Speaking at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in May, Barack Obama spotted teen pop band the Jonas Brothers in the audience. “Sasha and Malia are huge fans, but, boys, don’t get any ideas,” deadpanned the president, referring to his daughters. “Two words for you: predator drones. You will never see it coming.” The crowd laughed, Obama smiled, the dinner continued. Few questioned the wisdom of making such a tasteless joke; of the US commander-in-chief showing such casual disregard for the countless lives lost abroad through US drone attacks.
From the moment he stepped foot inside the White House, Obama set about expanding and escalating a covert CIA programme of “targeted killings” inside Pakistan, using Predator and Reaper drones armed with Hellfire missiles (who comes up with these names?) that had been started by the Bush administration in 2004. On 23 January 2009, just three days after being sworn in, Obama ordered his first set of air strikes inside Pakistan; one is said to have killed four Arab fighters linked to al-Qaeda but the other hit the house of a pro-government tribal leader, killing him and four members of his family, including a five-year-old child. Obama’s own daughter, Sasha, was seven at the time.
But America’s Nobel-peace-prize-winning president did not look back. During his first nine months in office he authorised as many aerial attacks in Pakistan as George W Bush did in his final three years in the job. And this year has seen an unprecedented number of air strikes. Forget Mark Zuckerberg or the iPhone 4 – 2010 was the year of the drone. According to the New America Foundation thinktank in Washington DC, the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan more than doubled in 2010, to 115. That is an astonishing rate of around one bombing every three days inside a country with which the US is not at war.
And the carnage continues. On Monday, CIA drones fired six missiles at two vehicles in a "Taliban stronghold" in north Waziristan, on the Pakistani side of the border with Afghanistan, killing 18 "militants". Or so said "Pakistani intelligence officials", speaking under condition of anonymity to the Associated Press. On Tuesday another round of drone strikes is thought to have killed at least 15 "militants" in the same area.
These attacks by unmanned aircraft may have succeeded in eliminating hundreds of dangerous militants, but the truth is that they also kill innocent civilians indiscriminately and in large numbers. According to the New America Foundation, one in four of those killed by drones since 2004 has been an innocent. The Brookings Institute, however, has calculated a much higher civilian-to-militant ratio of 10:1. Meanwhile, figures compiled by the Pakistani authorities suggest US strikes killed 701 people between January 2006 and April 2009, of which 14 were al-Qaeda militants and 687 were civilians. That produces a hit rate of just 2% – or 50 civilians dead for every militant killed.
The majority of Pakistanis are against the use of drones in the tribal areas on the Afghan border. Their own government, however, despite public opposition to the bombings, has in private expressed support for America's drones. "I don't care if they do it as long as they get the right people," Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani is quoted as saying, in a 2008 cable released by WikiLeaks. "We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it."
This is not a left/right issue; criticisms of the drone strikes have come from figures as diverse as Sir Brian Burridge, the UK's former air chief marshal in Iraq, who has described the aerial slaughter inflicted from afar by unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft as a "virtueless war"; and Andrew Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert and former adviser to General David Petraeus, who says that each innocent victim of a drone strike "represents an alienated family, a new revenge feud, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially as drone strikes have increased".
Kilcullen is spot on. The cold-blooded killing of Pakistani civilians in a push-button, PlayStation-style drone war is not just immoral and perhaps illegal, it is futile and self-defeating from a security point of view. Take Faisal Shahzad, the so-called Times Square bomber. One of the first things the Pakistani-born US citizen said upon his arrest was: "How would you feel if people attacked the United States? You are attacking a sovereign Pakistan." Asked by the judge at his trial as to how he could justify planting a bomb near innocent women and children, Shahzad responded by saying that US drone strikes "don't see children, they don't see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody."
But the innocent victims of America's secret drone war have become "unpeople", in the words of the historian Mark Curtis – those whose lives are seen as expendable in the pursuit of the West's foreign policy goals. Killed via remote control, they remain unseen and unremembered.