What the drones protest march in Waziristan aims to achieve

Sports star turned politician Imran Khan and civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith will highlight US drones’ innocent victims

guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 October 2012

A family from South Waziristan flee the battle zone

[A 2009 Brookings Institution report found that US drone attacks kill 10 civilians for every one militant in heavily targeted regions like Waziristan. Photograph: Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images]

The British civil rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and international cricketer turned politician Imran Khan will begin a peace march on 7 October into Pakistan‘s Waziristan region. Their aim is to highlight the plight of innocent people killed or injured by US drones.

Smith took the precautionary measure of writing to President Obama and his CIA director, David Petraeus, informing them about the march. In the letter, he requested that the president ensure the names of him and the other marchers would not be on the weekly kill list the president reviews, along with security officials, in the White House situation room. Smith wrote:

“Please remember that you and I are both lawyers from the same tradition, and it would be unseemly (as well as being both illegal and upsetting for my family) if you were to authorize my assassination.”

Like the sealed corridors in which the top secret kill list nomination process occurs – an account of which was reportedly leaked by the Obama administration to the New York Times – Waziristan has, until now, remained in the shadows, a place about which very little is known or reported. It is hoped the march will help open the area to public scrutiny by taking media there to gather independent information.

Smith’s letter also highlighted problems with the president’s drone strategy, such as using the same intelligence that populated Guantánamo Bay. I think it’s fair to assume intelligence-gathering has improved – one certainly hopes so, considering 88% of Guantánamo’s 779 detainees were cleared for release. But of greater note is how Obama campaigned against President Bush by criticising his policy of imprisoning without trial – yet has chosen to kill individuals without trial.

There’s no evidence those in Waziristan deemed America’s enemies have either the will or ability to threaten America from thousands of miles away, Smith wrote. The region’s threat extends, at most, to Pakistan, which should be allowed to resolve its own problems – as those such as Imran Khan argue that it is capable of doing. But on this point, I sympathise with Obama, since the Pakistan government has mastered the art of emitting mixed signals and behaves as an unreliable ally. Eyebrows that were raised over Osama bin Laden being found next to the Pakistan military academy in Abbottabad have yet to find reason to be lowered.

US concern over a nuclear-armed Pakistan is also understandable, and Smith’s letter acknowledged that further radicalization of Waziristan is a threat to Pakistan and global security. But the US’s chosen course of action undermines its objective, resulting in damage to its reputation, a failure to win hearts and minds – evidenced by research showing 97% of Pakistanis opposed to US action within their territory – and culminating in what Smith calls the “desperate failure of US policy”. Wailing Iraqi mothers and maimed Afghan children whom I saw during operational tours with the British army vouch for that.

I share Smith’s indignation at the Obama administration’s suggestion that the “just war” theories of St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine temper its use of drones. Smith highlights how the secretive machinations of the CIA do not constitute a clear declaration of war by a sovereign nation. Neither is drone use justified as a last resort – another principle of “just war” theory. But in applying such principles either to support or criticise drones, we risk formulating a surreal and counterproductive argument, which indeed characterises much of the debate.

Not surprisingly, Smith takes a dim view of how the administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants”, according to the New York Times report, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr Strangelove doesn’t come close to matching that logic for war room farce.

To ensure the marchers’ safe passage into Waziristan, four groups were identified from whom assurances were needed. These included locals and tribal leaders, the Pakistan army, the Pakistan Taliban and finally the US. Currently, all but the US have provided their assurances. Smith said his greatest worry concerns a CIA-sponsored attack made to appear it was carried out by the Taliban.

Perhaps the march might also go some way to unmasking the Taliban. In Afghanistan, I never saw them. They remained heat signatures on computer screens, or the unseen origins of shots and mortars. I spurn the reductionism of the usual narrative presenting them all as lunatics hell-bent on anarchy, a lie that has been contradicted by the publication of Taliban poetry. We disrespect our enemies at our peril, primarily by missing the crucial fact we might negotiate with fellow sentient beings.

I believe President Obama is a sentient and intelligent man, and I give him credit for shouldering responsibility for the kill list’s consequences and not delegating to others. But as I found when gazing at computer screens in Afghanistan, it’s easy to succumb to tunnel vision and become captivated by drones’ short-term solutions.

Most importantly, the march will bring attention to the forgotten people, 800,000 of them, who call Waziristan home, and have lived in fear for eight years since the US intervention began. We too easily forget how simple homesteads that don’t look like much are the centre of inhabitants’ universes, all too easily eradicated by drones’ missiles – be it in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen or elsewhere, as their use spreads.

Smith ended his letter asking the president to confirm the CIA will not target the marchers, even as they apologise to those who have suffered. “Surely, I don’t ask much: simply not to be killed,” he wrote.

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