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More Collateral Damage From Mad Rush to Rely on Drones

A drone crashed in Afghanistan earlier this week. (Wikimedia Commons photo via Bakhtar News)

Marcy already covered the very important Greg Miller Washington Post article on drones and the way the Obama administration is growing ever more reliant on their use. I would like to focus on more of the collateral damage from drone use as described in two Los Angeles Times articles from this week.  Today’s article discusses the growing reliance on civilian contractors in the use of drones.  Earlier in the week, we learned about the “death squads” roaming the tribal areas of Pakistan doling out revenge on those thought to have sold information used by the US in developing target information. Taken together, these articles demonstrate how the excessive reliance on drones is outstripping the military and CIA support infrastructure. This matter will be only be made worse by the fact that the number of US personnel on the ground within Pakistan to develop intelligence has been cut to one fourth the previous level.

Today’s LA Times article opens with a description of the difficulties that ensue when civilians take part in analysis of video feeds from drones that hit civilian targets:

After a U.S. airstrike mistakenly killed at least 15 Afghans in 2010, the Army officer investigating the accident was surprised to discover that an American civilian had played a central role: analyzing video feeds from a Predator drone keeping watch from above.

The contractor had overseen other analysts at Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field in Florida as the drone tracked suspected insurgents near a small unit of U.S. soldiers in rugged hills of central Afghanistan. Based partly on her analysis, an Army captain ordered an airstrike on a convoy that turned out to be carrying innocent men, women and children.

We learn in the article that maintaining drones in the air requires a very large contingent of ground support, with Predators requiring over 150 ground crew for a 24 hour flight and twice that amount for the larger drones. We are already short on these ground crews and yet the number of these medium and large drones is expected to go from the current 230 to 960 within ten years. But don’t worry, only 44 hours of training are required to certify a pilot!

In relying so heavily on civilian contractors, the US is flirting with breaking the international laws of war.  Also from today’s article: Read more

Drone Pilots to Control Four Planes at Once: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

So soon on the heels of this week’s disclosure that seventeen percent of US drone pilots show signs of clinical distress and the debacle of the RQ-170 Sentinel drone being recovered and put on display by Iran, today’s latest announcement on drones reads like a piece from The Onion or Andy Borowitz.  In what appears to be all seriousness, the US is looking into the possibility of single drone operators controlling as many as four drones at one time:

Western militaries are experimenting with having future drone pilots command up to four aircraft at once, adding new potential challenges even as a top-secret U.S. drone’s crash in Iran exposed the risks of flying unmanned aircraft thousands of miles away.

And why would such a foolish move be necessary?  Why, it all comes down to insatiable demand for drone use and a military that wants to cut back on costs:

To save money and make unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) less reliant on massive ground support crews, weapons manufacturers are working with military officials to develop more autonomous control systems and improve networking among planes.

At the moment, it can take hundreds of support staff on the ground to run a single drone for 24 hours, adding cost and complications at a time when budget-cutters are looking for billions of dollars of program cuts.

But new high-tech networking systems and ground stations in development would let a single pilot fly four drones, possibly even from different manufacturers, dramatically reducing the ground staff now needed for each plane.

Early work on such systems has been going on for some time, but heavy demand for more drones and mounting budget pressures are now bringing them closer to operational use.

If the US does institute such a foolish practice, let’s just hope none of the stressed out operators decide to channel their inner Charlie Callas.

Iranian Navy Plans Wargames for Saturday: Will the Filipino Monkey Show Up?

In January of 2008, at a time very similar to now (just under a year out from Presidential elections and with anti-Iran propaganda at a fever pitch in the US media), the Bush administration embarrassed itself mightily in its response to an encounter in the Persian Gulf. As US warships were being approached by five small Iranian craft, a voice came over the airwaves stating “I am coming to you”. A bit later it added “You will explode after a few minutes”. The US quickly claimed this was a threat from the Iranian vessels, but after cooler heads prevailed (and after Iran supplied additional video and audio from the encounter), it was realized that the voice did not match those of the Iranians in the encounter and that the behavior matched that of the legendary radio prankster, the Filipino Monkey.

We learn today from Fars News that Iran plans very large naval wargame exercises on Saturday, in both the Sea of Oman and the Indian Ocean:

Iranian Navy Commander Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said at a press conference on Thursday that the naval maneuvers dubbed Velayat 90 will start on Saturday and will cover an area stretching from the east of the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden.

According to Sayyari, this is the first time that Iran’s Navy carries out naval drills in such a vast area.

He added the exercises will manifest Iran’s military prowess and defense capabilities in the international waters, convey a message of peace and friendship to regional countries, and test the newest military equipment among other objectives of the drills.

It would have been nice if we had seen all of the objectives in the drills rather than a partial list, but it is quite interesting to see the list of weapons systems and equipment that will be involved:

Rear Admiral Sayyari said that the newest missile systems and torpedoes will be employed in the maneuvers, adding that the most recent tactics used in subsurface battles will also be demonstrated in the maneuvers.

He also said that Iranian destroyers, missile-launching vessels, logistic vessels, drones and coastal missiles will also be tested.

With all those torpedoes, missiles and drones running around, what could possibly go wrong? Given the level of posturing by both the US and Iran lately over nuclear technology, assassination plots, spies and drones, these naval wargames seem particularly ripe for generating the type of “misunderstanding” that can quickly escalate to outright hostilities. Throw in the wildcard of spurious, but well-timed, radio provocation, and the Filipino Monkey could move from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye.

Drone War Secrecy and Kill or Capture

As we stand on the doorstep of President Obama signing into law the new NDAA and its dreaded controversial provisions, there are two new articles out of interest this morning. The first is an incredibly useful, and pretty thorough, synopsis at Lawfare of the new NDAA entitled “NDAA FAQ: A Guide for the Perplexed”. It is co-written by Ben Wittes and Bobby Chesney and, though I may differ slightly in a couple of areas, it is not by much and their primer is extremely useful. I suggest it highly, and it has condensed a lot of material into an easily digestible blog length post.

The second is a long read from the Washington Post on how secrecy defines Obama’s drone wars:

The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.
….
“They’ve based it on the personal legitimacy of [President] Obama — the ‘trust me’ concept,” Anderson said. “That’s not a viable concept for a president going forward.”

The article goes on to state how the CIA, and the majority of voices in the White House, are fighting tooth and nail for continued utmost secrecy lest any of our enemies somehow discover we are blowing them to bits with our drones. This is, of course, entirely predictable, especially now that the former head of the CIA leads the military and the former military chief for the greater Af/Pak theater which has long been ground zero for the drone kill program, Petraeus, is the head of the CIA.

But then the Post piece brings up our old friend, the OLC:

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has opposed the declassification of any portion of its opinion justifying the targeted killing of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen this year. Awlaki, a propagandist for the Yemen-based al-Qaeda affiliate whom Obama identified as its “external operations” chief, was the first American known to have been the main target of a drone strike. While officials say they did not require special permission to kill him, the administration apparently felt it would be prudent to spell out its legal rationale.
….
Under domestic law, the administration considers all three to be covered by the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In two key sentences that have no expiration date, the AUMF gives the president sole power to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, groups or persons who committed or aided the attacks, and to prevent future attacks.

The CIA has separate legal authority to conduct counterterrorism operations under a secret presidential order, or finding, first signed by President Ronald Reagan more than two decades ago. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed an amendment, called a Memorandum of Notification, overriding a long-standing ban on CIA assassinations overseas and allowing “lethal” counterterrorism actions against a short list of named targets, including Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants. Killing was approved only if capture was not deemed “feasible.”

A week after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration amended the finding again, dropping the list of named targets and the caveat on “feasible” capture.

“All of that conditional language was not included,” said a former Bush administration official involved in those decisions. “This was straight-out legal authority. . . . By design, it was written as broadly as possible.”

This brings us back to the notable October 8, 2011 article by the New York Times’ Charlie Savage on his viewing of the Awlaki targeting memo relied on by the Obama White House for the extrajudicial execution of Anwar al-Awlaki. Marcy, at the time discussed the incongruity of the collateral damage issue and the fact Samir Khan was also a kill in the targeted Awlaki strike.

I would like to delve into a second, and equally misleading, meme that has been created by the self serving and inconsistent secret law Obama has geometrically expanded from the already deplorable Bush/Cheney policy set: the false dichotomy in the kill or capture element of the Read more

Pakistan Withdraws Cooperation From Key Border Posts, McCain and Graham Stir Pot

Pointy heads John ("Get Off My Lawn!") McCain and Lindsey ("Holy Hell!") Graham grab some microphone time in Kabul on July 5, 2010. (ISAFMedia photo)

Although it is now a week and a half since the November 26 NATO attack on two border posts that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, it appears that the barrage of official statements and official actions is not yet slowing. Despite a Sunday phone call from President Obama to President Zardari that was meant to emphasize cooperation, Pakistan withdrew its representatives today from two of three key border posts that coordinate communications between troops on both sides of the border region. And, as if things weren’t already bad enough with Pakistan boycotting the Bonn conference on the future of Afghanistan, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham decided that they should issue their own set of demands for Pakistan.

On Sunday, President Obama made a phone call to Pakistan’s President Zardari.  Here is the statement on the call released by the White House:

Earlier today the President placed a phone call to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari to personally express his condolences on the tragic loss of twenty-four Pakistani soldiers this past week along the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The President made clear that this regrettable incident was not a deliberate attack on Pakistan and reiterated the United States’ strong commitment to a full investigation.  The two Presidents reaffirmed their commitment to the U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship, which is critical to the security of both nations, and they agreed to stay in close touch.

Even though this statement ends by claiming both presidents “reaffirmed their commitment to the US-Pakistani bilateral relationship”, Pakistan followed that reaffirmation up by withdrawing its cooperation from key border posts that provide coordination and communication:

Pakistan is pulling out troops from two of the three border coordination units at the Pak-Afghan border set-up for communication between Nato and Pakistani troops in retaliation to the Nato November 26 attack, said a report by the The Associated Press. Read more

Night Raids, Drones and Raymond Davis Still in Af-Pak News

A vitally important loya jirga, or grand gathering, is underway in Afghanistan with leaders from all over the country converging to share their views on the future of the Afghanistan-US relationship.  Afghan President Hamid Karzai has announced that a prerequisite for any deal with the US is an end to night raids.  Perhaps because of the importance of the meetings in Afghanistan, today saw a particularly large drone attack just across the border in Pakistan, with at least 15 killed in the attack.  Raymond Davis also makes a surprise re-appearance in today’s news, with former Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi providing more details on his resignation when he was under pressure for refusing to grant diplomatic immunity to Raymond Davis.

The loya jirga starts today and the Taliban has vowed to attack it:

 About 2,000 Afghan community and political leaders will gather on Wednesday in Kabul under tight security for four days of deliberations on the country’s most pressing issues, including ties with main ally the United States.

The meeting, known as a loya jirga, or grand assembly, cannot make laws, and whatever it decides has to be approved by parliament, but the subjects up for debate are among the most sensitive: the scope of a U.S. military presence after a 2014 deadline for foreign combat troops to leave and the idea of peace talks with the Taliban.

The Taliban, who have long fought to oust foreign forces, have dismissed the meeting as a ruse to cement what they see as foreign interference and have already tried to disrupt it. They have vowed to target participants and said they had a copy of the jirga security plan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is using the occasion to say that no agreement with the US is possible without an end to night raids: Read more

BBC Documentary Exposes ISI Training, Equipping of Taliban Militants

For just over a month, the US and Pakistan have been struggling to deal with tensions created by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee where he stated flatly that Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency directly aids militants who attack US interests in Afghanistan.  Wednesday night, BBC Two aired part one of its “Secret Pakistan” documentary, providing detailed evidence that supports Mullen’s accusations.

From BBC News, we get some details on the disclosures in the documentary:

Pakistan has repeatedly denied the claims. But the BBC documentary series Secret Pakistan has spoken to a number of middle-ranking – and still active – Taliban commanders who provide detailed evidence of how the Pakistan ISI has rebuilt, trained and supported the Taliban throughout its war on the US in Afghanistan.

“For a fighter there are two important things – supplies and a place to hide,” said one Taliban commander, who fights under the name Mullah Qaseem. “Pakistan plays a significant role. First they support us by providing a place to hide which is really important. Secondly, they provide us with weapons.”

Another commander, Najib, says: “Because Obama put more troops into Afghanistan and increased operations here, so Pakistan’s support for us increased as well.”

He says his militia received a supply truck with “500 landmines with remote controls, 20 rocket-propelled grenade launchers with 2000 to 3000 grenades… AK-47s, machine-guns and rockets”.

Reuters also describes some of the revelations from the program:

Other Taliban commanders described how they and their fighters were, and are, trained in a network of camps on Pakistani soil.

According to a commander using the name Mullah Azizullah, the experts running the training are either members of the ISI or have close links to it.

“They are all the ISI’s men. They are the ones who run the training. First they train us about bombs; then they give us practical guidance,” he said.

The BBC News article also quotes CIA officer Bruce Riedel, who prepared a review of US intelligence on ISI involvement with militants.  Riedel told BBC that the ISI actively supports Taliban militants that carry out actions in Afghanistan.  Riedel also claimed that US drone attacks are now more successful because Pakistan is not given advance warning: Read more

Karman Argues Against Amnesty for Saleh as al-Awlaki Family Continues Protests

A portion of a photo of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki from his Facebook memorial page.

As I wrote yesterday, the family of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdulrahman, has spoken out against the US killing of these two American citizens, one just 16 years old, in separate drone strikes in southern Yemen.  The birth certificate of Abdulrahman has now been released to confirm his age and to counter false media reports that he was over 20 years old.  In addition, the family has provided the name and age of a 17 year old cousin, Ahmed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was killed in the same strike with Abdulrahman last Friday while they were enjoying a nighttime barbecue.

So far, I’ve seen no claims issued by the US that Abdulrahman was a militant.  Instead, the implicit assumption is that Abdulrahman was collateral damage in a strike that was targeted at  Ibrahim al-Bana, who is described as the media chief for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  By contrast, Anwar al-Awlaki was placed on Obama’s official “hit list” of persons targeted for killing.  The US has made multiple accusations against him, but those allegations have not been substantiated.  Here is the Indian publication Frontline on the veracity of the US accusations:

After the events of September 11, 2001, Awlaki was among the small group of radicalised American Muslims who threw in their lot with Al Qaeda. His sermons in English with an American accent urging Muslims to wage jehad against the West reputedly had a wide fan following on YouTube and other websites. After a U.S. Army officer of Palestinian origin, Major Nidal Mallik Hassan, went on a killing spree in a military base at Fort Hood in November 2009, Awlaki’s name hit the headlines. It was reported that the U.S. Army veteran was in touch with Awlaki before he went on the rampage in which 13 people were killed. Awlaki had denied having encouraged Hassan in any way but later praised his act saying that it had prevented the U.S. soldiers who were killed from being deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq where they “would have killed Muslims”.

Awlaki was also blamed for attempts to blow up American passenger planes, though the claims have not been substantiated. The Obama administration linked Awlaki with the failed Christmas 2009 attempt of Umar Farrouk Abdulmutallib, the “underwear bomber”, to bring down a Detroit-bound plane. Awlaki was also accused of playing a key role in the October 2010 “mail bomb” plot. Packets containing bombs, originating from Yemen and bound for the U.S., were intercepted in Dubai and Europe. In May 2010, a Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb in Manhattan told the U.S. authorities that he was inspired by Awlaki’s sermons.

In one of his sermons recorded in early 2010, Awlaki urged American Muslims to stage attacks. “Jehad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.”

But if reports in the Arab media are anything to go by, Awlaki was only a minor cog, used mainly for propaganda purposes, in Al Qaeda’s major network. His fluency in both English and Arabic coupled with his knowledge of the Quran helped him gather a big fan following, especially among the youth. Experts on Yemen have said that he had no operational role in Al Qaeda. The top commanders are Yemenis and Saudis who have been leading the fight against the U.S. presence in the region for many years. The AQAP’s main leadership continues to be intact and is no doubt busy hatching new terror plans. Awlaki was forced to flee into the desolate mountain region where his tribe is located and where Al Qaeda has a presence in order to escape from the Americans, who had put a bounty on his head. Read more

As al-Awlaki Family Mourns Abdulrahman, 16, US Develops “Kamikaze Drones” Targeting Single Humans

A portion of a photo of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki from his Facebook memorial page.

On Saturday, I wrote about a series of Friday drone attacks in southern Yemen.  The most prominent of these attacks killed Ibrahim al-Bana, who is described as the media chief for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  This same attack, however, also killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric targeted and killed last month in Yemen in another US drone attack.

Yesterday, the al-Awlaki family spoke out for the first time since the deaths, granting interviews with the Washington Post.  Notably, it turns out that Adbulrahman was only 16 years old, despite many media reports (including the AP report as carried in the Post that I quoted Saturday) that he was 21.  Here is how Abdulrahman’s grandfather (Anwar’s father) described the killing:

“To kill a teenager is just unbelievable, really, and they claim that he is an al-Qaeda militant. It’s nonsense,” said Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Yemeni agriculture minister who was Anwar al-Awlaki’s father and the boy’s grandfather, speaking in a phone interview from Sanaa on Monday. “They want to justify his killing, that’s all.”

And Abdulrahman wasn’t the only teenager killed in this attack.  His 17 year old Yemeni cousin also died.  In fact, the family claims the attack took place at a nighttime barbecue and several teenagers were killed:

In a separate statement Monday, the Awlaki family said that Abdulrahman “along with some of his tribe’s youth have gone barbecuing under the moonlight. A drone missile hit their congregation killing Abdulrahman and several other teenagers.”

The Post article also has a link to a Facebook page memorializing Abdulrahman. Read more

Yemen Tries to Claim US Drone Strikes as Yemeni Air Force Strikes

As MadDog alerted us this morning, there were multiple strikes against alleged terrorist targets in southern Yemen Friday night.  What stands out to me in scanning the various media reports about these attacks is that even though it is crystal clear that these attacks are carried out by US drones firing missiles, Yemeni defense officials try to claim that the attacks are carried out by the Yemeni air force.  This is an interesting contrast to the approach taken by Pakistani officials, where even though the official position of Pakistan’s government is that US missile strikes are not allowed, Pakistani officials make no efforts to claim the strikes as their own, allowing the assumption that the strikes are carried out by the US to go unchallenged.

The most recent report on the strikes in Yemen that I can find is this brief update from Reuters [Note: the Reuters article was revised and expanded significantly while this post was being written; the passage quoted is from the earlier version and no longer appears directly as quoted, but the drone death toll of 24 and government claim of responsibility survives.]:

The death toll from air strikes that killed a senior al Qaeda official in southern Yemen has risen to 24, local officials said on Saturday.

The Defense Ministry said Yemeni aircraft had carried out the attack on Friday night.

This report has the highest death toll I’ve seen on the story and includes the note that Yemeni officials claim they carried out the attacks.  By contrast, the CNN report on the attacks puts the death toll at only 7 and reports that there were three drone attacks.  This report, although it quotes Yemeni officials, is silent on responsibility for this attack, although it does reference the earlier attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki as having been carried out by the US [Note: this article also was updated, with the death toll up to 9 now.]:

The son of U.S.-born militant cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki was among those killed in a trio of drone attacks in southern Yemen on Friday night, a security official said.

The attacks, carried out in the Shabwa district, killed seven suspected militants, the defense ministry said. It would not confirm that Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki was among them.

The senior security official in Shabwa, who did not want to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the younger Awlaki had been hiding in the mountains of Shabwa for more than eight months. He had first-hand knowledge of the death, he said.

Read more