The Killing Skies

“There’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” (The president of the United States, November 18 2012)

Well said, President Obama.

I have heard ad nauseam about the complexity of the drone strikes issue. I must confess my lack of sophistication; I have searched for nuance and found only concerted attempts at confusion. I have also found reports of a truly frightening number of Pakistani civilians and children. The drones found them first.

Who will win the war on terror? The answer is obscured by the fog of war, but I can tell you that Pakistan will lose. We lose every day. We are targets and collateral damage. ‘Infidels’ and ‘legitimate strike zones’. We are attacked for helping the US, and attacked for not helping the US sufficiently.

There is nothing I can say to the Taliban, because it is futile to reason with them. But the United States?

We are told that all wars have civilian casualties and that drones are the most efficient way forward.

Is the US at war with Pakistan? If so then indeed: I thank them for their restraint, for not setting up concentration camps in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Japanese Americans in WWII), for not using Napalm airstrikes (Vietnam) and for not leaving 100,000 dead in a conflict to find fictional WMDs (Iraq).

But if they are not, then there is no merit to this assumption that they will and must and can kill our civilians, and should be patted on the back for not killing more.

The low number of civilian deaths reported from the US has less to do with Tony Stark levels of accuracy with deadly weapons and far more to do with arithmetic gymnastics. A New York Times article from last year indicates that Obama’s method of counting civilian deaths classifies all military age males in a strike zone as combatants unless posthumously proven otherwise.

There have been terrorist cells and plots discovered in cities across the UK, the rest of Europe and the United States itself. These terrorists indubitably had as their end goal the death of American civilians. And yet, surely there is no debate within US high command as to whether a drone strike in the general area is a plausible response. Because that would be insane.

And shifting the backdrop to Pakistan does not make it less insane.

I find little merit in the ‘value’ of high-value targets when weighed against our losses. The revolving door position of the ‘Number 2 man of (insert terrorist organisation here)’ has become a morbid joke. If the US awards itself points for every second in command they kill, it is little wonder they are pleased with this disaster. One would think they had learned about the error of using conventional scoreboards in unconventional warfare after their ‘great victory’ (going by body count) in Vietnam.

Clearly, killing a seemingly endless roster of ‘number 2 men’ – and the drone strikes in general – have not brought the US closer to victory. Against guerrillas, who have no white flags to raise and no territory to conquer, the only marker of ‘victory’ would be to shatter their capacity for violence; once the Taliban can no longer mount attacks, they are effectively defeated. Statistics for the last five years look bleak on this measure: the number of drone strikes does not seem to correlate negatively with the number of terrorist attacks.

As we saw in the run up to the elections in Pakistan, militant capacity for violence is alive and well. Somehow, they have managed to get over the loss of a dozen ‘number 2 men’ rather than going home and moping, which I assume was the expected outcome.

Studies show drones become more popular among the US public when the fear of terrorism is high. What do the Tsarnaevs have to do with murdered civilians – or killed terrorists – in Pakistan?

Nothing. Domestically, they give an illusion of control, of fighting back against the bogeyman, of American strength without American sacrifice. They are not security measures, they are security blankets. Among the most murderous and expensive in history, to be sure, but nevertheless security blankets for frightened children, fuelled by the corpses of our own.

We are all to a greater or lesser degree complicit in the same unforgiveable callousness that makes other places, other countries ‘less real’. But for the sake of our humanity this is a callousness that we all have to strive to overcome – because we are not real to the drone pilots or to the American public, not in any way that counts.

It is expediency rather than any feeling of kinship – no matter how much we in the cities may love McDonalds or Game of Thrones – that keeps drones from going about their grim business above Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad. It is also expediency that keeps us – you and I and our children and our parents – from coming home to a nightmarish smoking ruin.

And the problem with the pendulum of expediency is that it is a pendulum, and not only can but in a long enough timeframe must swing the other way.

The Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked near Liberty Chowk in Lahore and very unfortunately, the assailants ultimately escaped. But I would rather that than have come home to ash and fire and debris, with a rising helpless panic in my throat, knowing that if my life – if any one of our lives – was taken or emptied in a moment, US policy is to shrug and say “but we got the terrorist.”

Even when they didn’t.

The American Dream, the cultural context in which mainstream Americans are raised, is in many respects a good myth – a fairytale of essential equality, of social mobility and of rugged individualism. It can inspire and embolden. But there is a dark side to the Dream, and never darker when you, yourself, are not an American.

It is their near-sacred regard for their supposed exceptionalism and manifest destiny – a national belief that does not push them to do the right thing but instead mentally positions them to believe that ‘the American Way’, like truth and justice, is a self-evident good, a good unto itself, its rightness woven into the very firmament of our universe, whatever their actions may be. How can America do wrong, asks the Dream, when American Rightness is as much a law of nature as gravity?

To sacrifice another country’s civilians by the hundreds to quell your own domestic uneasiness can almost be expected when one nation is powerful and the other is not. Such is the way of the world. But rarely has there been such hypocrisy, such blind insistence that such transgressions are not only an act of might, but of right.

I cannot see the justification in killing hundreds of our civilians, already shattered by the war with the Taliban, on the off chance that someone they were standing next to may, at an unspecified time in the future, play some uncertain role in possibly but almost certainly not harming an American citizen. All states place greater value on their own civilians, but this equation has become so perversely lopsided that the ability of the American establishment to see foreigners as human beings must seriously be called into question.

If you find yourself sympathetic towards the Taliban because they oppose the US, or you find yourselves supporting American drone strikes because they occasionally kill ‘high-value targets’ alongside ‘everything else’, you are labouring under an understandable but tragic misunderstanding. In this great game, we are not on either team – we are the ball. We cannot win; our role is to get kicked by both sides.

It is foolishness born of desperation to believe that either the Americans or the Taliban have our interest at heart. Oppose the drone strikes. Oppose the Taliban. I guarantee you it is not a contradiction in terms. And if you believe in either sovereignty or the sanctity of civilian life, it is the only possible position.

By: Zaair Hussain

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Speaking Out

Having worked for years on the issues of drones and Guantanamo, I was delighted to get a pass (the source will remain anonymous) to attend President Obama’s speech at the National Defence University. I had read many press reports anticipating what the President might say.

There was much talk about major policy shifts that would include transparency with the public, new guidelines for the use of drones, taking lethal drones out of the purview of the CIA, and in the case of Guantanamo, invoking the “waiver system” to begin the transfer of prisoners already cleared for release.

Sitting at the back of the auditorium, I hung on every word the president said. I kept waiting to hear an announcement about changes that would represent a significant shift in policy. Unfortunately, I heard nice words, not the resetting of failed policies.

Instead of announcing the transfer of drone strikes from the CIA to the exclusive domain of the military, Obama never even mentioned the CIA – much less acknowledge the killing spree that the CIA has been carrying out in Pakistan during his administration.

While there were predictions that he would declare an end to signature strikes, strikes based merely on suspicious behaviour that have been responsible for so many civilian casualties, no such announcement was made.

The bulk of the president’s speech was devoted to justifying drone strikes. I was shocked when the president claimed that his administration did everything it could to capture suspects instead of killing them. That is just not true. Obama’s reliance on drones is precisely because he did not want to be bothered with capturing suspects and bringing them to trial.

Take the case of 16-year-old Pakistani Tariz Aziz, who could have been picked up while attending a conference at a major hotel in the capital, Islamabad, but was instead killed by a drone strike, with his 12-year-old cousin, two days later.

Or the drone strike that 23-year-old Yemini Farea al-Muslimi talked about when he testified in Congress. He said the man targeted in his village of Wessab was a man who everyone knew, who met regularly with government officials and who could have easily been brought in for questioning.

When the president was coming to the end of this speech, he started talking about Guantanamo. As he has done in the past, he stated his desire to close the prison, but blamed Congress. That’s when I felt compelled to speak out.

With the men in Guantanamo on hunger strike, being brutally forced fed and bereft of all hope, I couldn’t let the president continue to act as if he were some helpless official at the mercy of Congress.

“Excuse me, Mr President,” I said, “but you’re the Commander-in-Chief. You could close Guantanamo tomorrow and release the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release.” We went on to have quite an exchange.

While I have received a deluge of support, there are others, including journalists, who have called me “rude.” But terrorising villages with Hellfire missiles that vaporise innocent people is rude.

Violating the sovereignty of nations like Pakistan is rude. Keeping 86 prisoners in Guantanamo long after they have been cleared for release is rude. Shoving feeding tubes down prisoners’ throats instead of giving them justice is certainly rude.

At one point during his speech, President Obama said that the deaths of innocent people from the drone attacks will haunt him as long as he lives. But he is still unwilling to acknowledge those deaths, apologise to the families, or compensate them.

In Afghanistan, the US military has a policy of compensating the families of victims who they killed or wounded by mistake. It is not always done, and many families refuse to take the money, but at least it represents some accounting for taking the lives of innocent people.

Why can’t the president set up a similar policy when drone strikes are used in countries with which we are not at war? There are many things the president could and should have said, but he didn’t. So it is up to us to speak out.

By: Meadea Benjamin

Saving Pak US Relations

By: Thomas Houlahan, an analyst with the Centre for Security and Science, US.

I’ve never pulled any punches with regard to the US government’s policies towards Pakistan. Its best could be described as ill-considered; its worst have bordered on insane. The US government has a bad reputation among the Pakistani people because it deserves it.

I have to say this though: I believe that the policies have been the result of ignorance rather than any sinister plot to destroy Pakistan. The fact is that most American policymakers know next to nothing about Pakistan. As a result, they depend on people from the ‘big name’ think tanks in the US to tell them what they should do. That is largely where the problem lies.

Knowing so little about Pakistan, officials are unduly deferential to such supposed experts. In practice, once you get hooked up with one of the famous think tanks, officials in Washington tend to take every word you say or write as though it were absolute gospel, no matter how poorly-informed the opinion or how ill-considered the recommendations. Conversely, if you are not with one of the big names, you could know more about Pakistan than any other American and offer the soundest advice in the world and it would be dismissed out of hand. After all, as the thinking goes, if your ideas had any validity, you would have been snapped up by one of the big name think tanks.

The government thus proceeds on superficial analyses. The resulting recommendations, when followed, make the situation worse. The recommendations the US government has received from these institutions regarding Pakistan since 9/11 have been nothing short of disastrous. We saw a classic example bad advice last week in Christine Fair’s article, ‘Can this alliance be saved? Salvaging the US-Pakistan relationship’, in Time magazine.

There is simply too much wrong with the article to address it here. The gist of it is: (1) sanctions against Pakistan have failed because our (the US) government has not been tough enough in implementing them; (2) “Pakistan has undermined US interests at every turn,” principally by continuing to support the Taliban; (3) Pakistan continues to develop nuclear weapons pursuant to a policy of “nuclear extortion”.

Fair concludes that the United States should get tougher and offers specific recommendations along those lines. One of these is to declare “American support to render the Line of Control cutting through those portions of Kashmir administered by Pakistan and India as the international border” if Pakistan doesn’t toe the American line.

If Fair’s ultimate goal is to have Pakistan’s prime minister summon our ambassador and tell him that he has 72 hours to remove himself and all American government personnel from Pakistan’s soil, this would be the perfect course to take.

According to Fair, if her other recommendations don’t have the desired effect the US should be prepared to “let Pakistan fail.” Again, the arrogance of big name think tank theorists: I work with a prestigious think tank. I must be a top thinker. Therefore my recommendations must be the right ones. Therefore, if they turn out badly, it can only mean that the situation is absolutely hopeless and we should give up and walk away. I envy her self-assuredness.

Fair seems to assume that an alliance with the US is something so desirable that any nation would beg for it, no matter what the US did to it (see above: recognition of Line of Control as permanent border), so this is a simple matter of our government deciding whether or not it should continue to bless Pakistan with such an alliance. I’m not so sure.

Nawaz Sharif has spoken about the need to re-examine the US-Pakistan relationship. This is significant because, whether the US government likes it or not, he will be forming the next government after the elections.

Sharif is a wildly successful businessman. As such, when he is examining the value of a continued alliance with the United States, he’ll be weighing the costs – which are pretty obvious – against the benefits, much less so.

The PML-N chief will also find it difficult to identify any tangible benefit the people of Pakistan have received from the relationship so far. Other than thousands of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, a wrecked economy and a security situation as bad as I’ve ever seen it, I can’t see what the Pakistani people have gained.

No one will ever make me believe that had we given Pakistan assistance it actually needed, like help with education, law enforcement and its justice system, the power grid, agriculture, clean drinking water, etc we would not be every bit as popular with the Pakistani people as China is. In other words, had the US government’s dealings with Pakistan been directed by common sense rather than by so-called experts from big name think tanks, we would not even be having this discussion.

To Pakistanis, ingratitude is an unpardonable sin. They would be duly grateful and the relationship would thrive if only the US would give them something to be grateful for.

I’ve just completed my race-by-race analysis of the 272 contested National Assembly races. Here are my predictions: The PML-N will win 110 seats. The PPPP will win 66. The MQM will win 20. The JUI-F will win 16. The PTI will win 11. The ANP will win eight. The PML-Q will win six. The JI and the PML-F will each win four seats. Nine seats will be won by smaller parties and 18 by independents.