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?”



Afghan civilian deaths rise in 2009

The UN Mission in Afghanistan says that civilian deaths rose by 14 percent in the country in 2009. 

Its report said the ‘vast majority’ of the deaths were caused by Taliban attacks. The rise makes 2009 the worst year for Afghan civilians since the war began when the Taliban were overthrown in a US-led invasion in late 2001.

According to the report, there were 2412 civilians killed in 2009 compared with 2118 deaths in the preceding year. Civilian casualties are a sensitive subject in Afghanistan, with US forces frequently accused of killing non-combatants in air attacks. The UN report said that deaths attributed to allied forces dropped by nearly 30% in 2009 – something the United States will hope, will be welcomed by Afghans.

In recent months the Americans have given repeated assurances to the Afghan government the international forces will seek to reduce civilian casualties in an effort to gain support among the Afghan people. The United States and NATO are to send nearly 40000 additional troops to the country in 2010. There are concerns that casualties will further rise as the fighting escalates.

Predetor drone attacks have increased since President Obama took office a year ago. In June 2009, the Inter Press Service  reported that the American CIA’s refusal to share with other agencies even the most basic data on the remote-controlled aircraft attacks in the northwestern tribal areas, combined with revelations that CIA operatives were paying Pakistanis to identify the targets, raised suspicions that the secrecy surrounding the attacks was used to hide abuses.

Dawn.com of Pakistan reported in early January that as many as 708 innocent civilians had been killed in 44 drone attacks in 2009. The number of key al Qaeda and Taliban figures killed was just five.  

According to Dawn, for each al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist by American drones, 140 innocent Pakistanis had to die. On average, 58 civilians were killed by drones every month, almost two people per day. Most of the attacks were carried out on the basis of intelligence provided by Pakistani and Afghan tribesmen spying for the US-led alliance in Afghanistan.