Obama’s drone wars


First published in The Hindu on Oct 26, 2015

“I no longer like blue skies. In fact, I prefer gray skies. When the sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear.”

In October 2013, Rafiq ur Rehman, a Pakistani primary school teacher appeared on Capitol Hill with his children, Zubair, 13, and Nabila, 9, to describe to the United States Congressional committee how his mother, Momina Bibi, a 67-year-old midwife from a remote village in North Waziristan was killed by a Central Investigative Agency (CIA) authorised drone. Their traumatic retelling of their grandmother’s death was the first time the Congress had heard from civilian victims of a U.S. drone strike. “Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day,” said Rehman. Only five Congressmen attended the testimony and Rehman’s questions remain unanswered.

Rehman and thousands like him have been victims of the U.S. sanctioned drone strikes, with no way of holding the executive accountable for the innumerable acts of extrajudicial killings. The project, ‘Naming the Dead’, has reported that at least 2,400 people have been killed by CIA drone strikes just in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan; the actual number of victims in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and other regions remains elusive.

Expansion under Obama

Under the George Bush administration, there were approximately 50 targeted drone killings against those the U.S. administration considered suspected foreign combatants. Under the Obama administration, targeted drones attacks increased significantly; large portions of these attacks have been covert CIA ‘black ops’ in Pakistan. The drastic increase in drone violence was accompanied by a widening of who constituted legitimate targets. Originally the targets had to be “clearly identifiable” and “known terrorists”. Under the Obama administration the definition included “suspected terrorists” whose actual identities and culpability are not necessarily known. If the Bush Presidency’s legacy was torture, and extraordinary rendition, the Obama presidency inaugurated its very own Guantanamo with indiscriminate targeted assassination by Predator drones.

The first generation Predator drones were primarily used as technologies of surveillance and for reconnaissance in Iraq and Afghanistan before the Reaper drones were developed in 2006. Reaper drones were the first ‘hunter-killer’ Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) “designed to go after targets with persistence and precision, and destroy or disable those targets with 500-pound bombs and Hellfire missiles”. The drones have continued to perform the dual function of aerial surveillance and remote-controlled violence against those deemed as enemies of the U.S.

Any analysis of drone systems has to begin with the fundamental acknowledgment of the violent and dehumanising potential of such technologies. Here the structures of surveillance and structures of violence go hand-in-hand. The drone killing systems exist in an ideological belief system where the rhetoric of precision technology helps justify the violence of the state. With the use of drones, a whole range of legal, political and media offensives came to be launched with the aim of defending the use of drones. The effectiveness of the drones — the “clean precision” of “war from a distance” has for long dominated policy discourse, often undermining the legal and ethical principles that underpin the right to kill. Washington for long framed the narrative surrounding this violence, arguing that it was legitimately exercised. These efforts largely succeeded in ensuring the social and political acceptability of the drones. The technological fetishisation of the drone buries the fact that these are extra judicial weapons of state terror.

Washington’s claimed ability to be able to correctly gather surveillance data and convert it into a “legitimate target” no longer holds true. The recently published series “The Drone Papers” (released by the investigative website Intercept)exposes the inner workings of the drone wars , from identifying targets to the actual killings. For the first time there is documentary evidence that exposes a number of flaws in the killings based on unreliable information and reveals how the U.S. identifies and selects assassination targets, from the collection of data and human intelligence, a process that goes all the way up the chain command to President Obama.

While stories from Afghanistan and Pakistan have often corroborated this view, the leaked documents now confirm that, “During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 per cent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets. In Yemen and Somalia, where the U.S. has far more limited intelligence capabilities to confirm the people killed are the intended targets, the equivalent ratios may well be much worse.” This war by drones can no longer be categorised as warfare, but a tactical arsenal used by Washington, in the deployment of state violence on the distant subjects its imperial order surveys and controls.

The militarised manhunts rest on the U.S.’ right to pursue its intended “target” whenever and wherever with impunity, and with scant regard for the territorial sovereignty of the other nations. It has posited itself with the right to “legitimately violate the territorial integrity of other nations”. Persistent and permanent lethal surveillance, accompanied by the constant threat of violence, amounts to psychological imprisonment, no longer defined by territorial limits, borders and barbed wires, but by the endless scrutiny of a flying panopticon. War is no longer fought in the battlefield, but in battlezones. Discussing state-perpetrated criminality and surveillance, academics Tyler Wall and Torin Monahan describe these zones of violence as ontological borders between ‘the American empire’ and the ‘marked other’.

These zones of violence are a penumbra of constant fear, where the local population is under persistent surveillance, and threat of indiscriminate violence. Here any civilian can be categorised as a combatant, without recourse to due process, and cannot “contest the harmful categories, and classes into which they are placed.” The people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia amongst others are disposable subjects of a drone-state.