US Drone strikes: Many voices at home and abroad
by Ramtanu Maitra on 11 Mar 2013 1 Comment

In the United States, drone attacks that accelerated rapidly under the Obama administration on Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are not a subject of everyday discussion. While no definitive conclusion can be drawn about what the average American thinks about those strikes, the US media and the country’s legislative arm, the Congress, have more admirers of their “efficacy” than detractors. There are various reasons for this. What is interesting to note is that the support for drone strikes exists not only in the United States, the striker; surprisingly, the drone strike campaign also has a broad-base of supporters within Pakistan, the receiver of those sudden-death missiles.


One could argue that the Obama administration uses drone strikes because they are relatively inexpensive compared to putting hundreds of boots on the difficult terrain of FATA and they kill the target, or targets, without a fuss, preventing the loss of life of even a single American soldier. No doubt, these special features have made drone strikes attractive and acceptable in the United States.


But, it is a bit of a shock to realize that the receiving nation, Pakistan, continues to maintain a recognizable base of support for the US drone strikes launched to eliminate anti-US insurgents who, incidentally, are all Pakistani citizens. What is even more puzzling is that a foreign nation, the United States, decides in isolation, and not in consultation with Islamabad, which Pakistani “nasties” should be eliminated. Yet very few protests of any significant dimension have been staged so far in the major cities of Pakistan urging to halt these attacks.


These realities could bring one to the conclusion that the Pakistani authorities, both civilian and military, not only welcome this foreign culling-of-the-insurgents process, but have also deliberately kept the general population, a vast majority of whom are illiterate, unaware of them. At the same time, it is likely that positive support to “get the nasties” exists among the educated segment of the population, particularly those who follow Pakistan’s English-language media.


Discussions within the United States


There are reasons why drone attacks in Pakistan, or elsewhere such as Yemen, have not drawn much notice of the Americans, who are overwhelmed every day by a barrage of contradictory information from all corners. The issues regarding drone attacks have been heard from time to time only when the drones were targeted toward American citizens. They have, in fact, claimed the life of a handful of Americans, and that bit of information is surely disturbing to some Americans.


What has come to light recently is that while the Obama administration has acknowledged the routine use of drones to pursue the elimination of such “nasties” as the Haqqani group of terrorists, insurgents in FATA, it has kept under wraps the fact that the drone strikes have also been used to eliminate American citizens who have “gone astray” - a reference to those who have joined hands with the Islamic Jihadis and are involved in waging a war of terror against the United States. What worries some civil rights activists in America is that “gone astray” could be defined differently at most any time depending on political circumstances, theoretically opening the door for executive branch stealth attacks on individual Americans.


The Obama administration’s decision to use drones to eliminate the Jihadi-Americans without going through any sort of due, but laborious and expensive, judicial process is no longer a secret. But the judiciary does not seem particularly bothered that the White House has usurped its constitutional authority. Soon after President Obama had authorized the Justice Department to share the legal opinions on drones with the House and Senate Intelligence Committees in early February, NBC News got hold of a secret document containing an expansive justification for when the administration can target US citizens with drone strikes. The administration has not chosen to discuss such justifications with the American people publicly.


“A lethal operation against a US citizen who is a senior operational leader of al-Qaeda or its associated forces - a terrorist organization engaged in constant plotting against the United States, as well as an enemy force with which the United States is in a congressionally authorized armed conflict - and who himself poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States, would not violate the Constitution,” the DOJ document states. The author goes on to say: “The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack against the United States does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future.”


US Congress abdicated authority


House Minority leader, and former House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca) seems quite unperturbed by such extra-judicial killings of Americans based on “clear evidence” collected and evaluated by the drone-launcher - jury, judge and executioner in one body. As she told the Huffington Post on Feb. 19: “People just want to be protected.” “‘You go out there and do it. I’ll criticize you, but I want to be protected’” is how Pelosi described Americans’ attitude toward the drone campaign.


While Obama, Pelosi and Obama’s newly-appointed CIA chief John Brennan, along with millions of Americans, are extremely supportive of these sneaky killings of the “nasties” in Pakistan as well as the bad seeds in the United States, others are disturbed over the developments and wonder where all this could end up. For instance, when Nancy Pelosi was eagerly justifying the handing over of parts of congressional power and authority to the White House in order to be “protected,” Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) responded differently.


“Anytime the government willfully executes a citizen, regardless of the circumstances, it is a very serious issue,” Lee, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement to The Washington Examiner. “As the body that oversees executive branch actions, at the very least, Congress should have a full accounting - even if it must sometimes be in a classified setting - of the specific considerations that went into the decision.”


Deaths in Pakistan by drone attacks


While the number of Americans killed by drones without undergoing a due judicial process is very few, the same cannot be said about Pakistanis. On Feb.19, a senior US senator, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), told constituents at the Easley Rotary Club in Easley, S.C.: “We’ve killed 4,700. Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of al-Qaeda.” Although drone killings have been carried out by the Obama administration for years, this is the first time a senior US senator has publicly announced the number of victims of the expanded drone war. (Although Sen. Graham did not say that all those killed by US drones were in Pakistan, various other sources claim that surely many of them were.)


The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in its report, “CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004–2013,” claims that 2,534 to 3,573 individuals have been killed in Pakistan in 364 US drone strikes, 312 of which were conducted by the Obama administration. In addition, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann of The American Foundation compiled a report named “The Year of the Drone,” in which they claim to have studied 114 drone raids in which more than 1,200 people were killed. “Of those, between 549 and 849 were reliably reported to be militant fighters, while the rest were civilians. The true civilian fatality rate since 2004, according to our analysis, is approximately 32 per cent,” the Foundation reports.


It is difficult to fathom how the compilers of these reports could come up with such a precise body-count. Nonetheless, it is widely accepted that thousands of the “bad ones” have fallen victim in Pakistan’s FATA to deadly missiles launched by the US drones. In Pakistan, however, all kinds of incongruities on this issue have appeared from time to time. Interior Minister Rehman Malik went public last October saying that the majority of those killed in drone attacks have been innocent people. He told the Pakistani media that only 20 percent of those killed in drone attacks were militants, while the rest were innocent bystanders. He also called for a halt to the drone attacks. Yet the drone attacks have not stopped and the protesting Malik has neither resigned nor retracted his October statement.


More than a “wink and nod”: full-fledged support


Rehman’s statement was designed to give some of us the impression that these US-led drone strikes are being carried out without notifying Islamabad and that they are missing their targets broadly. On first reading, that seems absurd. On the other hand, if one takes into account Pakistani Ambassador to US Sherry Rehman’s recent statement as well, one is left to wonder wherein lies the truth.


At a Feb. 5 breakfast meeting in Washington, Amb. Rehman told Christian Science Monitor reporters that there is no incongruity in Pakistan’s policy about CIA drone strikes between what is being propagated publicly and behind-the-door discussions with US officials. “Let me assure you that since we have been in government, there has been no quiet complicity, no question of wink and nod,” Rehman said. Her statement seems to emphasize that the Obama administration is indeed carrying out drone strikes in FATA without seeking, or receiving, permission from Islamabad. Her statements also convey the message that Pakistanis at all levels oppose these drone attacks. But, do they?


With due respect to both the Interior Minister and the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, what is evident is that it is highly unlikely that such is indeed the case. In the Jan. 13 edition of the Washington-based Atlantic Monthly, an article, “You Say Pakistanis All Hate the Drone War? Prove It,” cites the 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey on drones in Pakistan. According to authors C. Christine Fair, Karl C. Kaltenthaler and William J. Miller, the survey “demonstrates that 56 percent of Pakistanis have heard something about the drone program and 21 percent knew nothing about it at all, despite the extensive media coverage in Pakistan and beyond. Another 23 percent of respondents declined to say whether they had heard of the drone strikes.

Among those who had heard of the program in 2012, 17 percent said that drone strikes are necessary to defend Pakistan from extremist groups (when done in conjunction with the Pakistani government), whereas 44 percent opposed the strikes. While 41 percent who were familiar with the program believe that they are being conducted without their government’s approval; 47 percent correctly believe that their government has given its approval for these strikes.” They conclude: “Clearly, Pakistani public opinion is not as informed and much less unanimous as commentators often presume. There is not a wall of opposition to drone strikes in Pakistan but a vocal plurality that merely gives that impression.”


There is little doubt that drone strikes are not liked or endorsed by a large segment of Pakistani society. But Pakistanis are not united in opposition to drone strikes, either. In fact, many Pakistanis support them. And that became evident in the Pew survey. In addition, unlike what Rehman Malik and Ambassador Sherry Rehman claim, drone attacks do have the approval of very high authorities who call the shots from both Islamabad and Rawalpindi.


On May 20, 2011, Pakistan’s leading English news daily, The Dawn, citing secret internal American government cables accessed through WikiLeaks, confirmed that the US military’s drone strikes program within Pakistan had more than just tacit acceptance of the country’s top military brass, despite public posturing to the contrary. In fact, as long ago as January 2008, the country’s military was requesting greater drone back-up from the United States for its own military operations.


As Dawn reported: “In a meeting on Jan. 22, 2008, with US CENTCOM Commander Admiral William J. Fallon, Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani requested the Americans to provide ‘continuous Predator coverage of the conflict area’ in South Waziristan where the army was conducting operations against militants. The request was detailed in a ‘Secret’ cable sent by then US Ambassador Anne Patterson on Feb. 11, 2008. Pakistan’s military has consistently denied any involvement in the covert program run mainly by the CIA.”

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