Must Read — Medea Benjamin’s Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control

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As Pakistanis celebrated the end of the holy month of Ramadan 13 people were killed from drone attacks over the weekend. In the time it’s taken me to prepare this draft five more people died from these attacks.

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Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control

Medea Benjamin is leading a peace delegation to Waziristan next month. For anyone not familiar with the Waziristan region of Pakistan, it is considered a bastion of the Taliban and al Qaeda militants, it is also the home of many innocent victims of drone attacks carried out by the US military.

The delegates will be meeting with victims families. They will be arriving in Islamabad, traveling to Bannu where they plan on marching to Miramshah, the capitol of Waziristan. I encourage anyone interested in joining this urgent courageous effort to make contact as soon as possible.

We will meet with survivors of US drone attacks, lawyers who are representing drone victims and political figures. As citizen diplomats from the United States, we will join with people from the region affected by U.S. drone attacks, and call for an end to the killing.

I went to hear Benjamin speak last month at the Progressive Festival in Petaluma, California as part of her Drone Warfare book tour. Her talk was riveting and I decided to pick up a copy of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. Writing a book about drones is a bold undertaking and Benjamin nails it from the onset. Opening with the explosive expansion of the drone industry the book swiftly draws the reader in. It’s a really good book, she turns an otherwise potentially techie topic  into a suspenseful, often heart wrenching, fast paced journey. Benjamin is a great writer and this book is a must read. From the foreword by Barbara Ehrenreich:

Drone Warfare sketches out the nightmare possibilities posed by this insane proliferation. Not only can we can expect drones to fall into the hands of “rogue” nations or terrorist groups; we should brace ourselves, too, for the domestic use of surveillance drones and even armed drones at the Mexican border and possibly against American civilian protestors.

In anyone else’s hands, this could be a deeply depressing book. Fortunately though, Medea Benjamin is not just an ace reporter; she’s one of the world’s leading anti-war activists. Drone Warfare ends with the story of the global anti-drone movement, in which she has played a central role. At the end of this book, you’ll be inspired—and you’ll know exactly how to get involved!

The most challenging part of this review is choosing only one excerpt. Here goes:

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The hubbub surrounding the drone killings of Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders like Baitullah Mehsud and Ilyas Kashmiri is notable because it illustrates the strategy and rhetoric that has gone into the elevation of drone warfare as the best possible solution to the strategic challenges posed by non-state actors hiding in remote outposts of the world. The intense focus on men like Mehsud and Kashmiri, who by any measure had a damnable lack of respect for human life, prevents any questioning of the tactics and their impact on less dastardly people—like innocent men, women, and children. “Don’t you want the bad guys to die?” is the question used to suppress those inconvenient, nagging doubts about drones and their hidden victims.

Unsurprisingly, there were many others dead than just these bad guys—the evil poster boys of Al Qaeda and the Taliban whose deaths made everything else seem justified and unworthy of debate. Slowly, despite the muzzled silence imposed on them by local security forces and the indifference of the media, the victims of drone attacks whose houses were felled and solitude destroyed by the constant buzzing of invasive aircraft flown by invisible operators thousands of miles away, began to speak.

One of them was Karim Khan, a resident of the tiny village of Machikhel, near Mir Ali in North Waziristan. On December 31, 2009, as most Americans were putting together their lists of New Year resolutions and gearing up for an evening of festivities to bid adieu to the first decade of the millennium, a drone strike leveled the hujra, or community space, located within the four walls of Karim Khan’s compound. Karim Khan’s family had used the space for years to organize the community for jirgas, or gatherings in which community members made decisions regarding issues that affected their tiny village, from pooling money for the medical care of an elderly relative to mediating a property dispute between brothers.

But there was not a jirga in process that evening. Indeed, Khan was not even in the village that night—he was hundreds of miles away in Islamabad. His brother Asif Iqbal and his eighteen- year-old son Zaeenullah Khan were home, though. They were chatting in the courtyard when a drone flew overhead, casting its dark, buzzing shadow over the hearths of the village of Machikhel. But that night it didn’t just hover above, watching the movements of the villagers below, as it had done on other occasions. No, this time it let loose a missile into the very heart of the village. When the chaos of the explosion dissipated, and the ever-encroaching darkness settled back over the rubble and the blood, Khan’s brother and son had been blown to bits.

Khan did not know of their deaths until it was almost morning, when a ringing cell phone at his bedside delivered the news. He rushed home to lift the biers of his beloved brother and son, burying their bodies—on New Years Day, 2010—in the dry cold soil of the village they had loved. News reports alleged that the target of the drone had been Haji Omar, a Taliban commander. But the villagers insisted that Haji Omar had been nowhere near the village that night. The tragedy that forever scarred the lives of Karim Khan’s family was the product of a mistake.

While the American public hears stories about evil militants like Ilyas Kashmiri and Baitullah Mehsud, it doesn’t hear the stories about victims like Asif Iqbal and Zaeenullah Khan.

Indeed, Asif Iqbal was not a militant or even a militant sympathizer, but a schoolteacher. After receiving his masters in English literature from the National University of Modern Languages, he had returned to work as a schoolteacher in the adjoining village of Dattakhel. It was a post he had held for eight years, teaching children with whatever meager resources he could muster. For nearly a decade he had weathered threats and school closures enforced by the Taliban, and smiled through the restrictions placed by Pakistani security forces. Iqbal bravely confronted the myriad challenges of educating a population riven by war, arguing for the distant benefits of education against the instant power of firearms.

This educated man who had put his faith in the promise of the future was now dead, the target of a faraway aggressor he would never know, an aggressor who would face no punishment for pressing the “fire” button without looking long enough, without checking and double checking the target. Iqbal left behind a young family. His bride of three years was now a widow so distraught that she could not speak for weeks after the attack. In her lap was Mohammad Kafeel, a two-year-old boy who would never remember his father, save for the worn, fingered photographs shown to him by his mother, a single newspaper clipping describing the attack, and the memories told to him by old uncles and cousins.

Also murdered that night was Karim Khan’s son, Zaeenullah Khan, a recent graduate from high school. The boy had returned to the village inspired by his young uncle and got a job as a guard in the same modest school. Like his uncle, he was determined to convince the community of the value of education. He died close to his mentor that night, leaving behind hundreds of students with scant chance of resuming their education—young people now mired in hatred for the drone that had killed their teacher, aching for revenge.

A third man died that night, too, a chance visitor to the hujra in Karim Khan’s compound. He was a stonemason who had traveled to the little town to work on the village mosque. Too tired after the day’s labor to return to his own home miles away, he had been welcomed—with the traditional hospitality—as a guest in Khan’s home.

The casualties from the attack on Machikhel village that night would have slipped into the same murky abyss as hundreds of nameless, faceless casualties of drone attacks, labeled with the sterile inhumanity of “collateral damage,” but for the fact that Karim Khan was a journalist.

After burying the bodies of his son and brother that grim, gray January, he vowed that they would never be forgotten. Over the next year, he gathered victims’ families from all over North and South Waziristan, the detritus of drones pushed out of the world’s moral narrative, their suffering unseen, and their plight invisible before the gigantic imperative of killing terrorists.

In November 2010, Khan won his first small victory. With the help of an Islamabad-based human rights lawyer named Shahzad Akbar, he sent a legal notice to the American embassy in Islamabad, detailing the wrongful deaths of his brother and son, and accusing the CIA of grossly violating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in its targeting and killing of innocent civilians.

A few weeks later, close to the first anniversary of the attack, Karim Khan spoke outside a police station where he had just lodged a complaint, asking that the CIA Station Chief in Islamabad be forbidden from leaving Pakistan until he answered to the charges against him. “We appeal to the authorities to not let Jonathan Banks escape from Pakistan,” Khan implored, standing on the station steps. His lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, said that his client had learned of Mr. Banks’s identity, normally kept secret, through local press reports. A local Pakistani newspaper had also reported that the Station Chief’s name was not on the roster of diplomats slated to receive diplomatic immunity, and claimed that he should be made to answer for the atrocities inflicted by the CIA drone program on innocent Pakistani civilians.

While the accusation by the family of drone victims against a CIA agent made headlines in Pakistan, Karim Khan did not win that round. Jonathan Banks, if that was even his real name, was allowed to leave the country. But in the ensuing days and months, Khan’s work organizing the families of victims slowly began to bear fruit as local politicians in Pakistan and international human rights organizations like the UK-based legal services group Reprieve and the international rights organization CIVIC began to look more deeply into the issue.

In October 2011, the Pakistan-based Foundation for Fundamental Rights, with the help of the British legal group Reprieve, brought a group of elders and drone victim families from North and South Waziristan to Islamabad. Called the “Grand Waziristan Jirga,” it gathered over three hundred fifty villagers, including over sixty drone victim families who lived on the Pakistani- Afghan frontier to meet with Westerners for the first time to offer their perspectives on the shadowy drone war being waged in their region. The jirga ended with a call from the Pakistanis condemning all forms of terrorism, including the CIA-operated drone strikes.

In the group was Tariq Aziz, a shy sixteen-year-old boy who had been trained by human rights lawyer Shahzad Akbar in basic photography to document the devastation caused by the strikes in his own and adjoining villages. Tariq had a personal motivation: eighteen months earlier, his cousin Anwar Ullah had been killed by an unmanned drone as he drove his motorcycle through the village of Norak.

Tariq also had plenty of firsthand experience with drones. Neil Williams, a British investigator with Reprieve who was at the tribal meeting, recalled having asked Tariq if he had ever seen a drone. “I expected him to say, ‘Yes, I see one a week.’ But he said they saw ten or fifteen every day,” said Williams. “And he was saying at nighttime, it was making him crazy, because he couldn’t sleep.”

When the meeting ended, Tariq returned to his village in Waziristan, encouraged in his documenting efforts by the activists and journalists who vowed to publicize the plight of Waziris. But neither he nor the foreigners he met with could have imagined that the first documentation of drone deaths after their gathering in Islamabad would be that of Tariq himself.

Three days after the meeting, Tariq, together with his twelve-year-old cousin Waheed Rehman, went to pick up his newlywed aunt. When the two boys were just two hundred yards from her house, two missiles slammed into their car, killing them both instantly.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, their deaths marked the 174th and 175th child casualties of CIA drones.

Tariq Aziz was the youngest of seven children, growing up dirt poor along the hardscrabble border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. His father had left years ago, working as a driver for a sheikh in the United Arab Emirates, sending money to his family whenever he could. His cousin Waheed was equally poor, his family relying on the boy’s monthly salary of $23 as a shop assistant to make stretched ends meet.

Thanks to the fateful meeting in Islamabad days before, the death of these boys—unlike other drone victims never mentioned or mourned beyond the village—was reported in newspapers around the world. American lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who had just met the boy in Islamabad, wrote a compelling New York Times Op-Ed. “My mistake had been to see the drone war in Waziristan in terms of abstract legal theory—as a blatantly illegal invasion of Pakistan’s sovereignty, akin to President Richard M. Nixon’s bombing of Cambodia in 1970,” Stafford wrote. “But now, the issue has suddenly become very real and personal. Tariq was a good kid, and courageous. My warm hand recently touched his in friendship; yet, within three days, his would be cold in death, the rigor mortis inflicted by my government. And Tariq’s extended family, so recently hoping to be our allies for peace, has now been ripped apart by an American missile—most likely making any effort we make at reconciliation futile.”

A US official acknowledged to ABC News that the attack was not a mistake—the CIA had chosen this target because the two people in the car were supposedly militants. Pratap Chatterje, a journalist at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who met Tariq at the Islamabad meeting, was dumbfounded. “If this sixteen-year-old was indeed a suspected terrorist, then why wasn’t he arrested in Islamabad?” Chatterje asked. “It would have been very easy to find him at the hotel and arrest him.”

On November 4, 2011, two days after the attack that killed the boys, the Wall Street Journal reported on a dispute within the Obama Administration regarding drone attacks, saying that many key US military and State Department officials were demanding that the strikes be more selective while CIA brass wanted a free hand to pursue suspected militants. The dispute led to an independent review of the program during the summer of 2011—a review in which President Obama himself was involved. According to the Journal, the CIA agreed to make a series of “secret concessions,” including giving the State Department greater say in strike decisions; informing Pakistani leaders in advance about more operations; and suspending operations when Pakistani officials visited the US.

Too bad there were no Pakistani officials visiting the US when Tariq Aziz and Waheed Khan were driving to their aunt’s house.

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While the number of those killed and their grieving families is in the thousands, the ripple effects of drone warfare have affected millions.

About Annie Robbins

Annie Robbins is Editor at Large for Mondoweiss, a mother, a human rights activist and a ceramic artist. She lives in the SF bay area. Follow her on Twitter @anniefofani

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