Wednesday, September 18, 2013

September 5 in Pakistan: Another Day, Another Drone Killing

Now that a date -- October 25 -- has been announced for the report by the UN special rapporteur on US drone killings, it seems like a good time to pause and remind ourselves of why the U.S. program of drone murders in Pakistan is so insidious.

On Sunday, September 7, 2013, the New York Times ran an account of a drone strike that had occurred the previous Thursday: U.S. Drone Strike Kills 6 in Pakistan, Fueling Anger . This short account is a case study in what is wrong with the U.S. drone wars.

(1) No due process

The most obvious fact is that people were killed by the U.S. using drones without due process of law. This can only be understood as an extrajudicial execution, i.e. a war crime.

The most prominent victim of the drone strike was Sangeen Zadran -- a "senior militant commander" who was "implicated in a long-running kidnapping drama involving an American soldier" -- Bowe Bergdahl.

We are told "the Americans had been after [Zadran] for a long time." It is very tempting to use the media to try, convict, and execute someone accused of being involved in the capture of a U.S. soldier. That is, however, exactly why we need to continue to insist on due process.

(I'm focusing here on the legal issues that affect the individual. The violation of national sovereignty -- including the implication that Pakistan is complicit in U.S. violations -- will be the subject of an entire separate post.)

(2) False witness
Sangeen Zadran
(Source: Long War Journal)

The New York Times account repeats unsubstantiated -- and unattributed -- characterizations of the victims in a way that tends to imply that they "had it coming."

The sources for the story are "Pakistani officials and militant commanders" including "a senior Pakistani official who agreed to discuss Mr. Zadran on the condition of anonymity" -- but there is no identified source.

I'm sure the New York Times imagines that it is merely reporting "facts" in an even-handed way, but what it fails to recognize -- in this as in all of its other drone war reporting -- is that it uncritically passes along characterizations of people in a way that is damning. It is a deeply immoral course of conduct, and one that readers of the the Times should, at a minimum, absolutely resist imitating and, at best, protest loudly about.

[UPDATE: This has now been stated in more formal language in the report of UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns:
75. . . . The claims that drones are more precise in targeting
cannot be accepted uncritically, not least because terms such as “terrorist” or
“militant” are sometimes used to describe people who are in truth protected
(See full 24-page report: Extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions)]

You can read the web of allegations in more detail on the website of the Long War Journal.

(3) Collateral damage -- as always

by Alfonso Munoz
In addition to the "main" victim, nine other people were killed. This is buried in the middle of the article.

Presumably, those other nine were guilty by association with the main victim? Or guilty by dint of geography? (The site of the drone strike was Ghulam Khan, "an area bordering Afghanistan in North Waziristan, the main hub of Qaeda and Taliban militancy.")

Again: are we engaging in false witness when we -- even unintentionally and/or unconsciously, explictly or implicitly -- pass along the suggestion that these victims "were probably guilty of something" or "had it coming"?

(4) The "network" trope

The New York Times account is propelled by the notion of the "networks" that the victims were involved in.  The victim was a "leading figure in the Haqqani network."

In this context, this language has no clarifying power, but only serves to add to the imputation of guilt to the victims and to the perpetuation of a broader set of myths about the global "threats" against the U.S. that justify the "global war on terror" and all manner of unilateral and arbitrary U.S. violence.

(5) Significance of the public funeral

The one positive aspect of the article is the description of the very public funeral provided for the victims. The victim's funeral "was attended by about 2,000 people."

Alert readers will respond to this account by realizing that, whatever their other attributes, the victims were part of a community and the injury done to them is recognized as a harm to that community.

In fact, we are told that the victim was "the Taliban’s shadow governor for Paktika, the neighboring Afghan province." Are we supposed to hear this as more evidence of the victim's "liability"? Or should it instead give us pause?

(6) What is the social function that "militant" leaders provide in Pakistan/Afghanistan?

One man's "militant" . . . (Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf --
second from left -- with Hamid Karzai.)
It is time for us to start to try to understand more about the social function of "militant" leaders -- many of whom were U.S. allies in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It is noteworthy that Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf has been identified by Hamid Karzai as a possible successor in Afghanistan. He is a "militant leader" of extreme potency with whom the U.S. has been in a range of relationships over the past two decades. When is a "militant leader" an ally? And when is he someone the U.S. kills with a drone? And does any of this bear any relationship to the role of these people in their local society/polity?

(7) Are we just feeding the real source of the problem?

Most important of all, when we read accounts such as these, we should ask ourselves: "Isn't this exactly what feeds hatred against the United States abroad? How can this possibly be suggested as a way to make Americans safer and the world a better place?"

Eternal Scream by Michael Schwartz

Related posts

The U.S. has a modus operandi for conducting military strikes while slipping past any genuine public accountability. It's worth a look at the Tuesday, October 29, 2013, New York Times account of a drone strike in Somalia the previous day: "Pentagon Says Shabab Bomb Specialist Is Killed in Missile Strike in Somalia." It's a case study in what's wrong with the U.S. drone wars.

(See October 28 in Somalia: Another Day, Another Drone Killing)

A new U.N. report makes it clear that the U.S. has to report fully on all its drone attacks.

(See 2014: The Year of Transparency (for U.S. Drone Use)?)

Five big realizations I'm taking away from the 2013 CODEPINK Drone Summit "Drones Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance" in Washington, DC.

(See The 2013 DC Drones Conference: 5 Big Takeaways )