Dr. King, Drones and Widening War

Posted: April 5, 2009 in Uncategorized
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Message creep tracks mission creep. “The real problem is Pakistan!” Mechanized hunter-killer falcons wander out of the Graveyard and hurl hellfire. Afghanistan becomes “AfPak.” The strike areas grow. A widening gyre whose center cannot hold.

April 4, 1967: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gives one of the most important and least remembered speeches of his career: “Beyond Vietnam–A Time to Break the Silence.” King denounces the economic exploitation of the poor by the U.S. war machine, its effect on our national economy and poverty programs, and the anti-Christian darkness swirling in the basic assumptions of the war. He says:

What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building?

April 4, 1968: An assassin kills Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of a hotel.

April 4, 2009: A U.S. “Predator” unmanned drone is given a command to fire on a house in North Waziristan, killing civilians.

ISLAMABAD (AP) — Intelligence officials say a suspected US missile attack has killed at least 13 people in northwest Pakistan.

The officials say Saturday’s strike targeted a home in a remote area of North Waziristan. They say residents pulled out 13 bodies and at least eight wounded from the rubble. There are civilians among the casualties.

April 4, 1967:

The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Roll Call 2009:

Anti-war Democrats have been largely mum on President Barack Obama’s recently unveiled policy for Afghanistan – partly because leading liberals don’t yet know where they stand.

April 4, 1967:

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.


The war in Afghanistan has crept into Pakistan. Despite the refusal of the CIA to acknowledge the Predator and Reaper strikes in Pakistan, many, many reports in the media document the presence of our loitering killing machines over Pakistani territory, remote controlled from facilities in the continental United States. The American public knows the drones are there; the Pakistani public knows they are there. The U.S. national security structure is at war in Pakistan.

The President might find comfort in the fact that large numbers of U.S. ground troops are not on Pakistani soil, but in so doing he’s splitting the finest of hairs, and betraying an inability to get past a decidedly Western frame of reference when weighing the costs of his policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. From that myopic point of view, the use of Predators and Reapers solves a problem: they allow us to pursue enemies into Pakistani territory while preserving some infinitesimally small amount of plausible deniability (the drones often fly so high they cannot be seen from the ground) and so-called “respect” for Pakistan’s sovereignty over its territory. These drones also allow the U.S. mission to creep into Pakistan without risking troop deaths as a direct result of the drones’ deployment. But the administration’s attribution of these benefits to the use of these killing machines can only be made possible by a lack of understanding of the people affected by the strikes and the dynamics that lead to the use of terrorism as a tactic.

P.W. Singer, in his new book, Wired for War, describes the effect of “distance warfare.” After summarizing a negative attitude toward technology in some parts of the Muslim world affected by deep, backward-looking fundamentalism, Singer cites retired Pakistani lieutenant general Talat Masood:

Masood…described the technology tha the U.S. military was using as “amazing,” but also as causing “great anger” in the region….”The advent of ‘distance warfare’ has profound implications for the battlefield and for America’s global strategy…in every case, whether it is Afghanistan or Iraq, it has vastly complicated the prerequisite of building the structures of peace.” In short, warned Masood, “The concept of ‘shock and awe’ could drive moderate and uncommitted civilians toward anti-Americanism.”

Singer goes on to describe how our understanding of the costs and benefits of the drone strikes ignores the cultural of the region, leading us to miscalculate how the strikes will be interpreted by the local society.

As a security expert in Qatar summed up, “How you conduct war is important. It gives you dignity or not.” …America was coming across as a menace, using its high technology to pick on the little guy. …Even pop culture in the region echoes the experts. In 2007, for instance, one of the most popular songs…[gave] a hint at how what Masood described as America’s “distance war” is being portrayed: “America’s heartless terrorism, Killing people like insects. But honor does not fear power.”

Finally, Singer summarizes how the use of Predators and Reapers could motivate terrorist attacks on the United States:

Mubashar Jawed “M.J.” Akbar…sees a similar message going out from American use of unmanned systems to the broader Muslim world. “It will be seen as American cowardice. In war terms, if you are not willing to sacrifice blood, you are essentially a coward…These systems will show the pathway to your defeat unintentionally. They create a subtext that shows that you don’t want to die…That all we need to win is to frighten them.”

…Unmanned systems…are the ultimate means of avoiding sacrifice. But what seems so logical and reasonable to the side using them may strike other societies as weak and contemptible. Using robots in war can create fear, but also unintentionally reveal it.

It is this link that leads Akbar to conclude that…[t]he greater the use of unmanned systems, the more likely it will motivate terrorist strikes at America’s homeland. “It will be seen as a sign of America’s unwillingness to face death. Therefore, new ways to hit America will have to be devised…”

Disturbingly, I heard the same conclusion time and again from other regional experts.

An opponent will often choose terrorism when they face an extremely powerful adversary exerting their overwhelming advantages in the region of conflict. War is always at its core a struggle between factions to generate sufficient violence to trigger political consequences. Tactically, when an enemy uses weapons platforms so advanced that their opponent cannot deflect or directly respond, the victim of the advanced weapon has an incentive to respond indirectly and asymmetrically. Psychologically, when one faces an opponent exerting an overwhelming and untouchable ability to exert violence, a sense of powerlessness and humiliation can compel some to seek a way to assert themselves against their enemies. When this is reinforced by a cultural disdain not only for the technology itself but also for those who would utilize such asymmetrical advantages in the field of battle, combined with the deaths of loved ones or neighbors caused by the technology, drone strikes become a severe liability if the overarching goal is to reduce the threat of terrorism against one’s people.

The administration’s strategy review ignored warnings that flooding Afghanistan with troops would unite the U.S.’s enemies against them. Once the administration announced they planned to escalate, the Taliban factions, as warned, reinforced their mutual allegiance and their ties with al-Qaida. Similarly, experts warn that Predator and Reaper strikes could generate terrorist retaliation against the U.S. and the U.S.’s allies, but the Pentagon recently widened the use of drones deeper into Pakistan. And, as predicted:

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Baitullah Mehsud on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack on a police training academy in Lahore and suicide attacks in Islamabad and Bannu, and warned of further attacks in Pakistan in the coming days and later in the US.

“These (attacks) were in reaction to (US) drone strikes in the Tribal Areas,” Baitullah Mehsud told BBC Urdu over the telephone from an undisclosed location.

“Over the next few days, more such attacks will come … two or three suicide attacks will take place,” warned Mehsud, without naming any cities or targets. “As long as the drone attacks continue, we will not stop.” The Taliban leader said he would himself “teach the US a lesson”.

Enough. As King said in 1967:

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

… The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.

…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

The Obama Administration should seriously consider the recent recommendations of the Carnegie Institute for International Peace. Then, the Administration should go back to the drawing board on Afghanistan, craft a strategy that has as its goal an immediate reduction in the level of violence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The best way to do that is to give up on the idea that more troops, more drones, and more killing will help the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  1. […] Dr. King, Drones and Widening War posted on April 6th, 2009 at Return Good for Evil […]

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