Monday, 4 June 2012

Seumas Milne on Drones


I thought I’d get back into blogging with an easy post. It’s quite easy for me to find an article by Seumas Milne and quickly fisk it in my head – not because of any great skill that I have but simply because the man is a propagandist. His articles are misleading, filled with falsehoods and driven by an ideological zeal that means almost every single paragraph is filled with multiple lines of crap.

So, I thought I’d start with Milne’s latest article on drone strikes. For convenience, I’ve moved some of the paragraphs around where I can respond to them together. I’ve had to cut out some of the stuff because of space – but I’ve addressed all his substantive points. Milne writes: 
More than a decade after George W Bush launched it, the "war on terror" was supposed to be winding down. US military occupation of Iraq has ended and Nato is looking for a way out of Afghanistan, even as the carnage continues. But another war – the undeclared drone war that has already killed thousands – is now being relentlessly escalated. 
Except that nobody expected it to wind down. All the statements of the officials at the time and since point to a long, ideological drive against Al Qaeda and its allies. On September 17th 2001, President Bush told Pentagon officials that “It's going to take a long time to win this war.” On September 20th, the President said “this war will not be like the war against Iraq a decade ago, with a decisive liberation of territory and a swift conclusion” but a “lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” 

Donald Rumsfeld stated just 8 days later that Americans should “forget about 'exit strategies'; we're looking at a sustained engagement that carries no deadlines." Robert Gates stated “many years of persistent, engaged combat all around the world in differing degrees of size and intensity” referring to it as a “generational campaign” that Vice President Dick Cheney said the War “like other great duties in history, it will require decades of patient effort.”

Milne refers to the “carnage continuing” in Afghanistan. This is arguably untrue: NATO figures show that there was a 9% reduction in violence throughout the country and in areas where the fighting increased, NATO had gone on the offensive. Civilian deaths in the last 4 months have dropped 21%. There was a 2011 UN report which suggested a significant rise but their figures included arrests, searches and “intimidation” as “security incidents.” This is not to suggest that everything is fine or the NATO figures are sacrosanct but that it’s not as one-sided as Milne always argues. 

Milne is also wrong by calling the drone campaign “undeclared.” John Brennan, an Obama official, clearly stated that “the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.” The administration has not only acknowledged the policy, but defended it many times. 
From Pakistan to Somalia, CIA-controlled pilotless aircraft rain down Hellfire missiles on an ever-expanding hit list of terrorist suspects – they have already killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians in the process. Since 2004, between 2,464 and 3,145 people are reported to have been killed by US drone attacks in Pakistan, of whom up to 828 were civilians (535 under Obama) and 175 children. Some Pakistani estimates put the civilian death toll much higher – plausibly, given the tendency to claim as "militants" victims later demonstrated to be nothing of the sort.
Yes, and the loss of civilian life is regrettable – but that does not make the campaign illegitimate. Al Qaeda operates in areas all over the world, they pose a threat not only to the regimes in which they live but to the West (more on the effectiveness of the strikes below). The official policy of the White House is that there must be a “near certainty” of no civilian deaths – or they must gain President Obama’s approval. Admittedly, I have a problem with the fact that the administration considers all men of military age combatants. 

However, even when we look to the independent figures for the civilians killed, the number is remarkably low (keeping in mind that when operating in Pakistan, the population is quite dense). At the low end, the Long War Journal has 138 civilians being killed from 2006-2012. According to Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann who use “reliable press accounts” 80% of those killed have been militants and 2010 that figure rose to 95%. 
At least 15 drone strikes have been launched in Yemen this month, as many as in the whole of the past decade, killing dozens; while in Pakistan, a string of US attacks has been launched against supposed "militant" targets in the past week, incinerating up to 35 people and hitting a mosque and a bakery.
Yes – but killing who? In Yemen, the civilian death rate in 56 out of more 240 militants killed according to the Long War Journal. The example of the mosque does nothing to further Milne’s point either. As the report which he links to notes, “Uzbek insurgents made up the majority of the fatalities from the strike.” Meaning that like other terrorists around the world, they are using places of worship, civilian centres as a shield for their own military purpose. Milne’s unsurprising response is not to attack those individuals, but the United States. 
The US president insisted recently that the civilian death toll was not a "huge number". Not on the scale of Iraq, perhaps, where hundreds of thousands were killed; or Afghanistan, where tens of thousands have died. But they gruesomely include dozens killed in follow-up attacks after they had gone to help victims of earlier strikes – as well as teenagers like Tariq Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani boy decapitated in a strike last November after he had travelled to Islamabad to protest against drones. 
Yes – but who is killing in Iraq and Afghanistan? According to a study by King’s College London looking at civilian deaths from 2003-2008 concludes that of the 92,000 civilians deaths recorded by Iraq Body Count, 12% were attributable to coalition forces. 74% were carried out by “unknown perpertrators” described as “are those who target civilians (i.e., no identifiable military target is present), while appearing indistinguishable from civilians.” This classing encompasses “suicide bombers... sectarian combatants and Anti-Coalition combatants.” A further 11% were carried out by identifiable “anti-coalition forces.”

In Afghanistan, “tens of thousands” of civilians have not died. At the high end, the figure is 14,700 and the low end is 12,500. And again – every single report, every single statistic notes that almost all of these are killed by the Taliban or its allies. Civilian deaths caused by pro-government forces decreased by 24% from 2009-2010, making them responsible for 15% of civilian casualties. UN figures show that only 9% of the civilians killed in 2012 were attributable to coalition forces. 

By the way, Tariq Khan was killed by a drone strike but according to American officials, he was a militant. Is this true? I don’t know but I think I’d tell my readers about it – even if I was going to dismiss it. 
But, as the destabilisation of Pakistan and growth of al-Qaida in Yemen shows, the impact remains the same. The drone war is a predatory war on the Muslim world, which is feeding hatred of the US – and fuelling terror, not fighting it. 
Of course Milne provides no empirical evidence for such a claim. Johnston and Sarbahi (2012) in their analysis of the relevant data find that “drone strikes are associated with decreases in both the frequency and thelethality of militant attacks overall and in IED and suicide attacks speci´Čücally.” Jaeger and Siddique (2011) find "strong negative impacts of unsuccessful drone strikes on Taliban violence in Pakistan, showing thedeterrent effects are quite strong." 


If, like Milne, you like anecdotal evidence – then there is much of it. Tariq Azam (Taliban official) has publically told the press that meetings in Pakistan have been driven underground. The same report notes that the terrorists now suspect eachother of being spies. Pakistani General Mehmood Ghayur “acknowledged the effectiveness of the American drone strikes against foreign militants” 
The day after last Friday's Houla massacre in Syria, eight members of one family were killed at home by a Nato air attack in eastern Afghanistan – one of many such atrocities barely registered in the western media. 
It says so much about Milne that he believes the intentional murder of 92 civilians by cutting their throats for the simple act of protesting an authoritarian is more newsworthy than the unintentional killing of 8 civilians. Both are tragic and should not have happened – but to condemn the press for allegedly not covering it (they did) and suggesting an equivalence is flat out wrong. It goes without saying that these civilian deaths in Afghanistan have not been confirmed by a UN monitoring body (as in Houla) but an Afghan official (which NATO is taking seriously).
The US's decision to step up the drone war again in Pakistan, opposed by both government and parliament in Islamabad as illegal and a violation of sovereignty, reflects its fury at the jailing of a CIA agent involved in the Bin Laden hunt and Pakistan's refusal to reopen supply routes for Nato forces in Afghanistan. Those routes were closed in protest at the US killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, for which Washington still refuses to apologise.
But Pakistan’s consent has always been elusive. The Prime Minister was quoted as saying in 2008 that “I don't care if they do it, as long as they get the right people. We'll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it." President Zardari has also said that “Kill the seniors. Collateral damages worries you Americans. It does not worry me." Milne’s own paper alleged a secret deal about “violations of sovereignty” last year.


It is true that there have been more vocal condemnations and demands to stop the strikes in the last year. However, as the Associated Press noted there are still “mixed signals.” The Pakistani government, for example, qualified their condemnation by saying it “should be seen in light of the presence of Islamist militants on Pakistani soil.” The AP goes on to say that “many analysts believe some in the government still support the program at some level.”


But lets assume all elements of the Pakistani government want the drone strikes stopped unequivocally – so what? The strikes are significant in decreasing the threat that Al Qaeda and it allies proposes. If Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then the United States and its allies should not have to justify themselves to anyone. 


Milne mentions the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers. Firstly, before the incident with the 24 deaths, there was a similar incident the previous year. In that situation, a joint investigation found NATO at fault – and NATO apologised and supply routes were re-opened. In this case, an American investigation found no fault. It might be that the investigation is wrong – but Milne doesn’t even discuss the possibility. Also, he refers to the “US killing” – but doesn’t mention the context: a joint US-Afghan contingent. According to an Afghan official – it was the Afghan personnel who requested the strike after being fired on. 
Lawyers representing victims' families are now preparing legal actionagainst the British government – which carries out its own drone attacks in Afghanistan – for taking part in war crimes by passing GCHQ intelligence to the CIA for its "targeted killings".
Of course Milne has to involve Britain in some way for these apparent “war crimes.” Yet, he provides no evidence whatsoever to support his claim. In fact if you click on his second link in this paragraph, the care the British military takes in avoiding casualties is shown. The link states the following of several different operations:
[1] Over a period of approximately 8 hours the Reaper crew maintained ‘eyes on’ before eventually seizing the opportunity to strike [a “high value insurgent”] when there was no risk of civilian casualties or collateral damage. 
[2] The crew spotted 2 civilians, one of whom was identified as a child… Realising the danger the crew diverted the missile towards an area of scrub land where it detonated harmlessly
[3] Reaper released weapon against fast-moving target, firing on friendly forces – however weapon diverted to avoid civilian casualties
This is Milne’s own link. There is one incident listed where 4 Afghan civilians were killed but that was in targeting “two insurgents” and “a significant quantity of explosives being carried on the trucks.” And so far as involvement with the Americans goes – there is no reason why we should shy away. These strikes are effective and have low civilian casualties.