Archive for July 8, 2009

Christians–whether we are adherents of just war tradition or of Christian nonviolence–should not support U.S. policies that kill civilians indiscriminately. However, in the past six days, our government has intensified a policy that does exactly that.

The number of suspected U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have spiked dramatically since Friday, July 3, with four strikes having killed roughly 78 people. These weapons are notoriously indiscriminate: as of late May we used them to kill roughly 15 civilians for every one suspected militant.

All who consider themselves followers of Christ should demand that the U.S. immediately cease the use of drones in Pakistan, with which the U.S. government has killed hundreds of civilians in a nation with which we are not officially at war.

According to

So far there are no reports that any high profile militants have been killed in any of the strikes.

These drone strikes are outrageously dangerous for civilians for two reasons. First, the mechanical and physical distance involved makes it extremely easy psychologically for the drone operators to kill. From Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book, On Killing:

Artillery crews, bomber crews, naval gunners, and missile crews–at sea and on the ground–are all protected by the same powerful combination of group absolution, mechanical distance, and, most pertinent to our current discussion, physical distance.

In years of research and reading on the subject of killing in combat I have not found one single instance of individuals who have refused to kill the enemy under these circumstances, nor have I found a single instance of psychiatric trauma associated with this type of killing.

Second, because we lack human intelligence on the ground (or even people who can speak the language on the ground), we rely on paid informants equipped with small infrared homing beacons. These spotters basically get paid commission on each bomb that falls, which encourages them to plant homing beacons in as many places as possible–including in the homes of non-combatants.

Danger Room’s Adam Rawnsley:

The pictures of the “chips with 9 volt batteries”…bear a sharp resemblance to the Phoenix and Pegasus models of infrared flashing beacons made by Cejay Engineering. The devices are used by the U.S. military…The gadgets use LEDs, powered by a 9 volt battery, to emit beacons of infrared light that are visible only through night vision equipment. …They can weigh as little as a half-ounce, are as small as an inch-and-a-quarter, and have a battery life of nearly 100 hours…

American Predator and Reaper unmanned aircraft are both equipped with infrared cameras, making such beacons a natural drone signaling mechanism. And because the devices are relatively simple and cheap — less sophisticated models can be purchased online for as little as $25 each — they can be handed out to informants, without fear of compromising clandestine, sophisticated American technology.

In April, 19 year-old Habibur Rehman made a videotaped “confession” of planting such devices, just before he was executed by the Taliban as an American spy. “I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at Al Qaeda and Taliban houses,” he said. If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars.”

But Rehman says he didn’t just tag jihadists with the devices. “The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money,” he added. Which raises the possibility that the unmanned aircraft…may have been lead to the wrong targets.

While news reports relay intelligence officials’ characterizations of those killed by this week’s strikes as “militants” in “strongholds” and “training camps,” we may never know for sure just who died in these blasts. According to AP:

Independent verification of the casualties and the target was not possible because the region is remote, dangerous and largely inaccessible to journalists. U.S. officials do not publicly comment on the strikes.

As of late May, drone strikes in Pakistan killed “780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists”. If the past civilian-to-suspected-militant ratio held true for these most recent strikes, the drones would have killed roughly five suspected militants and 73 civilians.

Ground the drones, now.

U.S. military casualties since the launch of Operation Khanjar (July 2):

  • Derwin Williams,  age 41
  • Tony Michael Randolph,  age 22
  • Aaron E. Fairbairn, age 20
  • Justin A. Casillas, age 19
  • Charles S. Sharp, age 20

Again, we lack reliable numbers for civilian deaths, although reports have surfaced in the American media of the death of a civilian woman killed by “ricocheting bullets.” (For more on the lack of coverage of civilian casualties by the U.S. media, see this excellent piece from TomDispatch.) However, according to a report from the Xinhua News Agency (the official news agency of the Chinese government–take it with a grain of salt, I suppose):

Air raids against suspected hideouts of Taliban militants in Ghazni province, south of Afghanistan, however, claimed the lives of eight civilians including two women, a member of the Provincial Council Abdul Nabi said Wednesday.

In talks with media, Nabi added that the raids took place at 3 a.m. local time (2330 GMT) in Gero district during which eight non-combatants were killed.

The victims, he added, include two women, two children and four men.

However, the U.S.-led Coalition forces admitted in a statement that “during this engagement, a ricocheting round killed a civilian female.”

It added that several armed enemy combatants were killed in the operation and Coalition forces found grenades and rifles in their hideout.

How many American troops and Afghan civilians have to die before Congress and the President end this war?

The New York Times again referenced the utility of drone strikes in Pakistan when they “avoid civilian casualties” while failing to mention that the overwhelming majority of people killed by U.S. drones in that country are civilians. Again, from a piece by Salman Masood with Pir Zubair Shah contributing:

Publicly, Pakistani officials have been critical of the drone strikes, calling them a breach of the country’s sovereignty. But privately, Pakistani officials acknowledge that the attacks are useful if they avoid civilian casualties and strike militants.

This is a copy-and-paste paragraph from yesterday’s story, which described a drone strike on a funeral in late June without mentioning that it killed 35 non-combatant local villagers, which included 10 children between the ages of 5 and 10 plus four local tribal elders.

Nowhere in this more recent story does Masood clarify that, copy-and-paste un-cited heresay notwithstanding, most people killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan are civilians: as of late May, drone strikes in Pakistan killed “780 civilians and about 50 alleged terrorists.”

I’ll repeat what I said yesterday: “news” stories that reference the utility of drone strikes that avoid civilian casualties–while failing to report that drones kill more than 15 civilians for every one suspected militant–are propaganda pieces. Times readers deserve better than this.

For more on the U.S. media’s inability to come to terms with the bloody costs of our country’s policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan, see this excellent piece at TomDispatch.