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Bombs over Baghdad, drones over Pakistan

Political activist and documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald says there is a drone disconnect

Taken from the November issue of Dazed & Confused

Sometime near the beginning of the drone campaign in the tribal areas of Pakistan, the CIA was at a crossroads. The programme had been moving at a slow pace for a long time, characterised by infrequent strikes on what were considered high-value targets. CIA director Michael Hayden felt that although drones had been somewhat successful, this rate of action was not going to defeat Al-Qaeda. It was then that the (anonymous) head of Counterterrorism Center, a division of the CIA, came up with a new option for going after terrorists. This new plan was the implementation of a new targeting policy – signature strikes.

The introduction of signature strikes marked a loosening of the targeting guidelines for drone operators, enabling them to strike unknown, unnamed targets as long as they display “pattern of life” characteristics. Forget due process. Forget innocent until proven guilty. Forget that any logical thinker could see that people in a truck in North Waziristan don’t pose a realistic threat to the US. Just kill ’em. 

Immediately after the implementation of signature strikes we witnessed an explosive uptick in the amount of civilian casualties from drone attacks. In 2010 and 2011 there were reports of dozens of people killed in tribal areas of Pakistan.

The sadism of the practice is a symptom of the disconnect between the people on the ground and those pulling the trigger.

Unlike most westerners, I have witnessed the fallout from this policy. Reports of civilian casualties began trickling through the firewall of pro-drone media in 2011. In the fall of 2012 I travelled to the border of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas to see for myself. What I found was staggering.   

Dozens of survivors braved the journey under threat of Taliban and Pakistani military just to tell me their stories. What they conveyed was as saddening as it was infuriating. They recounted stories of collecting dismembered and charred body parts of their friends and family members. Eight children and their grandmother were targeted on one occasion – when I met the children scraps of drone still remained in their bodies. What was obvious to them and soon became clear to me was that they were being targeted for simply existing. The only explanation is the practice of signature strikes. 

The sadism of the practice is a symptom of the disconnect between the people on the ground and those pulling the trigger. One particular strike targeted a government sanctioned jirga, an assembly similar to a town hall meeting, and massacred over 40 tribal elders. When confronted with this inconvenient truth, unnamed US officials were quoted saying, “These guys were terrorists, not the local men’s glee club,” and, “These guys weren’t gathering for a bake sale.” Signature strikes have seemingly turned the drone programme into a hammer, with tribal Pakistanis the nails.

As drone warfare escalates to other regions and violence and unrest criss-cross the globe, it is important that citizens push their governments for more transparency and accountability on drone warfare. We must seek justice and not move forward with questionable motives only to face the backlash of unintended consequences. We should heed the warning of the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson: “The most successful war seldom pays for its losses.” 

Robert Greenwald is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and political activist. His most recent film is War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State (2013)