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Vijay Prashad: Sitting on Pandora’s lid

It is certainly the case that the organization that attacked the U.S. in 2001 is fundamentally degraded. The original al-Qaida, with its tentacles reaching from Afghanistan into the United States, does not exist any longer. On Sept. 16, 2001, President George W. Bush said, “This crusade — this war on terrorism — is going to take a while.” By a narrow standard, that “while” has arrived. But then, four days later, Bush inflated his reach, saying that the war on terror “begins with al-Qaida, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

This is a recipe for endless war, and endless confusion: it has always been a problem to define a terrorist given the casualness with which states tend to label dissident groups or national liberation movements as terrorist. The al-Qaida that attacked the U.S. is now gone. But its demise has not ended this endless war.

At Oxford and on the BBC, Johnson said the U.S. would now use “law enforcement and intelligence resources” to go after terrorism. When challenged, Johnson pointed to the use of unmanned drones, which he said “have a good track record.” The U.S. had to withdraw from Iraq when it would not accept Iraq’s new law that required U.S. troops to be under Iraqi jurisdiction, and it will withdraw from Afghanistan after it became clear that the surge strategy was more public relations than counter-insurgency.

The shift in Pentagon strategy reflects this reality as much as it does the degraded al-Qaida. No longer is it easy to fight land wars in theaters that do not welcome substantial troop deployments. It is much easier to use Counterterrorism’s Air Force (the drones) and its Intelligence (spies and Special Operations).

The drone program is the most public secret of the Obama administration. It has expanded this program, now run through the Pentagon and CIA, across North Africa and into Asia, using drones at an exponentially higher rate than in the Bush administration. The United Nations has repeatedly cautioned the use of drones for ethical and international law reasons. In 2010, the UN released a report on targeted assassinations, which worried that the U.S. was “going a long way towards destroying the prohibition on the use of armed force contained in the UN Charter.”

The Obama administration dismissed this report, saying it had the right to self-defense. This is not a credible position. In the Washington Post on Oct. 2, John R. Bellinger III, who served in Bush national security team, asked “will drone strikes become Obama’s Guantanamo?” Bellinger would know something about Guantanamo, since he provided the defense of it in 2006. Bellinger notes that “even if the Obama administration officials are satisfied that drone strikes comply with international law, they would still be wise to try to build a broader international consensus.” This is why Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech on drones and Johnson gave his speech on the broad policy, despite the fact that this is a secret program.

But none of these defenses has stilled international criticism. Seventy-six countries now have drone technology. By the U.S. standard of self-defense and its argument that drones are an appropriate delivery vehicle for justice, these countries should have allowance to fly them and attack their enemies.

As the UN put it, if the U.S. standard is “invoked by other states in pursuits of those they deem to be terrorists or to have attacked them, it would cause chaos.”

So does the U.S. standard then only work for itself? What if Russia decided to use its drones if invited in by the Assad regime in Syria, to kill those whom Assad calls terrorists? What if China sends it drones into Burma to tackle those whom Naypyidaw considers terrorists?

Claims that drones are only used by the U.S. if there is an “imminent threat” and after a police arrest has been seen to be infeasible. Who is to measure the imminence of a threat? The killing of a U.S. national in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki, raises these questions. Secrecy from the U.S. means there is no way to adjudicate the imminence of the threat posed by al-Awlaki. Other countries would be able to camouflage aggressive motivations behind a similar wall of secrecy.

As Professor David Cole put it, “Capture entails due process, a trial and the like; pushing a button does not.”
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the rate of civilian casualties (including deaths of children) in drone strikes is much greater than being reported. The day after the elections Nov. 6, a U.S. drone struck in the Yemeni city of Radaa. Early reports said al-Qaida militants had been killed. It soon came out that 11 civilians were among the dead, including three children and several women. Nasr Abdullah told CNN International, “I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesmen joined the lines of al-Qaida as a result of the latest drone mistake. This part of Yemen takes revenge very seriously.”

To dress up drones as a human rights weapon is an obscenity. President Obama’s new technologies of warfare have the planet up in arms. Pandora’s lid wobbles. These are dangerous precedents.

Vijay Prashad of Northampton is the author of “Arab Spring, Libyan Winter” (AK Press) and the forthcoming “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South” (Verso).

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