Unmanned Gods of Destruction: How Drone Strikes Kill Civilians And Target Rescuers


Recently the Rehman family went on a some 7,000 mile journey, traveling from their village in Pakistan's North Waziristan region to Washington, DC., so as to recount the harrowing events that took place last October, which were thoroughly documented by a report released by Amnesty International last week. Rafiq Rehman, an elementary school teacher, addressed a small audience during a congressional briefing, describing in vivid detail how his mother, 67-year-old midwife Momina Bibi, was killed and his children, Nabila, 9, and her 13-year-old brother, Zubair, were injured by a US drone strike.

This “historic” briefing, wherein for the first time Congress heard victims of US drone strikes speak not only for themselves but also on behalf of the dead, drew five congresspersons — a meagre five elected officials chose to face the victims of US militarism and listen as their heart-wrenching tragedy unfolded once more.

Those in attendance, including Alan Grayson, who hosted the briefing, Jan Schakowsky, Rick Nolan, John Conyer and Rush Holt all argued that the drone strikes did not amount to war crimes. Alan Grayson, despite having called drone strikes “dead wrong”, contended that war crimes were not committed because there was a lack of intent to kill civilians.

This contention ignores signature strikes as well as secondary strikes, the latter of which often target first responders, the civilian rescuers attempting to provide medical assistance to those injured by drone strikes. Drone strikes are a flagrant breach of international law, as they violate Pakistan's sovereignty, have not met legal obligations to ensure transparency and accountability and have allowed civilians to become objects of attack. The justifications offered by the Obama administration include jus ad bellum, citing imminent threats against the United States, yet not even an atoms-worth of evidence has been provided to support this contention. The 'Authorization for Use of Military Force' (AUMF), passed by Congress in 2001, and which has been renewed each year since, has been used by the Obama administration as a legal justification for the use of drone strikes as it provides a cover for use of military force. Despite the text of the AUMF focusing on the use of force against “organizations, or persons [The President] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons...” the Obama administration has used this document as a pretext for the extrajudicial assassination program.

The drone strikes also impede efforts to implement stable negotiations and peace efforts in the region, as Rafiq Rehman noted during the briefing:

“...there are better ways to go about it than these drones, perhaps through discussions and negotiations with whoever they are targeting.”

The killing of Momina Bibi, for which the Rehman family has never received a formal explanation or apology from the Obama administration, has never been investigated nor publicly acknowleged. Does the Obama administration even know her name, or the names of the countless other victims of the US drone war?

Nabila Rehman described the agonizing incident to a room that was almost bare — her voice filling every corner with what it usually lacks: the weighty sound of dignity:

It was the day before Eid, and my grandmother had asked me to come help her outside as we were collecting okra, the vegetables, and then I saw from the sky a drone, and I heard the dum-dum noise. Everything was dark, and I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a scream. I don’t know if it was my grandmother, but I couldn’t see her. I was very scared, and all I could think of doing was just run. I kept running, but I felt something in my hand. And I looked at my hand. There was blood. I tried to bandage my hand, but the blood kept coming. The blood wouldn’t stop.”

Rafiq Rehman's children had been there alongside their grandmother picking okra when the hellfire missile hit. Momina Bibi was killed instantly and the children, Nabeela and her brother, Zubair, were taken to a hospital due to their injuries.

I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer grey skies. Drones don't fly when sky is grey," said Zubair.

These are the chilling words of children, describing the overwhelming fear that has crept into their lives, and undoubtedly into the lives of others in Pakistan. Their words illustratie just how deeply rooted both dismay and terror have become — even the sounds of killing machines have ingrained themselves into their minds and the very sky that once drew smiles across their faces cannot be trusted as it has become nothing more than a backdrop of death and destruction.

And what of the cold and almost clinical-sounding claims of “precision” and “extraordinary care” that have been so often peddled by the Obama administration? Just days after Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch each released their own reports extensively documenting specific drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, those of which occurred between 2009 and 2013, the White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, had the following to say during a press briefing:

U.S. counterterrorism operations are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective, and the United States does not take lethal strikes when we or our partners have the ability to capture individual terrorists. We take mindful of the absolute need to limit civilian casualties and to, in this case, reach a standard of near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured, which is the highest standard we or any country could set.”

The US drone program is shrouded in secrecy and not only has the Obama administration remained tight-lipped as to even the most elemetary of details regarding drone strikes but there has been no acknowledgement as to how many persons have been targeted, on what grounds, nor have there been any investigations into civilian deaths, and no compensation for the victims. Medea Benjamin, co-founder of CODEPINK, a US-based woman-initiated social justice movement, unearthed that funds amounting to $40 million meant for drone victims had not gone to victims of the US drone program — not a single penny:

“Instead, it appears that the Conflict Victims Support Fund gets farmed out to US-based non-governmental organizations like International Relief and Development that, after taking their cut, provide humanitarian assistance for Pakistanis who are not drone victims and are not even living in the tribal areas of Waziristan where the US is carrying out the strikes.”

Alan Grayson later revealed to Truthout that he was “unaware of the problem but promised to have his office look into it.”

John Brennan, current CIA chief and formerly the Chief counterterrorism advisor to President Obama who has helped expand the US drone program, stated in 2011 that there had not been a single civilian casualty as a result of US drone strikes in Pakistan, due to what he described as “exceptional proficiency [and] precision”, and even that the program '[does] not put innocent men, women and children in danger." Yet in 2010 the Bureau of Investigative Journalism had documented at least 45 civilian deaths in Pakistan as a result of US drone strikes, and amongst the dead were children.

The Rehman family went on to shatter the Obama administration's myth of “precision” and that of the US “counter-terrorism”-liberation campaign overall.

Nabila, at just 9-years-old, and still mourning the death of her grandmother, pounded out the oft-ignored truth, one that is both profound and gut-wrenching — that “terrorists” are not the only casualties of the so-called “war on terror”:

The term “terrorism” is frequently recycled by the Obama administration, and those administrations that came before it, as a one-size-fits-all pretext for US interventionism and the horrors that it brings, but what of the victims of US militarism — how do they define terrorism? The documentary ‘Wounds of Waziristan’ sheds light on the abstruse drone program and what it means for the people of this region to live under skies that shower their lands with carnage.

In the film a man from South Waziristan, Karim Khan, whose son and brother were killed in a drone strike, describes terrorism in a single breath — for once we are made to hear the words of the victims of US hegemony instead of the words of the victors:

"Those who have weaponry like drones, who drop bombs on us while we are in our own homes, there are no greater terrorists than them."

As the handful of congressmen who dared show their faces, and those who dared not, lay content in their slumber this evening many others, seemingly a world away, will not. The unmanned god of destruction waits for them, and when the skies are blue you can hear him buzzing.

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