A fully armed MQ-9 Reaper taxis down an Afghanistan runway.

ON March 2nd, a US drone strike killed two men in the Kurram Valley, northwest Pakistan, making it the first to have taken place under the Trump administration. Two hellfire missiles struck the men as they were travelling on a motorcycle through the mountainous tribal areas that border Afghanistan. According to The News, locals witnessed several drones hovering over the area beforehand. The dead were identified as Qari Abdullah Sabari, a commander in Afghan Taliban, and another Afghan national, named Shakir. It is thought that the men either belonged to the Haqqani Network or the Afghan Taliban.

The strike signifies the re-emergence of drones over Pakistani territory following a nine month hiatus in attacks on the region. The last recorded strike was on May 21st, 2016, killing the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, as he was being driven through Balochistan in the south-west of the country. Speaking to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani Lawyer working with Reprieve, said that the attack was “President Trump’s first drone strike in Pakistan, and from what we hear from the ground it seems that drones have returned to the tribal areas”.

Akbar, fearing such a return, noted that in 2013 the Peshawar High Court “declared drone strikes in Pakistan a violation of law and Pakistani sovereignty, making the Pakistani government responsible for protecting its citizens’ right to life. The State of Pakistan has to do everything in their power to enforce this judgement”.

 

A History of Violence

The CIA has been conducting aerial counter-terrorism operations in the semi-autonomous tribal regions of Pakistan since 2004. It was President Obama’s extensive use of drones upon his taking of office in 2009 that led to a ballooning in the number of attacks. To date, there have been 425 drone strikes carried out by the CIA in Pakistan, accounting for about 75% of the US’s total number of drone strikes worldwide. As a result, between 424 and 966 civilians have been killed, including around 170 children. Based on conservative estimates, this means that at least one civilian is killed per strike, on average.

The White House disputes the civilian casualty numbers presented by the likes of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, claiming that 64 – 116 non-combatants have been killed in drone attacks. Why such a disparity exists between official US government figures and those collected by NGOs, academics and journalists is not fully understood, due to the entire lack of transparency encompassing the US drone program. This is especially the case for strikes that occur outside zones of active hostilities, like Pakistan. Nevertheless, it is likely that the numerical incongruity is down to the way in which ‘combatants’ have been classified in the war on terror and the method used to track the death of innocents by the US government. That method, embraced by Obama, counted all military aged males (16+) in a strike zone as combatants, regardless of whether or not there was any evidence. Only if specific intelligence on a military aged male is produced posthumously, proving them innocent, are they added to the list of civilian deaths. In more simple terms: if you are killed by a drone, or even an elite special forces unit, then you are guilty until proven innocent – an ideal completely antithetical to supposed American values.

That method, embraced by Obama, counted all military aged males (16+) in a strike zone as combatants, regardless of whether or not there was any evidence.

The manipulation of figures through clerical and legal sleight of hand, in an environment dominated by secrecy, was the hallmark of the Obama administration’s policy on drones. In wanting to move away from Bush’s legacy of overt war, the use of drones and covert military forces offered the best course of action; one that appeased hawkish members of Congress and the US public, while seemingly making war more ‘precise’. In fact, even at the end of Obama’s final term as President, in November last year, his administration expanded the powers of the elite Joint Special Operations Command to track, plan and launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe. This, despite knowing that the next president had promised to “bomb the shit” out of terror groups and “do a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”.

Screen-grab from the App 'Metadata' detailing the number and concentration of US drone strikes in the FATA region of Pakistan.
Screen-grab from the App ‘Metadata’ detailing the number and concentration of US drone strikes in the FATA region of Pakistan.

Granted, Obama did try to reign in some executive powers regarding the conducting of war in his final months at the country’s helm. However, this was too little too late, particularly considering the previous eight years he had spent increasing those very powers. December 5th, 2016, saw the publication of a 61-page report summarising the administration’s views on the legal barriers and policies limiting the president’s military powers. The report reiterated the importance of the complete prohibition on torture and a note stating that the president didn’t have a blank check to kill alleged terrorists wherever they are. The report nonetheless tried to buttress Obama’s legacy by painting a picture of an administration far more restrained than it actually was in practice.

Propaganda went hand in hand with Obama’s drone program. By now you’ve probably entertained the thought that drone strikes are ‘much more precise’ when compared to other weapons. This was crucial for Obama: if he could convince people that drones were more accurate, and therefore more humane than other methods of war, criticism of the legally dubious program could be deflected. And that is exactly what he and his administration did throughout his two terms as President, consistently arguing that drone strikes were more precise.

If you are killed by a drone, or even an elite special forces unit, then you are guilty until proven innocent – an ideal completely antithetical to supposed American values.

The 61-page report released in December continued the propaganda line that justified the weapon’s use. Once people’s minds are implanted with the false proof that the drone is a more precise weapon and in step with the legal principle of distinction, ethical arguments surrounding it can be steered away from the fundamental issues that exist. On an empirical level, the iterations of better precision and fewer civilian death seems to fall flat. A study based on classified military data, conducted by Larry Lewis from the Centre for Naval Analyses and Sarah Holewinski of the Centre for Civilians in Conflict, found that the use of drones in Afghanistan had in fact caused ten times more civilian deaths than manned fighter aircraft. The issue then, is not just with the accuracy of the weapon, but the ways in which that weapon is used and how targeting is conducted. So long as one’s targeting is problematic, then the precision of the weapon means little. 

 

The Grim Reaper Returns

The reemergence of drones over the tribal areas of Pakistan could mark the beginning of a new reign of terror. Not only do drone strikes have the obvious horrendous impact of killing innocent men, women and children, they also cause widespread social and psychological harm to the targeted populations. Drones fly over communities 24 hours a day, emitting a hum that constantly reminds people below that they could be killed at any moment. Parents are afraid to send their children to school, teachers are afraid to teach, community members don’t gather for any functions and trips to the market are filled with fear.

 

Drone Badges
Left: Badge of the USAF Reaper Drone Unit . Right: Emblem of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), who oversee drone operations in Pakistan.

 

If he [Obama] could convince everybody that drones were more accurate, and therefore more humane than other methods of war, criticism of the legally dubious program could be deflected.

It must be understood that the drone program and its associated secrecy is not only unjust in and of itself, but the very vulnerabilities of the weapon results in its primary cruelty. Drones are loud and slow aircraft, meaning that they can only be effectively used against defenceless populations. Yet, their very use against a population attempts to redefine those peoples as a ‘threat’. In so doing, the drone justifies the removal of any and all control of ones’ life from the individuals who live under its gaze. It becomes the ultimate sovereign of life and death, with the power to kill at the push of a button. 

The Reuters reporter David Rohde describes living with drones as “terrifying…the buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death”. Defining the experience as ‘hell on earth’, Rohde explained that even in the areas where strikes were less frequent, the people living there still feared for their lives. It is perfectly fitting then, that the official badge of the United States Air Force (USAF) Reaper Drone unit has ‘That Others May Die’ inscribed below an image of the Grim Reaper, clutching his bloody scythe.

All of Obama’s tireless work to extend covert US military power across the world hasn’t gone to waste. Rather, the powers and secret institutional structures that shape the drone program are now in the hands of an individual who can use them to their full potential. While it was great that many believed Obama had some moral fibre that regulated his use of drones, he purposefully developed an incredibly vicious apparatus of war, only now to have passed it to a man with seemingly no moral fibre at all. The drone program, in its current macabre form, screams out for a president like Donald Trump. It may finally see its full brutal capacity realised and be put to good use “bombing the shit” out of the enemy, whoever or wherever they may be, regardless of any consequences.