Where Is the Moral Rectitude When Political Retaliation Drone Strike Hits Settled Area, Misses Target?

Early this morning, just hours after the US had assured Pakistan that drone strikes would be curtailed if Pakistan is able to restart peace talks with the Taliban (after the US disrupted them with a drone strike), John Brennan lashed out with one of his signature rage drone strikes that seems more calculated as political retaliation than careful targeting. Earlier documentation of political retaliation strikes can be seen here and here.

Here is how Dawn described the assurance from the US late on Wednesday:

The United States has promised that it will not carry out any drone strikes in Pakistan during any peace talks with Taliban militants in the future, the Prime Minister’s Special Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said Wednesday.

Briefing a session of the Senate’s Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs in Islamabad, Aziz said a team of government negotiators was prepared to hold talks with former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Hakimullah Mehsud on Nov 2, the day after he was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan.

/snip/

Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had told reporters last week that the process of peace talks could not be taken forward unless drone attacks on Pakistani soil are halted.

Nisar had said that the drone attack that killed Mehsud ‘sabotaged’ the government’s efforts to strike peace with anti-state militants.

Bill Roggio, writing in Long War Journal, is convinced that the Haqqani network’s leader was the target of today’s strike:

The US launched a drone strike at a seminary in Pakistan’s settled district of Hangu, killing eight people in what appears to have been an attempt to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, the operations commander of the Taliban and al Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network.

But see that bit about the strike being in “Pakistan’s settled district”? One of the many unwritten “rules” of US drone strikes in Pakistan is that they are restricted to the FATA, or Federally Administered Tribal Area, of Pakistan where Pakistani security or military personnel have little to no freedom of movement. In fact, the ability of drones to enter these otherwise forbidden territories is touted as one of their main justifications for use.

Just over a week ago, the chief fundraiser for the Haqqani network was killed near Islamabad. That killing involved a gunman, though, not a drone. If Nasiruddin Haqqani could be taken out by a gunman near Islamabad, why couldn’t Sirajuddin also have been taken out by a gunman in Hangu rather than missed in a drone strike?

Various reports on this drone strike place the death toll at anywhere from three to eight and say that either three or four missiles were fired into the seminary. The seminary appeared to be frequented by Haqqani network fighters. From the Express Tribune:

Another Haqqani source said the seminary was an important rest point for members fighting in Afghanistan’s restive Khost province.

“The seminary served as a base for the network where militants fighting across the border came to stay and rest, as the Haqqani seminaries in the tribal areas were targeted by drones,” the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

An intelligence source told Reuters separately that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of Taliban-linked Haqqani network, was spotted at the seminary two days earlier.

It appears that there have been no other drone strikes outside the tribal areas since March of 2009. Roggio notes that all three of the others were in the Bannu district.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province now is governed by former cricket star Imran Khan’s PTI party. Khan already was highly agitated by the drone killing of Hakimullah Mehsud and its impact on the planned peace talks with the TTP. It seems entirely possible that striking in Khan’s province was a deliberate act by Brennan in retaliation for Khan’s rhetoric after the Hakimullah Mehsud killing. But by striking out with such rage, and especially by missing his target in a strike in a highly populated area, Brennan seems to have set himself up for a huge blowback.  Khan is now ratcheting up his rhetoric considerably:

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan placed responsibility for today’s drone strike on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif during his press conference in Islamabad on Thursday, Express News reported.

He invited the people of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) to join the rally on Saturday against the first drone strike in K-P, in which five people were killed and another three others were injured in Tal area of Hangu.

/snip/

He told Nawaz not to “play on both sides of the wicket,” adding that he should give up his “dual policy” of telling the US one thing and Pakistan another.

“If the prime minister strictly told [America] that drone attacks must stop, they would never conduct such attacks,” he said.

“If they attacked Hangu then what will stop them from attacking any other place if they suspect terrorist activity there?” the PTI chairman added, stressing that America could strike based on suspected terrorist attacks, not certain ones.

/snip/

“Are we America’s tissue, that they just use us and then throw us away?” Imran exclaimed.

Khan’s rally on Saturday is aimed at closing NATO transportation routes through his province. If he were to succeed, that would leave only the Southern route, through the Chaman crossing, for NATO convoys that are bringing fuel into Afghanistan and shuttling equipment out of the country as US troops are drawn down.

The spin from the US will be that the strike took out the Haqqani network’s spiritual advisor, so it was a success. But by giving Imran Khan and his province a rallying point, the cost may turn out to be huge.

Meanwhile, Brennan appears to be successful in his ongoing efforts to prevent peace talks at all costs.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.

29 replies
  1. P J Evans says:

    Newspaper headline on a story about this:
    Rare Drone Strike Kills 6 in Pakistan

    It was pointed out that they aren’t at all rare, and to the one person supporting drone strikes, I pointed out that the MIC lies about everything involving them.

  2. DWBartoo says:

    @P J Evans: One notes, P J, that Huffington Post is dutifully referring to the strike as “rare”, as well.

    My great appreciation to Jim White for this critically important series of reports on and analysis of the waning days of US empire and hegemony in this region of the world.

    DW

  3. Don Bacon says:

    PM Sharif might have ordered or authorized the hit to put Imran Khan on the spot. Khan is the leader of Tehreek-e-Insaf, which governs Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, and is a political opponent to Sharif.

    On Nov 4, after the CIA missile strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud, Tehreek-e-Insaf voted to block NATO supply lines by Nov. 20 unless the United States stopped its drone strikes in the nearby tribal belt. And here we have a strike not in the tribal belt but right in Tehreek-e-Insaf’s province.

    Imran Khan lost the PM election to Nawaz Sharif in May. Khan alleged vote rigging following his defeat. So this could be Pakistan politics at its worst.

    Sharif had visited Obama in October before both drone hits. Talking to reporters in London after concluding his four-day visit, he said, “In the meeting with the US president and at all relevant forums, I have discussed all matters of Pakistan’s national concerns, including drone attacks that are against our sovereignty.”

    The Washington Post, citing leaked highly sensitive CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos, has previously reported that Islamabad had been secretly endorsing drone strikes. So Sharif might have approved these drone hits “against our sovereignty.” Generally speaking, that’s what politicians do, whenever they generally speak. One only knows one thing — their lips are moving.

  4. bsbafflesbrains says:

    I still don’t understand why a drone strike is different from a piloted jetfighter strike? Pakistan is a sovereign Country.

  5. Anonsters says:

    So, Jim, I’m genuinely curious here, so don’t read my question as implying what I think your answer ought to be——I want to know your view so I can understand your posts better.

    When, in your view, would a drone strike in [insert country here] be acceptable? That is to say, what circumstances, if any, would justify such a strike, where circumstances include time, location, place, target, etc.? You say, “If Nasiruddin Haqqani could be taken out by a gunman near Islamabad, why couldn’t Sirajuddin also have been taken out by a gunman in Hangu rather than missed in a drone strike?” Does that mean that you believe it better either to hire someone to assassinate targets or to have CIA operators do so, rather than a drone strike? If so, do you believe American officials should take any special account of the potential for loss of American life when conducting such activities? I suspect you’ll say there has to be a calculus where they take into account the population of the foreign country where drone strikes occur and the loss of innocent life there, but where do you draw the lines?

  6. Anonsters says:

    @bsbafflesbrains:

    Your solution is to abolish war. I’d be for that. But that’s not the world we live in, nor is it likely to be any time soon. So you can either remain a purist and hew closely to that line no matter what, or you can try to give guidelines that would actually work in this shitty war-torn world we all actually live in.

  7. Jim White says:

    @Anonsters: First, I would prefer grabbing people and bringing them in for an actual trial (not Gitmo)over killing. In very rare cases, I can see actually taking someone out but only if we have very strong reason to believe they are in the process of causing lots of destruction and can’t be stopped any other way. The means should be very context dependent and should be driven very much by making the chance for collateral deaths extremely low. Brennan and JSOC have made drones far too frequent and they give little or no thought to collateral damage. There was no doubt of Nasiruddin’s role and he was a legit target. I still would have preferred a trial, but perhaps someone had an opportunity on him too good to pass up. Today’s drone strike, though, demonstrated that the process was too loose because the real target apparently wasn’t even there.

  8. C says:

    @bsbafflesbrains: Legally and morally they are not. Logistically they are much much cheaper and much lower risk (no pilot to lose) but that is irrelevent to your question of sovreignity. So far as it seems the only substantive difference is that drones are permitted by unwritten agreement with Islamabad or at least are not causes for immediate hostilities in the way that a jet-fighter would be, or a pair of helecopters almost was.

  9. bsbafflesbrains says:

    @C: And how does one obtain such an unwritten agreement? Seems like whatever the agreement was it wasn’t worth the paper it wasn’t written on.

  10. Don Bacon says:

    The reason that killing is preferred over a grab-and-trial is lack of proof. That’s why Awlaki and bin Laden were (supposedly) killed. Awlaki, what did he do? Bin Laden was on the FBI Top Ten list for suspicion regarding embassy bombings, but not for 9/11.

    The National Security Strategy states: “The rule of law—and our capacity to enforce it—advances our national security and strengthens our leadership. At home, fidelity to our laws and support for our law enforcement community safeguards American citizens and interests, while protecting and advancing our values.

    “Legal Aspects of Countering Terrorism: The increased risk of terrorism necessitates a capacity to detain and interrogate suspected violent extremists, but that framework must align with our laws to be effective and sustainable. When we are able, we will prosecute terrorists in Federal courts or in reformed military commissions that are fair, legitimate, and effective. For detainees who cannot be prosecuted—but pose a danger to the American people—we must have clear, defensible, and lawful standards.” [i.e. standard assassination]

    As soon as Obama got in office he issued an Executive Order against detain-and-torture, so the Company went to assassinate-and-forget. (Although Paula Broadwell did say that her Pet Petraeus revealed that there were detainees in the Benghazi annex.)

    Will other countries pick up on these murder tactics? It wouldn’t be difficult. It might become the new normal. It certainly is with the U.S. Then we’d need a global drone-ban treaty?

  11. TarheelDem says:

    It is instructive here to re-read the history of the US’s relations with the UK just prior to the War of 1812. Brennan is playing with fire. The institutional agenda of the Central Intelligence Agency is not more important than the security of the United States.

    And other countries are now investing in their own drones and drone weapons technology, which significantly lowers the cost threshold of warfare.

  12. Anonsters says:

    @Jim White:

    Thanks for your reply; it was interesting. I agree with you about nabbing for trial. And I agree with you, not Gitmo. Gitmo is a farce. But I suspect I’m more accepting of drone strikes than you, although I do agree with you that we went overboard on them a long time ago.

  13. Anonsters says:

    @TarheelDem:

    The institutional agenda of the Central Intelligence Agency is not more important than the security of the United States.

    It is to the CIA. Need proof? Read Ali Soufan’s The Black Banners. I was already appalled by CIA before, given their role in torture and such things. After I finished the book, I was convinced that the only solution is to abolish the CIA entirely and start over (for HUMINT).

  14. TarheelDem says:

    @Anonsters: I have come to the same conclusion but for the entire national security and intelligence institutions created in 1947. The whole bloated structure has outlived its usefulness (which was debatable at the creation) and has now become a danger to national security.

    @Don Bacon: Didn’t know that JFK was pondering the War of 1812 in 1963. He actually did more than think that thought; he decisively fired some people who were lionized within the CIA for the imcompetence of the Bay of Pigs operation. Jimmy Carter made the same mistake and got sandbagged in his negotiations with Iran.

  15. Anonsters says:

    @Don Bacon:

    Depends on the circumstances, I suppose. Would I ever be in favor of another country launching a drone strike inside the U.S.? No. Is that hypocrisy on my part? No, because I’m an American. Until we have a single world government with authority over everyone, the fact of the matter is that we live in a world fractured by national interests.

    So let me ask you: if you’re suggesting that we should take the same approach across the board, I suppose that means you favor staying in Afghanistan, since our withdrawal will almost certainly mean the complete collapse of the existing Afghan government, the rise (again) of the Taliban, and the various oppressions that go along with it (no school for you, girls). If you think that’s an acceptable consequence, then your question gets turned back on you: do you favor proscribing education for women everywhere?

    You see how quickly absurb that line of thinking becomes.

  16. Don Bacon says:

    @Anonsters:

    On drones, is the murder of people in another country by drone a good idea? To ask the question is to answer it. Of course it is illegal, immoral and self-defeating. Other countries unlike the U.S. are smart enough and moral enough not to do it.

    On Afghanistan: Just as the Russians and the British have learned in the past, or should have learned, Afghanistan should be left to the Afghans, which it soon will be, again, after the Western do-gooders get evicted.

    Now it is not good for the Christian’s health
    To hustle the Aryan brown,
    For the Christian riles and the Aryan smiles,
    And it weareth the Christian down.
    And the end of the fight
    Is a tombstone white
    With the name of the late deceased
    And the epitaph drear: ‘A fool lies here
    who tried to hustle the East.'”

    –Rudyard Kipling

  17. Don Bacon says:

    November 2013: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Afghanistan must decide by the end of the year whether to sign a deal to keep U.S. troops there or the military will not be able to plan for a post-2014 presence.

    July 2011: SecDef Panetta urged Iraqi leaders to, “Dammit, make a decision” about the U.S. troop extension. In August, he told reporters that, “My view is that they finally did say, ‘Yes.'” On Oct. 17, he was still pushing for the extension and said, “At the present time I’m not discouraged because we’re still in negotiations with the Iraqis.” In December 2011 the US military completely withdrew from Iraq after almost nine years of unproductive warfare.

  18. Don Bacon says:

    Okay, let’s talk about conspiracy: An agreement to perform together an illegal, wrongful, or subversive act.

    I contend that “conspiracy” could describe many events, including many aspects of US foreign policy, CIA activities, John Brennan’s drone attacks (if in fact they are his), or the real killers of JFK — since there is a lot of evidence that the Oswald sole-killer story is bogus.

    So my feeling is that “conspiracy” is so widespread it is a worthless description, and therefore calling someone a “a conspiracy believer!” is petty and childish.

    What do you think, P J Evans?

  19. Bill Michtom says:

    Here’s what I think about “conspiracy theories” in the context you’ve offered:

    “Lew Rockwell, Jr. is an American libertarian author and editor, self-professed anarcho-capitalist,[1] a promoter of the Austrian School of economics, and founder and chairman of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.”

    I’m supposed to use that as an authority on anything?

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