The South Asia Channel

Death From Above

Emily Schneider reviews two new books about the U.S. drone program, Sudden Justice and Kill Chain, that, read together, inform our understanding of U.S. drone policy in new ways.

A French military officer, pilots an Israeli Harfang drone, bought by the French army and used in the Operation Barkhane, an anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel, inside the Drone command center, on June 9, 2015 in the French army base in Nianey, Niger. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)
A French military officer, pilots an Israeli Harfang drone, bought by the French army and used in the Operation Barkhane, an anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel, inside the Drone command center, on June 9, 2015 in the French army base in Nianey, Niger. AFP PHOTO/PHILIPPE DESMAZES (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images)

Last month, top al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi was reportedly killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen’s Hadramawt region. Al-Wuhayshi was the second in command of al Qaeda globally and had been a former secretary to Osama bin Laden. His death was seen as a success for the Obama administration’s fight against al Qaeda and more broadly, as a triumph for proponents of using drones to combat terrorism.

What was notable in the media coverage surrounding al-Wuhayshi’s death was the general acceptance of the drone campaign as a sound strategy (at least in the United States) — legally, morally, and politically — although some have made the argument that the “whack-a-mole” strategy was not effective at eliminating groups like al Qaeda and that the “decapitation” strategy was not an effective one. As the drone campaign in Yemen carries on through its thirteenth year, strikes that take out high-profile targets like al-Wuhayshi that once caused public outrage among the international community and a call for the reexamination of the justifications for the U.S. drone program under domestic and international law have lost their shock value. It seems that the extended use of drones to hunt and kill American enemies in countries like Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan along with the overall success of the programs have desensitized the international public and some analysts to the problems that once mired the programs in controversy (a 2013 survey by Pew found that at least half of the publics in 31 of 39 countries disapproved of drone attacks). In Yemen alone, there have been 112 drone strikes that have killed an estimated 854 to 1,114 people, the majority of whom were militants, according to data collected by New America.

But in order to fully gauge the success or failure of a strike that kills a target like al-Wuhayshi, it’s imperative to understand the history — and controversy — that forged the U.S. drone program and judge each strike, each “success,” within the context of the longer narrative.

To appreciate the immediate history of the drone wars, especially the one in Pakistan, Chris Woods’ book Sudden Justice is essential. Woods’ massively detailed and well-researched book focuses mainly on the modern history of drones, starting with the development of the Predator drone, the beginnings of the targeted killing program in Yemen and Pakistan, and how former U.S. President George W. Bush used drones in Pakistan. Woods then moves into how drones were used to target Western citizens and how President Obama’s “obsession with AfPak” led to drones being established as a permanent tool in the American military arsenal.

But perhaps the most critical contribution to the discussion about the drone program that Woods makes is the detailed account of the complicated relationship between Pakistan and the United States both leading up to and during the drone program in Pakistan. Woods does this using quotes, statistics, and facts to highlight the little-known and perhaps not oft-considered effect of the U.S. drone campaign in Pakistan: civilian casualties.

He does this by carefully drawing attention to the almost constant disconnect between the official statements and the facts in terms of civilian casualties. The official statements combined with the secrecy surrounding the program in Pakistan mean that from 2002 to around 2009 almost nothing was known about civilian casualties from drone strikes. Woods notes that the American NGO Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) hired Christopher Rogers to move to Islamabad in late 2009 to “assess the impact on civilians of Pakistan’s recent military operations.” CIVIC’s report, published in September 2010, uncovered more than 30 civilians who were killed in the nine cases that Rogers examined. At the same time, U.S. officials were claiming that no more than 15 or 20 civilian deaths had occurred since 2004 due to U.S. drone strikes. Woods notes that New America, led by Peter Bergen, began collecting data on civilian casualties around the same time. Bergen told Woods: “On the one hand the U.S. government was either saying nothing on the record about the drone program, or making claims about no civilian casualties on background, while the Pakistanis were making claims about massive civilian casualties. Neither of these positions could both be true.”

Woods fleshes out the problems of this disconnect, including the unwillingness on the part of the U.S. government to admit civilian casualties caused problems for both countries. For one, an estimated 30,000 Pakistanis died in terrorist acts between 2001 and 2013, a number that Woods posits was heightened by militants who were motivated by revenge. Citing a Pew poll from 2012, Woods notes that “roughly three-in-four Pakistanis (74 percent) consider the U.S. an enemy.”

The secrecy of the program and the unwillingness of U.S. officials to discuss civilian casualties directly affected the relationship between the two countries, often in dangerous ways. Woods draws a more complete picture of this link. For example, Woods believes that the public outing of the CIA’s Islamabad station chief in late 2010, which “has become a defining moment in the collapse of US-Pakistani relations,” was the result of a lawsuit against the CIA because of civilian casualties and not just a plot by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Kareem Khan lost his 17-year-old son and his brother in a drone strike targeting Haji Omar Khan, a Pakistan Taliban commander in Khost. Khan, a local journalist, filed suit in Pakistan in November of 2010 against the CIA for $500 million damages, in which the legal papers claimed: “The undersigned believes that one person namely Jonathan Banks, an American national who is CIA’s Islamabad Station Chief, is responsible for the murder of his son and brother.” Banks was forced to flee the country and former Ambassador Cameron Munter told Woods that the incident “certainly affected our ability to coordinate with Pakistani intelligence on counter-terrorism.”

Another unique aspect of Woods’ reporting — and one that stands out from the rest of his narrative — is his account of U.S. drone pilots’ experiences “on” the battlefield. Woods describes a number of problems that haunt remote pilots, including the trauma of killing and the stress of juggling a family life while being in an active war zone during work but living at home. Another challenge, one perhaps less well-known, was boredom these pilots faced during hours-long missions gathering intelligence and surveilling targets, not to mention the “long periods [that] were often spent just getting to and from a location.” Woods reports that some pilots took naps regularly, and how simple digital games were “smuggled onto the operating systems at work” that eventually enabled a minor virus to be imported into the drones’ operating systems.

For all of the intricacies Woods brings to light — about the Pakistan-U.S. relationship, about the hardships of drone pilots waging a remote war — his account lacks the wider-lens look at the program that Andrew Cockburn brings to bear in his book, Kill Chain. Cockburn provides a gripping historical account that helps readers situate today’s drone program within the broader context of America’s wars, especially those that were covert. At the beginning of Cockburn’s book, he includes a quote by an unnamed air force officer reminiscing about the development and deployment of the Predator drone. The officer explained that after using a Predator drone to capture images of a man, who later turned out to be the mastermind of the lethal attacks on the U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen, pressure to arm the drone became overwhelming. He told Cockburn: “They did it fast and that was a pity. It meant that no one stepped back and thought about what it meant to be able to kill someone from thousands of miles away.” Cockburn spends most of the rest of the book examining not only the pressure leading up to the arming of drones and their use as “high tech assassins,” but also the covert programs in previous U.S. wars that were many times well concealed and seemingly unrelated, but directly laid the foundation for the robust armed drone program as it is known today.

Cockburn opens his book with a detailed description of the world’s first automated battlefield, designed by the United States for the war in Vietnam. Named the Phoenix Program, the highly classified project involved American scientists scheming to wire the jungle with sensors — some microphones, some seismic, some that “sniffed” the air for traces of ammonia — around the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which the U.S. military believed was a “critical node” in the enemy’s war effort. The idea was that the sensors would be able to detect when troops or individuals were traveling along the trail and detonate explosives automatically, waging the war more efficiently and cutting off a critical supply route. When the details of the classified plan were leaked in 1971, public reaction to the automated battlefield “in which targets were selected and struck by remote control” was that of intense moral outrage. The debate that ensued would serve as a precursor for the one Americans would be having forty years later after the Obama administration increased the use of drones.

Cockburn links another piece of seemingly unrelated American history to the drone program, spending a chapter explaining how the war on drugs, began by Nixon in the 1970s is related to today’s wars. As Cockburn writes: “The cold war was over; Saddam Hussein had been defeated; credible threats were scarce; and the threat of budget cuts was in the air. Now the U.S. military, along with the CIA, deployed the full panoply of the surveillance technology that was developed to confront the Soviet foe against a single human target [Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar].” After Escobar was eliminated by the Colombian National Police, the DEA turned its attention and surveillance capabilities to the Cali cartel, helping to track down kingpin after kingpin in both Colombia and Mexico. But the drug cartels continued to prosper, splitting off into smaller groups. As Jesus Murillo Karam, attorney general in Mexico in 2012 told Cockburn, the kingpin strategy made matters worse: “It led to the seconds-in-command — generally the most violent, the most capable of killing — starting to be empowered and generating their own groups, generating another type of crime, spawning kidnapping, extortion, and protection rackets.” As senior partners with the DEA in this operation, the CIA noticed the strategy’s drawbacks, yet as Cockburn so nicely foreshadows in his book, it would seem that this particular lesson in history was lost on the agency when it began its counterterrorism operations following 9/11.

This section and many others in Cockburn’s account draws on the theme of the exceptionalism of American strategy; or as he puts it: “it’s not assassination if we do it.” And as it turns out, the questions that were being asked at the beginning of the drone program — Is this legal? Is this moral? Is this a just way to wage war? — were being asked decades ago in conflicts where using drones for remote and targeted killings wasn’t even a possibility. Assassinations, foreign surveillance, and advances in weaponry were prompting conversations among officials and decision makers who were enacting the polices that would be the precursors to the drone program. Cockburn’s examination of this history gives the reader a clearer understanding of why U.S. policymakers and administrations have welcomed the efficiency of drones without bothering to answer too many of the questions being asked of them. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to stop asking.


Emily Schneider is a program associate in the International Security Program at New America. She is also an assistant editor of the South Asia channel. Twitter: @emilydsch

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