DRONES OVER AFGHANISTAN /PAKISTAN: THE BRITISH CONNECTION
Last week I wrote an article looking at the impact of unmanned aerial vehicles UAVs, more commonly known as drones, on the region of Afghanistan and Pakistan (AfPak) see https://activist1.wordpress.com/2011/05/08/pakistan-the-big-drone-debate/ This debate focused on operations from the United States. This week I am exploring the British connection.
Drones have been used over the past decade as part of the “war on terror”. Their function is for both surveillance and missile attacks to deplete the strength of insurgent groups and the focus is target killing of members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Many of these drones (with names as such as Predator and Reaper) are launched from Creech Air Force Base, Nevada, US, and British operators have for some time worked alongside American allies.
The accuracy of drone attacks is frequently in question as many ordinary civilians have been annhiliated within the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan and others left horribly maimed. Such is the anger that a series of protests are taking place led by politician (former cricketer) Imran Khan highlighting issues of legality, sovereignty and human rights abuses. His party website Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) have announced that “on the 21st and 22nd of May – Imran Khan and PTI have invited all concerned citizens who wish to UNITE as Pakistanis and protest against the senseless DRONE attacks and the murders of thousands of innocent people. We are gathering in front of the KPT building Karachi (the GATEWAY TO PAKISTAN) to raise our voices against the usage of our harbour, port, roads, and other utilities to supply NATO with fuel” http://www.insaf.pk/News/tabid/60/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/6444/Appeal-for-Medical-Camp-Assistance-in-Karachi-Dharna.aspx
Two news articles have hit the British press this year which indicate a significant change in drone operations which will apply to the AfPak region. The first article was a press release on March 21st 2001 from General Atomics and Affiliated Companies announcing the opening of an office in London to be managed by Dr Johnny King. The company is a leading manufacturer of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), tactical reconnaissance radars, and surveillance systems. Neil Blue, Chairman and CEO of GA-ASI had this to say, “we are pleased that the London office will provide support for the Ministry of Defence’s (MOD’s) Remotely Piloted Air Systems (RPAS) requirements”. The second article of interest was the announcement of a new Reaper Squadron which will operate out of an airbase in Lincolnshire, northern England.
Britain it seems now has an interest in the drone issue on at least six fronts:-
1) Use of military bases in the UK supported by the British government as a launch site for drone attacks (relocation of operators from US).
2) Impact on local economy surrounding a drone airbase.
3) Action of British public in relation to drone research and activism.
4) Involvement of British lawyers with regard to assisting victims
5) Role of British based Arms Manufacturers and affiliated services
6) Role of the media in covering the drone debate.
To add to the fury from Pakistan over alleged violations of human rights by those who carry out drone attacks, Kenneth MacDonald QC (legal counsel) has added his voice of concern in a recent article in the Guardian (5th May 2011) entitled the Predator Drone Paradox. He contributed to the drone debate by declaring, “it seems that tossing a dime would be a better way of identifying a ‘high value terrorist’ than relying on US military intelligence. Guantánamo proves the tragic inability of the US military to differentiate between an enemy and an incidental bystander, and if you live in north west Pakistan, that matters very much.”
This however does not seem to be the thinking of staff at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire where Air Chief Marshall, Sir Stephen Dalton announced the formation of the new Reaper squadron at the airbase which would take over from the disbanded no 13 Tornado Squadron. Speaking to the Lincolnshire Echo (This is Lincolnshire, May 14th 2011) he claimed, “this transition will see us bring Reaper mission control to the UK, make more efficient and effective use of our resources in exploiting this growing capability and enable the operation of significantly more combat intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance aircraft over Afghanistan 24 hours a day.”
In a time of economic downturn with job cuts and an impact on funding for the armed forces this move was also welcomed by Simon Beardsley, Chief Executive of the Chamber of Commerce. He stated, “it sounds like a positive impact to the local economy in terms of the skilled employees it will bring in to the county and the potential spending power they will have while they are here…The servicemen and their families will be able to benefit from things the county has to offer and if there is a sizeable number of people coming in it will mean good things for Lincolnshire”
Chris Cole is Director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) at Oxford, England and campaigns against the use of drones. He is part of a wider organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) that was founded in 1919 “in response to the horrors of war in Europe.” The website describes IFR as “seeking to overcome the divisions of nation states which are often the source of conflict and violence”. There are branches in 51 countries on all continents and “its membership includes adherants to all major spiritual traditions as well as those who have other spiritual sources for their commitment to non –violence.” It is against this background that Mr Cole co-wrote an excellent report, Convenient Killing: Armed Drones and the “PlayStation” Mentality (2010) along with Mary Dobbing, peace worker at Quaker Peace and Social Witness (QPSW) and Amy Hailwood, Education and Campaigns Officer at FOR. Topics dissected in this report include, the Human Cost, Production and Proliferation, The UK and Drones and the Myth of Effectiveness.
Amongst the facts and figures of the document, one part leaps out… it is the human tragedy of those affected by drone strikes… (Thanks to IFOR and Kathy Kelly and Josh Brolier, Co-ordinators for Voices For Creative Non-Violence) for the following two account of drone strikes in Waziristan, North West Pakistan. The first is told by an eye-witness:-
The social worker recalled arriving at a home that was hit, in Miranshah at about 9pm (May 2009). The drone strike had killed at three people. Their bodies carbonized were fully burned. They could only be identified by their legs and hands, one body was still on fire when he reached there. Then he learned that the charred and mutilated corpses were relatives of his who lived in the village, two men and a boy aged seven or eight. They couldn’t pick up the charred parts in on piece. Finding scraps of metal they transported the body parts away from the site. Three to four others, joined in to help cover the bodies in plastic and carry them to the morgue. But these volunteers and nearby onlookers were attacked by another drone strike, 15 minutes after the initial one. Six more people died. One of them was the brother of the man killed in the initial strike.
The Khan family never heard it. They had been sleeping an hour when the hellfire missile pierced their mud hut on an August night in 2008.
Black smoke and dust choked villages as they dug through the rubble. Four year old Zereek’s legs were severed. His sister Maria was badly scorched. Both were dead. When their cousin Irfan saw them, he gently curled them in his arms, squeezed the rumpled bodies to his chest, lightly kissed their faces, and slid into a stupor.
(Source, Los Angeles Times, 2nd May 2010)
Imran Khan argues that 90% of the people targeted in drone attacks are civilians quoting Gulabat Khan, a local Malik who estimates that 18 out of 20 victims are innocent victims… Those that have been wrongly targeted will now have the services of a British lawyer, Clive Stafford-Smith, director of Reprieve, UK/US legal charity who has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the US. This human rights advocate has also worked on Guantanamo cases and is likely to be a prickly thorn in the side of those who support drone strikes. He can be seen on this link during a recent television interview http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VJxDxxxl7Q
The Pakistan government appears to be playing both sides, bowing to the wishes of Washington on the one hand whilst condemning attacks against civilians on the other. There is also the question of sovereignty and whether or not the Pakistan government is santioning strikes on its territory… and who may be liable when civilian deaths occur. Lawyers now feel that if British Intelligence has knowledge of such attacks and if in future British authorities give the go ahead for strikes to be operational from local bases, there may well be a legal case to answer.
Our website Asia Despatch (based in Islamabad) has covered the drone debate on numerous occasions and reported the first legal case of journalist Karim Khan from Waziristan. This gentleman lost both his son 18 year old Zain Uddin and 32 year old brother Asif Iqbal and is represented by Mirza Shahzad Akbar (Farooq Law Associates) in Pakistan. Karim spoke to Syed Saleem Shahzad my colleague at a press conference in November 2010 and gave the following comment, “this is a clear case of human rights violations as my house was targeted on a false tip-off by unknown intelligence and caused immense damage to life and property of my family” http://www.asiadespatch.com/2010/11/first-family-of-drone-victim-surface-demands-us-cia-for-compensation/ There have been recent allegations that the US pays locals on the ground to place chips in the houses of insurgents for drones to target… However if this is the case it could be argued to be exploitative and immoral behaviour by a state given that any poverty stricken individual with a grudge against a neighbour (who may or may not be a militant) might be tempted to give false information in exchange for cash.
A legal notice has been issued to the American authorities for $500 million compensation for Karim’s legal case and the two lawyers are now working in co-operation with the hope of ending drone strikes. In the following video, Mirza Akbar emphasises that where victims are concerned it is justice not dollars that are the main reason families want to initiate legal proceedings http://www.reprieve.org.uk/2011_05_12_Shahzad_CIA_drone_victims
Back in July 2009 the Belfast Telegraph quoted Lord Bingham a top British judge as saying that some weapons “were so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance” and stated that “it may be – I’m not expressing a view – that unmanned drones that fall on a house full of civilians is a weapon the international community should decide should not be used.” Yet we know now that Britain is to increase using this technology.
Who else stands to benefit from these remote controlled killing machines? Those who develop the technology are certainly set to line their pockets further. Back in April 2010, Arieh O’ Sulivan reported on the Bridges for Peace website that Elbit , the Israeli aerospace giant, announced that it “has just signed up a US $70 million deal to provide maintenance and logistical support for the lucrative Watchkeeper project. This is the largest unmanned system in the world and is being designed to provide UK armed forces with ISTAR (essential Intelligence, Surveillance and Target, Acquisition and Reconnaissance capabilities).” Alongside that the British army would take control of 100 Watchkeeper drones as part of a $500 million US order.
Then there is Mantis developed by British company British Aerospace Electronic Systems (BAE) and considered to be a “sovereign” drone, manufactured on home territory or at least within British owned production centres. BAE Systems is a global defence and security company employing around 100,000 employees world-wide and last year reported sales of £22.4 billion (US $34.6 billion) according to its website. Mantis is described as a “deep and persistent ISTAR” and is an advanced technological demonstrator Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) http://www.baesystems.com/ProductsServices/bae_prod_mantis.html India is also expected to increase demand for British drone technology as it is currently expanding its own operations.
There is also Taranis named after the Celtic god of thunder, a £143 million unarmed stealth jet capable of hitting targets on another continent. The Mail quoted Nigel Whitehead, group Managing Director of BAE Systems as saying, “it represents a significant step forward in this country’s fast jet capability. This technology is key to sustaining a strong industrial base and to maintain the UK’s leading position as a centre for engineering excellence and innovation.” http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1294037/Taranis-The-143million-unmanned-stealth-jet-hit-targets-continent.html#ixzz1MOLbRfAi
So back to Chris Cole, one of a number of anti-drone activists at the Fellowship of Reconciliation. The organisation is not letting up and has an active campaign to educate the public. The website publishes current and archival material and visitors can watch a film on UAVs. Cole has recently written an opinion piece in the Guardian (13th May 2011) highlighting the fact that we mustn’t ignore the fact that British drones kill too http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/may/13/britains-military-open-people-killed-drones He details the problem he has had in obtaining data on British involvement referring to a “wall of silence” and had this to say on the subject,
“I have repeatedly tried to obtain information about the circumstances of British drone strikes under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation, but all requests have been refused as being ‘prejudicial to the defence of our armed forces’ or, more recently, simply ignored. A parliamentary question asked by my MP, Andrew Smith, about whether British drones were firing the thermobaric variant of the Hellfire missile – a variant that British forces are known to possess – was refused as “its disclosure would, or would be likely to, prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of our armed forces”.
Mr Cole is now pushing for a full statement on British use of drones from defence Secretary Liam Fox.
There are also active groups on Facebook (search “drones”) and anti-drone petitions circulating, with campaigners advocating that pressure needs to be put on the media to cover the drone debate in more depth and hear a wider variety of voices from all sides.
One thing is certain, the people of Pakistan will not stay silent. There are calls for the government to act on the issue of sovereignty, drones are seen as an invasion of its airspace and many want a review of Pakistan’s relationship with Washington. Firm action was called for at Saturday’s mammoth 10 hour parliamentary session with regard to further aerial strikes. There were apparently heated calls from lawmakers to cut the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) supply line which was previously closed down for 2 days during recent sit-in protests by anti-drone campaigners http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/14/pakistan-nato-afghanistan-bin-laden
The cycle of violence increases day by day with 4 US drones attacks on Pakistan since the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. The army and security services have awkward questions to answer over intelligence failures. Such is the indignation over the Abbottabad incident (another violation of Pakistani air space) that there is talk from politicians and military personnel of bringing down UAVs in the future. In addition to the distress caused by drones there have been bloody revenge bombings from the Taliban killing 89 soldiers at a paramilitary centre and wounding many more. An increasingly weary population remains on edge wondering what will happen next…
It seems that there are two key points to be taken into consideration when summarising the use of drones. The first is the issue of legality, the second is whether they are actually an effective weapon against insurgents. Chip Pitts, a political commentator argues on Press TV that drones are illegal, compromise a state’s sovereignty and are not as precise at hitting targets as advertised. He states that “the last ratio I saw was 20 terrorists killed for about 750 civilians, that’s not a good ratio” http://www.presstv.ir/detail/179824.html A Channel Four interview with Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation and author of “The Longest War” echoed the low success rate suggesting that only 2% of those killed were senior Al Qaeda and Taliban figures http://www.channel4.com/news/us-drone-attacks-failing-to-kill-many-militant-leaders I leave the final word to the ever vocal Noam Chomsky (linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist and social activist) who had this to say in the Examiner…“drone attacks are target assassinations and therefore a crime. Whether they are militants or not these people are being targeted because the US doesn’t like them. Targeted assassination is an international crime. United Nations’ special rapporteur Philip Alson, a very respected international lawyer, came out with a report which simply say that it is a criminal act.”
Carol Grayson is Director Co-ordination Asia Despatch and a UK researcher /campaigner on global health/human rights awarded ESRC Michael Young Prize 2009
Copyright 16TH May 2011