There’s a new and horrifying first-hand account of the US drone war that recently made it into a mainstream news publication. Over at The Independent in the UK, they present the story of Malik Jalal, a Pakistani man that is trying to get off the US’s “Kill List”.
At this point, the skeptical reader might reasonably wonder how exactly one learns that they are on the Kill List. After all, it’s not like you can just call up a Congressman to ask. (And given the US’s history of accidentally targeting people based on similar names or misinterpretations, it’s not entirely clear how reliable such a service would be at any rate.) No, instead, Jalal has learned of his status by experiencing multiple brushes with death at the hands of drones. These included the following:
- When an SUV identical to his own was behind him on the road and struck by a drone missile
- When he lent his car to his nephew to go get an oil change, and the mechanic’s shop was bombed by drones
- When he was on his way to a friend’s house and saw the house get bombed before he arrived
- When he told friends he would meet them for lunch, and the place of the meeting was also bombed before his arrival
- When he was running late to tribal jirga (roughly akin to a townhall or city council meeting), and the jirga was bombed, killing at least 40 people.
Of course, there are a few ways we could interpret this story. On the one hand, some will certainly try to downplay it and claim he has made it up. But this doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing people would use to get 15 minutes of fame. As a general rule, if you live in a targeted region of the world and speak Arabic, making loud statements about the depredations of US foreign policy is probably a bad move if you have an interest in self-preservation. That’s a horrible reality, but we should acknowledge that it probably is a reality. After all, it’s not like any of the people targeted for assassination are ever proven guilty, so there’s nothing at all standing in the way of targeting simple critics and calling them militants later. It goes without saying that most of the media will not challenge that determination.
Given the circumstances above, it’s unlikely Jalal has fabricated this story. Thus, we are left with two equally abhorrent alternatives for understanding his story. Either he really is on the Kill List (for no reason, as we’ll see), or drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan are so commonplace that he and others have brushes with death on a regular basis. To err on the hopeful side (I guess?), let’s assume he’s really being targeted.
Then what explains his targeting? Well, he’s part of a local group called the North Waziristan Peace Committee that has been trying to restore order to Waziristan tribal region that has been among the hardest hit by the “War on Terror”. As part of their mediation efforts, they often engage in negotiations with the Taliban and other militant groups, who are players in the region. Additionally, he was quoted in 2011 expressing criticism and anger at US foreign policy. Those are the best guesses that Jalal and his lawyers have to offer about why he managed to wind up on the Kill List.
And while it’s obviously possible he was engaged in other actions that powerful nations might find objectionable, all that proves is the necessity of having due process. In his case, no government agency volunteered any information to attempt to justify his apparent targeting for assassination.
Taking a step back from the Orwellian absurdity described above, there’s also the human component. In a recent interview on The Scott Horton Show, Jalal explains that he eventually took to sleeping outside his family home in the hopes that his family wouldn’t become collateral damage. Here’s his telling of it via a translator [emphasis mine]:
I went outside and slept under the tree and the 7-years-old son of mine, Bilal, he came up to me and he also wanted to spend the night there. And when I said to him, ‘Don’t worry. You can go home and sleep there; they [the US] wouldn’t kill a child.’ And he answered back saying, ‘How do you know, Father, that they won’t kill a child? I, myself, have seen with my own eyes children being killed by drones. So don’t tell me they don’t target children.’
That’s a 7-year-old who already has a rational fear of his own mortality, thanks to US policies.
And if the emotional angle doesn’t do it for you, there’s always the fact that all of this is unbelievably counterproductive. After enduring the constant presence of armed drones flying overhead for the entirety of President Obama’s tenure and part of President Bush’s reign before that, there can be no doubt how the vast majority of the affected populations must feel about the United States government. If anyone still asks “why do they hate us?”, certainly, the drone assassination program must register in the top 10.
Fortunately, at least to this point, relatively few Muslims and Arabs have become outraged and desperate enough to sacrifice their own life in pursuit of revenge. But every day that goes by with an armed drone circling overhead, and every strike with its inevitable collateral damage, pushes more and more people towards the extremes. Millions of people in Muslim countries live knowing that, if the sky is clear and they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, their lives could end at any moment from a hellfire missile. If the word terrorism is to have any coherent meaning at all, the US drone program would be the epitome of it.
In closing, Jalal’s story is a reminder of the horrors US foreign policy under Democrats and Republicans alike. The assassination program destroys innocent lives, inspires more radical anti-American sentiments in its wake, and operates without the pretense of due process. And even if no major politician in this election cycle is going to oppose this policy,* you should.
*Yes, that includes Bernie. His opposition to the death penalty only applies to domestic criminals that receive a trial; foreigners that do not receive a trial are totally fair game, as long as they’re from a sufficiently obscure country.
Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm blog, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.