Over the weekend, I attended a summit on drones co-organized by CODEPINK, CCR, and Reprieve. I had the opportunity to speak and hear from people from countries where the US has carried out drone attacks. I also spoke with journalists who have covered and spoken to people who are victims of the US covert drone war.
Madiha Tahir, an independent journalist who was based in Pakistan for two years, spoke to me in an interview. She said in listening to people one of the things she has heard primarily is that Pakistanis “want to stop having bombs dropped on their heads and that is the main issue for them.”
She compared their concerns to the concerns of human rights advocates in the United States:
When I come to the United States and I talk to human rights advocates, the main concern about drones with respect to Pakistan is that drones in Pakistan are being controlled by the CIA instead of the military. So, the logic and demand is that drones should be shifted from the CIA to the military and this would create more transparency and accountability. And, so, there’s a lot of rhetoric about transparency and accountability as if that is the endgame. But, that is not the endgame.
First of all, it’s not clear that if having JSOC, which is an arm of the military, would be more transparent and accountable. But aside from that, this is a legal problem and an abstract problem from the point of view of survivors and families of drone attack victims. They simply want to stop having the bombs dropped on their heads and it doesn’t matter if the bombs come courtesy of the CIA or they come courtesy of the military. That is really the issue that the antiwar movement has to be dealing with if it is a movement that cares about and claims to stand in solidarity with the people who are on the receiving end of American militarism.
This is what Human Rights Watch (HRW) is doing. In response to the lack of transparency and the fact that the program violates human rights law, HRW is advocating that the military take full control of the drone program. However, transparency and openness will not necessarily take care of the inhumanity that stems from regular drone attacks. If the program is legitimate and normal to officials, there is no reason for Americans to be outraged and no reason for people to put pressure on the government to stop bombing people in Pakistan. Handing it over to the military would not decrease war crimes or ensure operations are more “lawful” and human rights organizations that engage in this advocacy are mistakenly using their authority by suggesting what entity should handle a program that clearly violates human rights.
Additionally, what Tahir says reinforces what Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz recently said on whether drones are less ethical than manned aircraft. He suggested it is “irrelevant” whether “pilots launch weapons when they are so far removed from the battlefield” because, “whether they are in a cockpit or flying a remotely operated aircraft in front of a computer screen on the ground,” they are following the same orders.
“Is it more honorable for us to engage a target from an F-16 or an F-15 [manned fighter] than it is from an MQ-9 [remotely piloted aircraft]? Is that somehow more ethical? .. Oh come on,” he replied. “We have very explicit criteria, rules of engagement, legal standards to engage a whole variety of targets.”
The issue is not whether this is ethical, he said. If a weapon is intended to strike a legitimate target that poses a threat to U.S. forces or allies, “I would argue that the manner in which you engage that target — in close combat or not — is not a terribly relevant question. … If what we’re doing is righteous, and I believe it is, the exact modality is less relevant.”
I agree—Both F-16s and drones can be used to carry out state-sanctioned killings off the battlefield. They can both be used to flout international consensus on the rule of law. They can both be used in service of redefining what it means to give someone “due process.”
Tahir addresses the reality that not only do Pakistanis not want the US occupying the skies with remote-controlled aircrafts but they also do not want the US to be there with troops either. The issues of terrorism are something they’d prefer to take a more broad-based approach to addressing, and US covert or military operations only make the situation worse.
Here is the full interview I did with Tahir at the summit: