Saturday, 1 June 2013

Obama's Killing Machine.

Not even a week into his first term, President Obama sent a clear message to the world when it came to the ‘War on Terror’ re-declared by Bush in 2001. On January 23th 2009 Obama authorised the first of many military operations conducted within Pakistani territory to take place during his time in office. It was a double-strike carried out by a remotely piloted American aircraft – one of the so-called ‘drones’ – killing at least 15 people in western Pakistan.[1] As far as we know it was the first of more than 300 of these operations to be conducted by the CIA in Pakistan over the last four years. It was as much a sign of things to come as it was the first sign of what looks like continuity between Obama and Bush. Actually the truth is even worse than that.

The policy of drone strikes was initially launched under the shameful first term of President Bush only five months before the 2004 election. Under Bush the campaign of assassination was supplemented, at first, with the kidnapping and torture of ‘terror suspects’ only for this campaign to be upped under Obama. It was Bush who saw the Authorization for Use of Military Force, or AUMF, rammed through Congress after the attacks on the Twin Towers. Pentagon officials have claimed that the AUMF gives the President the power to wage an endless war anywhere on earth; with one official predicting that the operations against al-Qaeda could go on for 20 years.[2] Even so, the Bush administration only authorised around 50 strikes in Pakistan compared with the more than 300 strikes authorised by Obama.[3] With the passing of the National Defence Authorization act the US can now feel free to murder its own citizens at a whim if they are ‘associated’ with terror. The world remains the battlefield for these airborne death squads and no one appears to be safe.
Over the next four years Obama would extend the drone operations to a whole new precedent, past Pakistan across West Asia and even onwards to Africa. By the summer of 2011 the White House had given the ‘okay’ to bomb Somalia, the justification being to combat the Islamists in the country who had forged ties to Yemen’s al-Qaeda.[4] The US had been conducting operations against Yemen, where they would later assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki – the American and online face of radical Islamism – only to continue the strikes and kill (as of May 20th 2013) somewhere between 1,100 and 1,800 people.[5] Then the arms that had flowed readily into the hands of Berbers and Tuareg fighters in Libya’s civil war made it to Northern Mali in 2012. The Tuaregs, now rearmed, carved out Azawad from the African state only for the military junta in Bamako to request French assistance. The Islamist presence in North Africa provided yet another pretext to the ever extending bloodbath from above. Soon the US government had responded in its own way and American troops were deployed in 35 African countries.[6] By January 2013, Niger had agreed to let the US drones swarm into their sovereignty to kill yet more targets.[7]
The exact numbers of those killed in these operations are not so much disputed as the precise composition of the slain. At CounterPunch, Jeffrey St. Clair estimates the death toll as more than 3,000 with something like 900 civilian deaths including at least 176 children.[8] That’s if we assume that the muddy distinctions of ‘civilians’ from ‘terror suspects’ or even ‘associated forces’ (of al-Qaeda) can be sustained. At the Brookings Institution, in July of 2009, Daniel L Byman estimated that the body count from the drone strikes came to ten civilians for every militant killed.[9] It’s worth keeping in mind that the US government defines ‘suspected militant’ as all military-age males in a strike zone.[10] There are worthy victims and unworthy victims, those killed by the enemy and those we have killed. Such a distinction is to be maintained through whatever legal wrangling necessary in this bizarre age.
Come the second term, President Obama had resorted to using past precedents of American war crimes in Indochina to further legitimise the swarm of Predator drones.[11] Operation Menu was the name for the systematic bombing of selected targets (supposedly Viet Cong strongholds) within neutral Cambodia. This campaign was actually just a worse version than the less intense operations carried out under Lyndon Johnson.[12] It was called Menu because of the order of bombing: first breakfast, then lunch, snack, dinner, supper and dessert. With this flippancy the US effectively invaded Cambodia in 1970 and out of the inferno emerged the Khmer Rouge stronger than ever from the fallout. The example of Operation Menu is useful because international law would rule out extending conflict outside of the battlefield. At the time the State Department lawyer claimed legitimacy in extending the war in Vietnam to its neutral neighbour because there were Vietnamese forces in Cambodian territory.[13]
It is a befitting analogy for Obama’s drone wars, given the destabilising effect on Pakistan with the potential for civil war and even nuclear disaster in the country. With this in mind we may add that the assassination of Osama bin Laden, originally named Operation Geronimo, was carried out by US forces with the prior expectation that if the situation gets out of hand with nearby Pakistani soldiers they would have to fight their way out of the country. These unsanctioned actions against a supposedly sovereign country have provoked incredible anger in Pakistan. Let alone the authorised actions to repeatedly bomb villages and towns in Pakistan’s territory. Even if we accept the premises of the ‘War on Terror’ we cannot be blind to the sheer futility of these bloody operations. The latest drone strike in Pakistan was on May 29th of this year, left Walier ur-Rehman, second-in-command of the Taliban, dead among three others in North Waziristan.[14] The next day the Pakistani Taliban replaced this prominent commander with Khan Said. No doubt the Islamists of Pakistan have plenty of new recruits to hoover up in the wake of drone strikes.
The attempts by the White House to find a loophole around the criminal nature of this conduct are especially revealing. Obama is much less comfortable than his predecessor when it comes to disregarding international law. Where the Bush-Cheney gang couldn’t give a damn about international law this lawyer-cum-politician looks for the legal grounds to commit mass-murder. Bush had the audacity to pass the ‘Netherlands invasion act’ in 2002, which gave the US the right to invade to prevent any trial of an American citizen taking place in The Hague.[15] Obama is looking to find a more subtle way out of any possible allegations of crimes against humanity. In short, we find that the Democrats offer a better and more civilised George Bush with his finger on the button.
This article was written for the Third Estate and posted on June 4th 2013.

[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.


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