by Rahnuma Ahmed
If Smedley Butler was living, he’d probably have agreed with Peter Ustinov the playwright, who said recently, ‘Terrorism is the war of the poor, and war is the terrorism of the rich.’
IN HIS recent West Point speech, US president Barack Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, to fight al-Qaeda which had attacked the US on September 11th (in the words of Bush, it was a ‘faceless’ and ‘cowardly’ act), and is now operating in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Even though al-Qaeda’s members are now, according to James Jones, his national security adviser, as few as 100).
What Obama did not mention was another decision that was taken to ‘parallel’ the troop surge in Afghanistan: an expansion in the CIA-led killer drone campaign in Pakistan. An act which will lead to more drone strikes against militants. More US spies in Pakistan. An increased CIA budget for its operations. And thereby, more of what critics term, ‘push-button’ executions. A state of affairs where the US administration is, Guantanamo-style, judge, jury, executioner – all in one. These executions, or targeted assassinations, or extrajudicial killings are not executions, or targeted assassinations, or extrajudicial killings. The war on terror has changed all that. Terrorists are no longer criminals. They are combatants. Killing them is part of warfare. And the globe is the battlefield.
In a recent New Yorker magazine article and in several interviews, Jane Mayer who has extensively researched on Predator drones informs us, there are two drone programmes, one is part of the US military-run programme, the other, is run by the CIA. The former, she says, is carried out transparently. There are after-action reports, there is a chain of command. But the CIA’s drone campaign is a ‘secret targeted-killing program’, one that is executed in places where the US is not at war. ‘It’s a whole new frontier in the use of force.’ We don’t know, she says, who is on the target list? How do you get on the list? Can you get off the list? Who makes the list? And, eerily, Where is the battlefield? Where does the battlefield end?
President Obama had promised ‘change’, and there has been change in the drone attacks. In its first ten months his administration carried out as many drone attacks as did the Bush administration in its last three years. Drone strikes are a new hot favourite in US ruling circles for not ‘risking a single American soldier on the ground’ (Reuters), and less collateral damage than from an F-16. CIA director Leon E Panetta has called them ‘the only game in town.’ But reliable information on casualties is difficult to assess since the Zardari government does not allow anyone, neither journalists, nor aid groups into the area. According to a recently released New America study, ‘Since 2006, our analysis indicates, 82 U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have killed between 750 and 1,000 people. Among them were about 20 leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups, all of whom have been killed since January 2008.’ The rest of those killed? Footsoldiers in the militant organisations, or civilians.
Piloting a drone requires much less talent or experience than piloting a real plane. It is more like doing well in ‘a video game’, and is work that has been outsourced by the CIA to civilians, to those who are not even US government employees. While sitting at CIA headquarters in Langley (Virginia), a drone pilot can view and hone in on a target tens of thousands of miles away. Someone like, for instance, Baitullah Mehsud, the Taliban leader in Pakistan, who was killed in a drone assassination on August 5th this year. Live video feed captured by the infrared camera of an undetected Predator drone hovering two miles away had relayed close-up footage of Mehsud reclining on the rooftop of his father-in-law’s house, in Zanghara (South Waziristan), on a hot summer night. The CIA remotely launched two Hellfire missiles from the Predator. ‘After the dust cloud dissipated, all that remained of Mehsud was a detached torso. Eleven others died: his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, a lieutenant, and seven bodyguards.’
But Mehsud — targeted and assassinated to elicit the Zardari government’s support for these incursions into Pakistan’s sovereignty — had not been an easy shoot. Mayer tells us, success came only after 16 strikes had been carried out over a period of 14 months, killing a total of 538 persons, of whom 200-300 were bystanders.
But who cares for native deaths? The less the (American) body bags, the less the (American) blood spilled, the more likely the public acceptance of war. As for the drone pilots, as former congressperson for New York, James Walsh (R) had said ecstatically, it allows them to be ‘literally fighting a war in Iraq and at the end of their shift be playing with their kids in Camillus.’
And, why not? Who says ‘gangster capitalism’ contradicts with Western family values?
‘Everything is permitted’
HONOUR and war are said to be inseparable.
I think, no longer. Virtual war is cowardly. For, as John Berger reminds us, there has never been a war in which disparity—the inequality of firepower—has been greater. On the one hand, satellite surveillance night and day, B52s, Tomahawk missiles, cluster bombs, shells with depleted uranium, computerised weapons. And increasingly, one sees the American dream materialise, a ‘no-contact war’. On the other, sandbags, elderly men brandishing the pistols of their youth, wearing torn shirts and sneakers, armed with a few Kalashnikovs.
What courage does the American warrior show through pushing his joystick while sitting in Langley? Should not the Medal of Honour be disbanded? Or better still, re-named Medal of Cowardice? For remote-control killings? Killings best-described in George Bush’s words, as ‘faceless’ acts?
And what about those who decide? Those who push the bigger joystick? In Shakespeare’s plays, says Stephen Greenblatt, the ruler serves as a model and a test case. ‘If his actions go unpunished, then, to paraphrase Dostoevsky, everything is permitted.’Show