‘A Constellation of Secret Drone Bases’ and the American License to Kill

Yesterday’s Washington Post:

The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen, U.S. officials said.

One of the installations is being established in Ethi­o­pia, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Shabab, the Somali militant group that controls much of that country. Another base is in the Seychelles, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where a small fleet of “hunter-killer” drones resumed operations this month after an experimental mission demonstrated that the unmanned aircraft could effectively patrol Somalia from there.

The U.S. military also has flown drones over Somalia and Yemen from bases in Djibouti, a tiny African nation at the junction of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. In addition, the CIA is building a secret airstrip in the Arabian Peninsula so it can deploy armed drones over Yemen.

I wrote today about the legal split, which apparently is little more than a quiet and slight variance of opinion, in the Obama administration over the use of lethal force in Yemen and Somalia, namely by drone strikes, cruise missiles, or commando raids. Drones are obviously the favored tactic of the three, given the Pentagon’s construction of bases in the region specifically for the purpose of launching killer drone strikes. There is no disagreement in the Obama administration or the Pentagon about the legality of these tactics in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But some feeble questions are arising over their use in Yemen and Somalia because (1) we’re not considered to be at war in these countries and (2) targeting low-level foot soldiers in charge of merely parochial local concerns is hard to justify as self-defense. As I explained in the piece, the legal justification shouldn’t be restrictively abstract, but should allow the facts about how these tactics play out inform the legal understandings.

The effects of that sort of policy have been borne out in Afghanistan and Pakistan particularly. Commando raids of suspected terrorist homes, for example, occur at least 12-20 times per night in Afghanistan alone (those executed in Pakistan are kept secret). As senior special operations commanders have admitted, these raids target the wrong people 50 percent of the time, often end in civilian deaths, and result in thousands of detentions per year, many of whom are non-combatants. A recent study suggests these raids may create more enemies than they eliminate.

The drone program in Pakistan, which has also operated on the more permissive interpretation of the legal use of force now being considered for Yemen and Somalia, has produced similar results. Sometimes managing to kill the high-level operatives intended, estimates for civilians killed go as high as one militant for every 10 or 15 civilians, while over 160 children have been murdered by the strikes.

Expanding the Executive branch’s legal authority to kill anyone it deems an enemy anywhere in the world has the potential also to extend this grant to those who simply give rhetorical support to terrorist groups, even if that person is a US citizen. Furthermore, like the commando raids, drone programs have the potential to create more enemies than it eliminates, as was admitted by former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair.

These shouldn’t merely inform the legal understanding of these tactics, but also the strategic and the moral. How can these operations be justified as keeping Americans safe if they merely engender resentment, create more enemies, and perhaps more often than not miss the target? In Anatol Leiven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country, some of which I talked about here and here, this is also well documented. He writes that drone attacks “have not noticeably impaired the Afghan Taleban’s ability to go on fighting effectively, while causing outrage among Pakistanis – especially because of the very large numbers of women and children who have also been killed by the attacks.” He interviewed a former member of the radical Jamaat Islami, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, describing him as “[seeming] to have been radicalized by his father’s murder, but even more by the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11.” “You have to understand, though,” Ghazi said, “that the people who are doing this [joining the insurgency, orchestrating attacks] are doing it from frustration and revenge.”

Even if one buys into the poisoned Washington mindset that informs their militaristic defense strategy, we’re merely chasing our tails here. The Express Tribune, citing the Bureau of Investigative Journalism report on Af-Pak civilians killed in drone strikes that I linked to above:

On February 14 2009, the eight-year-old son of Maezol Khan reportedly lost his life. More than 25 alleged militants were killed in a massive strike on a nearby house. But flying shrapnel killed the young boy as he slept next door. His grandfather later asked: “How can the US invade our homes while we are sleeping, and target our children?”

But one 2009 incident in which children died gives a chilling insight into the tactics of those the CIA are hunting. On August 11 of that year drones attacked an alleged Pakistan Taliban compound, killing up to 25 people. At the time there were reports of women and children killed.

Two years later, young survivor Arshad Khan, now in Pakistani police custody, told reporters that the compound was a training camp for teenage suicide bombers. He named four young victims. Arshad says he was recruited without realising he was to be a suicide bomber.

…Along with two undefined reports of ‘children killed’, a 17-year-old student was killed in November last year. And on April 22 this year, two drones destroyed a house and guesthouse in Spinwan, North Waziristan. A 12-year-old boy, Atif, was killed in that strike, according to researchers working with the Bureau in Waziristan.

Mirza Shahzad Akbar, an Islamabad-based lawyer representing a number of families caught up in drone strikes said: “All these children are a big recruitment agent for militants in the area. When you can show people that children are being killed in the drone strikes, all those who are so far non-aligned, that gets them onto the other side. That is what most worries me as a Pakistani.”

And what about the moral? As I’ve shown above, barely scratching the surface, we know that civilians bear the brunt of these tactics. Where in the world do US officials in charge of these attacks get the moral and legal license to murder children and other innocent civilians? What ramifications ought to await them? Who will account for the unjustified killing of non-combatants? Apparently nobody, because the state demands exemption from the moral and legal laws that govern the rest of society. And they justify it as necessary to protect the nation. Yet we know they’re only making us less safe.