hear the absurd logic of brute military power couched in legal jargon. As an example, the rights of the Israeli state prevail over the basic rights of the Palestinians. Israel is allowed to have its clandestine nuclear weapons program, but no other country in the region. Elections in Iran are “fraudulent” in the absence of irrefutable evidence. But polls are “acceptable” in Afghanistan where plenty of evidence of fraud exists. High-altitude bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and drone attacks killing civilians posthumously described as “militants” or “terrorists” are justified in the “war on terror.” Talk is rare of “night raids”–– a euphemism for breaking into Afghans’ homes at night. Those at the receiving end of such treatment see it as humiliation under foreign occupation.

Loss of possessions is one thing, loss of dignity is quite another. There exists an inverse relationship between humiliation and pride. Take away a people’s dignity and they will be ever more determined to take revenge in the form that their culture and values dictate when the opportunity arises. History has repeatedly shown that the price of great power intervention is high; national humiliation caused to the victim leaves a legacy that haunts the intervenor and tempts the conqueror to resort to even more force.

The dynamic of the victor-vanquished relationship is that the fewer means the humiliated has, the more precious his honor becomes, and the stronger and more determined his retaliatory instinct is. Imperial powers like Britain and Russia––and more recently the United States––have intervened at will in the oil-rich Middle East and surroundings for resources and access to waterways. The legacy of imperial subjugation continues in the form of conflict and social upheaval.

At the advent of the twenty-first century, a decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States tried to reshape the region in President George W. Bush’s vision. The world’s greatest military power found the spirit of resistance in the peoples radicalized by past interventions as strong as ever. When Bush left the White House in January 2009, America was involved in costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exhausted and in deep economic crisis. Under the Obama presidency, the “war on terror” has been expanded and the economic crisis is deeper, not only for America, but for the entire industrialized world.

Unchecked military power and hubris, seeking pleasure in the abuse and humiliation of others, are corrosive. They take the perpetrator on a path of infamy leading to the abuser’s own humiliation.

War is history’s revenge.

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