Predator Empire: The New Geopolitics of Drone Warfare

Daily news reports on unmanned aerial drones are hard to miss. Since Obama stepped into the White House in 2009, his administration, spearheaded by the CIA, has intensified drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. The headlines are unmistakable, sticking to now familiar scripts: ‘surgical strike kills militants’; ‘drones assassinate top Taliban leader’; ‘Predators take out al-Qaeda haven with pinpoint precision’. It seems the U.S. military has invented a technology able to kill terrorists and only terrorists.

Despite officially denying the U.S. even strikes Pakistan, John Brenan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, goes so far as to claim that: ‘One of the things President Obama has insisted on is that we’re exceptionally precise and surgical in terms of addressing the terrorist threat…we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger’, adding ‘that nearly for the past year that hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop’. Unfortunately the official lines are downright false. Extrajudicial drone killings are not only responsible for claiming hundreds of innocent lives in Pakistan; they portend a changing geopolitical zeitgeist on a magnitude difficult to comprehend.

A drone is a remotely-controlled aircraft used for surveillance and airstrikes. They resemble regular planes, only stripped of the glass cockpit previously housing a human pilot. One of the most popular of these is the aptly named ‘Predator’, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. The 27 foot, 1,130 pound drones made their debut in the Balkans back in the 1990s, and today the U.S. Air Force operates well over 100 of them from locations across the Western United States (mostly at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, with the CIA piloting theirs from Langley, Virginia). Including the pilot, they are operated by three people, with further ‘intelligence analysts’ studying the live video feed. Their procurement was driven by a 2001 Congressional mandate that by 2010 one third of aircraft used in combat should be unmanned. Today, the Department of Defense has a $6 billion dollar budget to expand its current arsenal of around 7,000 drones.

Predator drones have gained notoriety in Pakistan’s FATA, where they are deployed by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces to carry out covert aerial bombings on suspected terrorist targets. FATA has been subject to bombardments since 2004, which are concentrated in the agencies of North and South Waziristan. Spanning 27,244 square kilometres, the mountainous area is home to over three million people, most of whom are tribal Pashtuns. FATA was born as a ‘buffer state’ in the 19th century’s ‘Great Game’ between Britain and Russia. This peculiar geopolitical creation was bound by the draconian ‘Frontier Crimes Regulations’ (FCR) of 1901. The act gave the federal government the right to appoint a ‘Political Agent’ for each agency, who is invested with considerable and unaccountable power, which is often abused. Upon independence in 1947, Pakistan constitutionally enshrined the British colonial policy of isolating FATA from the rest of the country’s laws. The resulting inhabitants of FATA are rendered as second-class legal subjects, living alongside a number of inter-connected militant groups, including al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network and the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP). Overarching conflict between the Pakistani state and militant groups has so far led to the displacement of two million people.

In what can only be described as a bizarre geopolitical situation, the U.S. government does not recognize that it carries out the ‘secret’ drone strikes, nor does the Pakistani government recognize it consents to the strikes (publically denouncing them), despite some of the attacks being launched from bases inside the country. CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano defended the drone program (without of course acknowledging its existence). He said ‘While the C.I.A. does not comment on reports of Predator operations, the tools we use in the fight against Al Qaeda and its violent allies are exceptionally accurate, precise and effective’, adding ‘Press reports suggesting that hundreds of Pakistani civilians have somehow been killed as a result of alleged or supposed U.S. activities are — to state what should be obvious under any circumstances — flat-out false’.

Yet the official line that there has been no ‘collateral damage’ in FATA for over a year is absurd. One of the frequently used sources to assess the scale of attacks is The New America Foundation’s ‘The Year of The Drone’. According to their study, which pools together credible news reports, there have been 258 drone attacks in northwest Pakistan (most after Obama), with have killed between approximately 1,579 and 2,490 individuals, of whom 1,286 to 2,019 were described as ‘militants’ in the press. Neither the U.S. Department of Defense nor the Pakistani government compile any information on civilian deaths, so any kind of figure is likely to be a vast underestimate. The New America Foundation report shows that over 800 people died from drone attacks in 2010, 46 of which were ‘civilian’. This binary between ‘militant’ and ‘civilian’ is of course extremely problematic. After all, there is no due process for these people killed – and no known legal guidelines for what a ‘combatant’ is, leaving the entire process completely discretionary to the American drone crew. As the American Civil Liberties Union stated ‘It is absurd that senior US government officials would state that there have been no civilian casualties in drone strikes in Pakistan, and at the same time refuse to confirm or deny the existence of civilian casualty data’.

These shadow wars are spreading, with Yemen the latest country to become embroiled in drone bombardments. In May of 2011, drones operated by CIA and U.S. Joint Special Forces Command (JSOC) fired Hellfire missiles at Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric, but failed to kill him. The attack was part of a wider set of strikes against the group ‘al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP). As a result, up to 40,000 people have fled the Abyan province. U.S. military involvement in Yemen has been one of the Obama administration’s most closely guarded secrets, as unilateral intervention could undermine Saleh’s already tenuous grip on power. In Somali there is a similar pattern: drones targeting Al Shabab, another Islamist group linked to al-Qaeda. Indeed, this pattern is a hallmark of Obama’s new counterterrorism policy: The President’s 2011 ‘National Strategy for Counterterrorism’ casts al-Qaeda’s ‘allies’ and ‘affiliates’ as the main threats to U.S. safety, and since many of these groups exist in so-called ‘failed states’ around the world, the document paves the way for drone intervention in any place on earth that is ‘affiliated’ or ‘allied’ with al-Qaeda: vast and ambiguous swathes of the planet such as North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Central, Western, and South Asia.

The project of ‘nation building’ and ‘winning hearts and minds’ is clearly no longer a priority for the Predator Empire. Take Afghanistan. One U.S. military source was quoted as saying ‘Afghanistan is a staging area for drone and other aerial strikes in western Pakistan … Nothing more, nothing less’. Yet who exactly decides whether or not a ‘target’ is a militant? After all, the CIA is nominally a ‘civilian’ entity. The answer is the CIA has a team of up to ten lawyers in Northern Virginia, all consulting five-page requests to kill another human being. Although the U.S. government does not release the criteria of these documents, the targeted killings are criticized for using an overly-broad definition of who a ‘target’ is. U.S. officials argue that drone attacks are justified by ‘The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists’, Public Law 107-40’, a Congressional law granting the President the ability to use all necessary force against persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the attacks of 9/11. The fact that Pakistan was not a part of that terror attack reveals the ease through which the U.S. military links and delininks terrorism and territory. But what really gives the U.S. military the license to kill is widespread secrecy. As the UN Special Rapporteur (on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions) Phillip Alston writes, ‘Transparency is required by both [international humanitarian law] and human rights law. A lack of disclosure gives States a virtual and impermissible license to kill’.

This impermissible license to kill is the sad sun rising across any nation the U.S. deems necessary. Such a large horizon stretches before a shadowy Predator Empire, no longer contained, and no longer forced to engage with a single nation state, enemy, or territory. Drones are technologies that allow the U.S. military to kill more people in more places, without the traditional ‘hassle’ of logistics, supply lines, and public debates. America’s new empire is the Predator Empire, both a weapon and a geopolitical strategy for a post-Cold War world of globalization, where the territorial integrity and sovereignty of nation states are increasingly rendered contingent by aerial intervention. In this sense, drones militarize and securitize global space in a manner previously thought impossible, with very little cost. That Predator Empire signals the end of ground war is perhaps premature. What it does augur is something altogether more frightening: extrajudicial assassinations, instantly available, anytime, anywhere.

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