Since Nato launched its illegal and unjustified invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, drones (aka Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have gone from being an untried technology to one of the primary means of warfare.
The runaway leader in the field, the US, now operates 7,500 vehicles – more than 40 percent of all US defence aircraft – and trains more drone pilots each year (350 in 2011) than fighter and bomber pilots combined. Meanwhile, some 40 other countries, seeing the writing on the wall, are in the process of buying or developing their own unmanned vehicles.
Although information about British involvement in armed drone strikes is largely kept from the public, the MoD has recently admitted that British pilots have carried out thousands of drone missions in Afghanistan and Libya, flying US drones from US bases. As of 25 April, however, Britain’s first homegrown drone base became operational as airmen at RAF Waddington in Lincoln began piloting armed Reaper drones over Afghanistan.
As a mass hunger strike by inmates brings the US’s concentration camp at Guantanamo back into the media spotlight once again, it is instructive to note that the Nato imperialists’ chosen method of blanket terror and intimidation has shifted since Obama and Cameron replaced Bush and Blair from seizing and locking up a random selection of men of military age to murdering them – and very often their families as well – instead.
A new kind of terrorism
Imperialist politicians claim that drone strikes are aimed at ‘surgically removing’ ‘high-value’ ‘al-Qaeda operatives’ from the ‘field of battle’. In reality, while resistance fighters may sometimes be hit, it seems that anyone is considered ‘fair game’ by the joystick-wielding mercenaries who operate the guns from the safety of their suburban bases.
The truth is that drone strikes are terrorist attacks, killing at least 10 civilians (many of them women and children) for every one resistance fighter, according to a 2009 report by the Brookings Institution. Californian data agency Pitch Interactive, after recording every known drone strike in Pakistan since 2004, and recording every known casualty (3,115, but the true figure is certainly much higher), has concluded that a mere 1.5 percent of those killed had been previously identified as ‘high-profile’ targets by the US intelligence agencies. So much for ‘precision warfare’.
Some critics inside the establishment are said to be upset at the switch from detention to assassination as they regret losing opportunities to ‘interrogate’ prisoners, but Obama has certainly learned one lesson from his predecessor in the White House: the longer you keep innocent men locked up, the more likely it is that your lies about them being ‘dangerous terrorists’ will be exposed.
It is so much easier for the imperialists to order a kill, then slander their victims and move on. Particularly when they know that western journalists are not exactly queuing up to find out what really goes on in remote and inaccessible war zones, far from the comforts of their air-conditioned hotels and offices. Most ‘reporters’ for the capitalist press have been well trained in the art of rewriting military and government press releases as if they contained reliable and proven facts.
Journalists whose reports conflict with the interests of the ruling class soon find that their stories are not printed and their services are quickly dispensed with. To the extent that debate on any issue does make it into the pages of the corporate media, it is usually as a result of dissention within ruling-class circles – and confined to the limits of what is considered acceptable by the capitalists.
So who will listen to the protestations of a poor Aghan, Pakistani or Yemeni community that the latest ‘targeted killing’ has in fact only massacred farmers, village elders, school children or wedding guests?
We are told that drones have ‘pinpoint accuracy’ and are thus a ‘humane’ alternative to ground troops, whose fire just might (accidentally of course) kill civilians during the heat of a battle. But the truth is that remote-control operation simply allows the soldiers with their fingers on the button to kill with total impunity – without having to take the risk of being hit back.
According to US-based FightBack!, ” The US government takes serious measures to cover up and lie about the deaths of civilians from these brutal attacks. A ground-breaking 2012 report by the Stanford International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic called Living With Drones found that the Central Intelligence Agency classifies all military-age male casualties of drone strikes as ‘militants’ unless they find evidence to the contrary after their death – a kind of ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ that allows war-makers to hide their crimes against civilians.
” Further, the report found that US government officials have encouraged media outlets to call the victims of drone strikes ‘militants’ in order to build support for their horrifying pro-war agenda. ” (‘Commentary: Drones in the SunshineState will bring more war and poverty, not jobs’ by Dave Schneider, 23 March 2013)
Meanwhile, the people who are living under the shadow of these devastating weapons are subject to daily terror as they find themselves under constant surveillance, never knowing when a deadly Reaper or Predator drone will stop overhead or where it will fire next. Bitter experience has taught them that nowhere is off limits; no-one is safe.
Parents are powerless to protect their children, whose young minds are inevitably scarred by this insecurity, as well as by the sight of exploded bodies and destroyed homes and by the grief of losing loved ones. The whine of an approaching drone is all it takes to reawaken previous traumas, leading inevitably to psychological problems and recurring night terrors.
Preparation for this kind of warfare takes place not in the forced hikes and assault courses that squaddies are supposed to endure in their quest to ‘Be the best’, but in the pornographically violent computer games and Hollywood blockbusters that glorify imperialist war, dehumanise the ‘enemy’ as some kind of insane and unknowable ‘other’ and prepare our young people to slaughter without mercy at the push of a button.
This was perfectly illustrated by Prince Harry’s revealing and apparently unembarrassed admission that he saw killing Afghans from an Apache helicopter as being similar to playing video games. Indeed, our fair prince even went so far as to call it “a joy” to have his finger on the trigger, since he was “one of those people that loves playing PlayStation … with my thumbs, I like to think that I’m quite useful”.
Full marks for honesty, if not for tact and diplomacy. But while it may be in the interest of Harry and his parasitic family to inflict collective punishment on peoples who are resisting imperialist aggression, it is not in the interest of most British workers, who have been sold a pack of lies about the dangers that our Afghan (or Pakistani or Iraqi or Libyan or Syrian or Yemeni or Somali) brothers and sisters pose to ‘us’, even as workers in uniform are being made into perpetrators and accomplices of vicious crimes against humanity.
Ironically, as the surveillance technology on board these drones improves, their pilots are starting to lose the disconnect that they previously felt when dropping payloads from 30,000ft in the air. Now, once more, they are having to look at their victims’ faces before they pull the trigger.
But, this small caveat aside, our rulers love drones because they allow them to kill without comeback and to avoid the politically dangerous business of having to justify British casualties.
The consequences of this new warfare are far-reaching indeed. As the imperialists continue to use drones to target anyone who they see as a threat, they are turning our whole world into a battlefield where nothing and no-one is off-limits.
As Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK has pointed out, ” drones are also expanding the battlefield even within conflict zones, as politicians and military commanders have such faith in the perceived accuracy of these unmanned systems that they are much more willing to use them in civilian areas. In short, drones are ‘normalising’ war and simply making war more likely .” (‘Why our leaders love drone warfare: the power of killing without political risk’, stopwar,org.uk, 15 April 2013)
Using drones against our own
And, of course, the logical development of all this unlawful shooting down of ‘foreigners’ is the emergence of a new trend among imperialist governments, who are now increasingly using armed drones to wipe out their own citizens without bothering to go through even the most cursory of judicial processes.
The first known case of this was the intentional assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and the apparently accidental ‘collateral’ murder of Samir Khan, both of whom were born and grew up in the US but were killed in Yemen on 30 September 2011. A month later, Mr Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, also a US citizen, was ‘mistakenly’ cut down by another drone strike as he went in search of his missing father.
Despite the authorities’ attempts to keep these murders secret, details have slowly leaked out, causing some of the US’s more far-sighted citizens to wonder: if the president can order the assassination of Americans overseas, based on secret intelligence, what are the limits to his power? Moreover, by declining to specify what it means to be “engaged in combat”, the US attorney general has not ruled out the possible scenario of a military drone strike against a US citizen on American soil.
Meanwhile, the ConDems have ramped up a secret programme, initiated by the previous Labour government, whereby British ‘terror suspects’ are being quietly stripped of their citizenship before they are captured or assassinated by British ‘allies’ – a ploy that allows the authorities to ‘wash their hands’ of those to whom, at least in theory, they owe some duty of care and to sidestep the toxic issue of a state in which the death penalty has long been officially outlawed sanctioning the murder of its own subjects without even a token recourse to the courts.
At least five of the 21 people who have are known to have been deprived of their UK nationality so far were born in Britain, and one man had lived in the country for almost 50 years. Those affected have had their passports cancelled, and have lost their right to enter Britain – making it very difficult to appeal against the home secretary’s decision. In most cases, the government has kept its actions out of the public eye by acting when the victims were staying abroad – even, in two cases, while they were on holiday.
The case of 23-year-old Mahdi Hashi is a typical one. A former care worker from Camden in north London, Mr Hashi is now incarcerated in a high-security US prison having been secretly ‘rendered’ from the African state of Djibouti last year.
” Mr Hashi claims that before being sent to the US on charges of working with the terrorist group al-Shabaab he witnessed torture in an African prison, before being handed over to the CIA and forced to sign a confession.
” Despite Mr Hashi being brought up in the UK, the British government has washed its hands of him, having stripped him of his citizenship shortly before he disappeared in Somalia last summer.
” His UK family say that when they lost contact with their son they approached the Foreign Office for help. But they were told by officials that they could not provide assistance because the home secretary had issued an order depriving him of his British citizenship.
” It was only five months later, when he reappeared in the US, that they were able to contact him again. The family’s lawyer, Saghir Hussain, said at the time: ‘The UK government has a lot of explaining to do. What role did it play in getting him kidnapped, held in secret detention and renditioned to the US? ‘
” The case has led to allegations that Britain may have conspired with the US to strip Mr Hashi of his citizenship knowing he would be arrested in Africa. They have no further obligations towards him and can avoid potentially embarrassing questions about his treatment before his rendition.
“The case is all the more bizarre as Mr Hashi gave an interview to The Independent in 2009 when he alleged that MI5 had attempted to recruit him. He claimed that on a previous trip to Africa he was held for 16 hours in a cell at Djibouti airport, and that when he was returned to the UK he was met by an MI5 agent who told him his terror-suspect status would remain until he agreed to work for the security service.
“He alleges he was to be given the job of informing on his friends by encouraging them to talk about jihad.” (‘British terror suspects quietly stripped of citizenship … then killed by drones’ by Chris Woods, Alice K Ross and Oliver Wright, Independent, 28 February 2013)
At least two British men are known to have been murdered by US drones after the home secretary stripped them of citizenship – Bilal al-Berjawi, who came from Lebanon as a baby and grew up in London, and his London-born friend Mohamed Sakr. Following harassment by British ‘counter-terrorism’ agents, they left the country and headed for Somalia, where they are said to have become involved with the anti-imperialist al-Shabaab resistance movement.
Berjawi’s murder came just hours after he had called his wife in London to congratulate her on the birth of their first son, further fuelling assumptions that British authorities are actively assisting the US military in locating and killing these ‘former’ citizens. After his murder, an intelligence officer described Mr Sakr as “a very senior Egyptian”, clearly hoping that the reality of his British nationality would never be revealed.
Meanwhile, when it comes to surveillance, drones are becoming extremely attractive to police and secret services – as well as to the hosts of private security contractors and mercenary agencies that the ruling class likes to outsource its nastiest business to. According to Ryan Calo, an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, “Drones drive down the cost of surveillance considerably. We worry that the incidence of surveillance will go up.” (See ‘Current laws may offer little shield against drones, senators are told’ by Matthew L Wald, New York Times, 20 March 2013)
As can be seen, where the US nazis lead, their British counterparts are never shy to follow. In the States, use of both surveillance and armed drones by police and other agencies is set to rise exponentially as the technology becomes cheaper and more reliable.
Here at home, having tested out their use during the Olympic games, it is not difficult to believe that police might soon be using armed drones to control demonstrators or strikers, while the cheapness of surveillance drones is bound to make them ubiquitous among all the various ‘security’ operators – official and unofficial – who do our rulers’ dirty work.
StW jumps on the bandwagon
Meanwhile, the recent anti-drones protest outside RAF Waddington is a classic example of how not to disrupt the war machine – as well as of how the ‘anti-war’ leadership allows its agenda to be set by the ruling class.
Anti-drones protests have been going on for some time in Britain without any particular input from Stop the War (StW). The biggest protests have taken place in Bradford, where there is a large population of Pakistani origin, outraged at the illegal and undeclared war being waged by the CIA against civilian populations in areas of Pakistan that are considered by the US to be sympathetic to the Afghan resistance.
Recently, however, the issue has been receiving considerably more publicity in the corporate media, as members of the ruling class debate whether detention or assassination will serve them best in their wars for domination. With their unfailing nose for ‘respectable’ activity (ie, that which at least some parts of the ruling class will look kindly on), and keen to make itself look ‘relevant’ again, StW belatedly cranked into what passes these days for ‘action’, by calling for a ‘joint demonstration’ with CND, War on Want and Drone Wars.
What transpired was both farcical and instructive. Less than 200 people assembled by the side of a road on the outskirts of Lincoln on Saturday 27 April as a result of this ‘mobilisation’ – and very few of them (with the exception of a few leaders) were members of either StW or CND. In the main, those present were unaffiliated peace-loving people of various religious persuasions, along with some anti-drones campaigners. Despite the topicality and the depth of feeling among many workers on the issue, the entire ‘left’ was absent, with the single exception of the CPGB-ML, who had brought a sizeable contingent.
The march itself was less a display of working-class power than an amble down a deserted country lane. Setting off from a corner of a park on the outskirts of Lincoln town and ending up 3 miles later in a deserted field near to the RAF base, the whole event had been organised so as to have as little impact on the workings of capitalism or the consciousness of workers as possible. We passed no-one to whom we could give our leaflets and we disrupted neither the smooth running of the state nor the war machine that we were supposedly there to oppose.
Not one speaker on the platform called for any kind of direct action that might prevent the drones from operating out of Waddington. There was no suggestion that workers might be mobilised to blockade the gates to stop supplies getting in or to tear down the fences and destroy vital machinery inside. Just an amble to the top of the hill to hear the usual suspects tell us how marvellously we’d done by turning up and to advertise their other activities. The most ‘militant’-sounding speaker turned out to be a charity worker from War on Want whose ultimate vision appeared to be a scenario in which we were able to “ban the drones” by getting “Cameron to the table”!
British workers have got so used to such weekend (sh)ambles taking the place of real political action that they have forgotten that things can be done any differently. But the whole point of a demonstration is that it should be a show of strength.
Demonstrations that are effective in making the ruling class take notice are those that show some determination by workers to join together and put up a fight. That usually means that they take place on a weekday rather than a weekend, and are in the centre of big cities, so that people are pulled out of work (without notice to their employers!) and the daily business of running capitalism is severely disrupted. A demonstration should be a reminder to the ruling class that the workers have the power to disrupt and destroy profit-making; an ultimatum that concessions had better be made if the capitalists want to continue in place.
There is nothing revolutionary about the above proposition: such demonstrations are typical of many countries where the rule of capital is not remotely threatened, but where the working-class movement has retained its basic function of fighting for workers’ rights and interests within the capitalist system.
While the leaders told lies from the platform about their determination to ‘oppose’ the use of drones and about how the assembled marchers made up the “biggest anti-drones demonstration in Britain so far”, the journalists present were at equal pains to give credence to the event and present it as being much bigger and more significant than it was.
Instead of underreporting by a factor of 10 to 1 (the standard technique used by police and media to downplay events that can’t be ignored), the media has persistently reported a crowd that couldn’t have numbered more than 200 (and that’s being generous) as being three times larger, while most TV reports assiduously avoided mentioning numbers at all.
Anyone who has ever been on a massive demo that got little or no coverage on the TV or in the newspapers will be able to confirm that this is decidedly unusual. Only by understanding that the agenda had been set in advance could one account for reporting so sympathetic from the BBC (for example) that the producers went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that the screen always showed marchers during their two-and-a-half-minute film. To do this, they had to edit in footage from the beginning of the demo when the marchers had finished filing past their reporter, and to reposition him at the front for the final part of his presentation.
While StW will no doubt be happy to take the credit for the disproportionate media interest in such a tiny demonstration, the truth is that there is clearly a strong divide of opinion within the ruling class, which is allowing this issue to penetrate into the corporate media. But the limits of their debate “drones vs detention” cannot be the limits of ours!
It is clear that we need to free ourselves from the disabling influence of the capitalists’ propaganda and realise where our real interests lie. We are not ‘all in it together’; British society is split between exploiters and exploited, and if one benefits, the other will suffer.
The billionaires who order these incessant wars to be launched are not doing so to protect us, but to protect their profits. They are the same billionaires who want to stifle all political dissent at home, even as they are dismantling our education and health services and kicking us out of our homes. They want to save their rotten system by making us pay for the worst ever capitalist crisis – and they are doing their best to trick us into blaming each other for the problems their beloved system is creating for the mass of workers.
But if we continue to accept the assassination of those deemed to be ‘enemies’ abroad, how long will it be before British workers are asked to accept drone strikes against working-class leaders and activists at home as being necessary for our ‘security’?
Instead of falling for the capitalists’ lies, we need to unite with all those who are standing up against British imperialism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and elsewhere. We need to launch a mass campaign of non-cooperation with British imperialism’s war crimes. Together, we have the power to ground the drones and stop imperialism’s dirty wars, just as we have the power to resist the bedroom tax and hospital closures, for it is workers who ultimately have to carry out these anti-worker programmes.
If we refuse to fight in imperialist wars for profit or help with their logistics; if we refuse to broadcast imperialist propaganda in support of such wars; if we refuse to make or transport munitions or supplies, then the British war effort will collapse.
Moreover, taking such action would give workers a much-needed morale boost in the fight against capitalism here at home, helping us to see in practice that we really are on the same side as those fighting abroad, and that together we can defeat the bloodsuckers and build a new society!