Like a Mosquito

Mattathias Schwartz

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The Predator drone began its career as a spy. Its first mission was to fly over the Balkans during the late 1990s and feed live video back to the US. In 2001, it was kitted out with Hellfire missiles and promoted to assassin. The CIA reportedly had qualms about operating unmanned killing machines, but these were swept away by the attacks of 11 September. In October 2001, the Washington Post reported that George W. Bush had signed a ‘presidential finding’ that effectively lifted a 25-year ban on assassinations. Although Bill Clinton had previously claimed the authority to mount covert attacks on al-Qaida, Bush’s finding greatly expanded the pool of potential targets and expressly permitted the drawing up of kill lists. ‘Targeted killing’, the new programme, was like ‘clipping toenails’, one official told the Post, because al-Qaida could always generate new leaders. ‘It won’t solve the whole problem, but it’s part of the solution.’

By early 2002, the Predator had picked off its first target in Yemen. The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan got underway in 2004. The US military sent Predators to support ground forces in their campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, then against Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq, then against the Baathist ‘dead-enders’, then against the rising insurgency. In 2001, the military had 167 drones; by 2009, it had 5500. Today the US drone fleet numbers more than seven thousand; in addition to Predators, there are longer-distance and harder-hitting Reapers, high-altitude radar-enabled Global Hawks, and hand-launched Ravens that look like model airplanes. Most missions are for surveillance, a substantial fraction for killings. They are carried out by US operators sitting in comfortable chairs in air-conditioned rooms thousands of miles away. Their screens show tiny, pixellated people disappearing into puffs of smoke.

Between three and five thousand people have died this way in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; hundreds more have been killed by drones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Obama oversaw the departure of the last US troops from Iraq last year, and the current plan for Afghanistan is to complete the handover from Nato to local forces by the end of 2014. But as these conventional wars have wound down, the use of drones to kill individuals outside declared war zones has accelerated. Under Bush, the US carried out 48 known drone strikes in Pakistan. Under Obama, there have been more than three hundred. Other than a handful of ‘high value targets’, little is known about who exactly is being killed, and how many of the dead might be considered innocent civilians. Estimates of civilian deaths range from ‘single digits’ in a year (Dianne Feinstein) to the low hundreds (New America Foundation) to nearly a thousand (Bureau of Investigative Journalism) to more than 90 per cent of all the deaths in drone strikes (the ex-military officers David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum). In March 2012, the New York Times reported that all military-age males, armed or unarmed, are considered to be combatants unless there is posthumous evidence proving otherwise; the Obama administration recently disputed this.

Most of the killings take place in inaccessible tribal regions, so the organisations keeping the body counts often base their assessments – ‘civilian’, ‘militant’, ‘insurgent’ or ‘combatant’ – on media reports of whatever is said to have appeared on the video feed. A former drone operator published an account of his experience in Der Spiegel:

Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach. ‘Did we just kill a kid?’ he asked the man sitting next to him. ‘Yeah, I guess that was a kid,’ the pilot replied. ‘Was that a kid?’ they wrote into a chat window on the monitor. Then, someone they didn’t know answered … ‘No. That was a dog.’

In other words, distinguishing between civilian and militant has become a post hoc body-sorting argument. As viewed through the drone’s crosshairs, the ciphers on the ground are neither civilians nor militants: they could be called ‘civilitants’, some of whom have been rendered killable not by who they are or what they have done but by where they happen to be.

The names on the kill lists come from a broad swathe of militant Islamists, not just the al-Qaida of Bush’s day but its Yemeni affiliates, Taliban allies and Somali fellow-travellers. Some of the dead are done in by their physical proximity to men wanted by the drone-flying authorities. Others are victims of mysterious ‘signature strikes’. In Kill or Capture, a Woodwardian palace history, Daniel Klaidman writes that Obama first learned of signature strikes three days after his inauguration in 2009.[*] US officials began speaking about them openly in early 2012.

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[*] Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency by David Klaidman (Mariner, 288 pp., £10, April, 978 0 544 00216 6).

[†] Heller traces one signature back to the Vietnam War with this passage from Colin Powell’s memoir, My American Journey: ‘I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male. If a helo [helicopter] spotted a peasant in black pyjamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front but at him. Brutal? Maybe so.’