In the backdrop of President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense and John Brennan for CIA Director, the US war machine was busy dropping bombs on Pakistan, just one of the many countries where the US is waging an undeclared war. On Sunday, 17 people were killed in Pakistan’s tribal region in a series of US drone strikes, marking the fourth US drone attack in Pakistan so far this year, according the Long War Journal. That number rose to five when another eight people were killed in a US drone attack on Monday, bringing the total to 25 dead in just 48 hours.
Though unnamed Pakistani security officials say the Sunday attack took out al-Qaeda affiliated Taliban leaders in South Waziristan, the identity’s of the dead have yet to be confirmed. As for the Monday attack, unnamed intelligence officials claim that among the dead was “[a] foreign tactical trainer for al-Qaeda…although reports differed on his nationality,” according to Reuters. “Some intelligence officials said he was from Somalia but others said he was from the United Arab Emirates.”
Retired U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, who engineered the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, also made headlines Monday for his unexpected critique of drone warfare:
“What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world,” he said in an interview. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
McChrystal said the use of drones exacerbates a “perception of American arrogance that says, ‘Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.'”
Though he only shows concern for the consequences on US security rather than the devastating civilian toll of drone strikes, McChrystal raises valid points. Unfortunately, by nominating John Brennan for CIA Director, Obama has solidified his credentials as the drone war president.
Brennan’s association with the US torture program under George W. Bush kept him from receiving the nomination for CIA director in 2008. Back then torture was still controversial, so Brennan was instead appointed to counterterrorism advisor. Four years later, Obama has made it clear that the torturers and their enablers are in the clear and American liberals appear to have accepted it. But this time around, it isn’t his involvement with torture that is unsettling about his latest employment prospect.
In a post titled “John Brennan’s Kill List“, the New Yorker’s Amy Davidson gave a brief and informative rundown of why John Brennan sucks for those of us who care about human rights and the rule of law:
In a speech on the drone program last April, Brennan talked about the use of targeted killings “beyond hot battlefields like Afghanistan.”
What is troubling to many Americans—what Brennan must be asked about in any confirmation hearings—is where this battlefield, this war, and this killing authority begin and end. Brennan has helped construct the Administration’s claim that it can kill people, including American citizens, abroad on its own authority, even when those people are not in countries with which we are at war. His speech in April was a sort of catechism, culminating in “targeted strikes are wise.” We have done it in Pakistan and Yemen; could we do it in London or Paris? How about in New Jersey, the subject of a number of jokes at Brennan’s introduction?
Even more worrisome, according to Davidson, is Brennan’s work on codifying the “kill list” strategy for future administrations:
Brennan is deeply engrossed in designing an internal process for deciding who to kill. He wants to make sure that people in the White House think hard about it—which may feel like due process, but isn’t. He also wants to make it so that anyone can do it—any President, any counterterrorism adviser—not just ones who are as thoughtful and clever as he and Obama. In an interview with the Post, Brennan described this “disposition matrix” as a “playbook.” But codifying and keeping in tune with our laws and values are not the same thing, as much as one is mistaken for the other. One can go down a long checklist and still be breaking the law, just as one can order up a memo from the office of legal counsel and still be a torturer.
The debate over the legality of kill lists and extrajudicial assassination via flying robots is just the beginning. For those who trust Obama with powers (that no person or entity should hold), I urge you to consider the potential for abuse of such power under a future Republican Administration.
In other drone news, McChrystal wasn’t the only former Obama appointee to speak against drones on Monday.
The Guardian reports that Michael Boyle, a former counter-terrorism advisor to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, has just released a study showing US drone strikes to be “counter-productive, less effective than the White House claims, and ‘encouraging a new arms race that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent'”. In keeping with other critics of the US drone program, Boyle argues that it has “adverse strategic effects that have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains associated with killing terrorists”. Echoing McChrystal, he adds that Americans are “unaware of the scale of the drone programme … and the destruction it has caused in their name”.
In particular, Boyle takes issue with the administration’s claim in regards to civilian casualties:
He argues one of the reasons why the US has been “so successful in spinning the number of civilian casualties” is that it has reportedly adopted a controversial method for counting them: all military-age men in a strike zone are classed as militants unless clear evidence emerges to the contrary.
“The result of the ‘guilt by association’ approach has been a gradual loosening of the standards by which the US selects targets for drone strikes,” his study says.
“The consequences can be seen in the targeting of mosques or funeral processions that kill non-combatants and tear at the social fabric of the regions where they occur. No one really knows the number of deaths caused by drones in these distant, sometimes ungoverned, lands.”
Challenging government claims that drone strikes have killed high-level Al Qaeda operatives, Boyle adds that the US has taken out mostly “low-ranking operatives” which has “deepened political resistance to the US programme in Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.”
Boyle doesn’t hold back in slamming Obama for failing to keep his campaign pledges to bring an end to the so-called “war on terror” and the legal violations that came with it:
“Instead, he has been just as ruthless and indifferent to the rule of law as his predecessor … while President Bush issued a call to arms to defend ‘civilisation’ against the threat of terrorism, President Obama has waged his war on terror in the shadows, using drone strikes, special operations and sophisticated surveillance to fight a brutal covert war against al-Qaida and other Islamist networks.”
News of Boyle’s study, which has yet to receive media attention beyond a handful of outlets, comes just days after a Manhattan district judge ruled against a New York Times bid to require that the government publicly disclose its legal justification for targeted assassinations of both Americans and non-Americans abroad.