Mrs. Clinton, we are told, has been having a tough time in Pakistan, where students and journalists have apparently been subjecting her to some ‘grilling’. The intellectual standards of American media being what they are, namely pathetic, one should not marvel at the fact that any serious questioning is immediately termed ‘grilling’. It is not any less interesting that such ‘grilling’ as takes place occurs largely in countries that the US otherwise imagines as ‘unfree’.
Under the “remorseless gaze of the Pakistan news media”, says today’s New York Times, Mrs. Clinton returned punch for punch. She castigated Pakistani officials for allowing al-Qaeda safe havens, and in turn was asked whether she did not think that American predator drone attacks in South Waziristan and elsewhere in Pakistan’s frontier areas constitute terrorism. “No, I do not,” Hilary Clinton replied.
Terrorism, as we all know, is not something that the Americans engage in: it has long been an article of faith that America wages (just) wars, engages in defensive conduct, or otherwise acts to free the world of the scourge of terrorism. In recent years, Americans – functionaries of the state, policy experts, and the numerous ‘independent’ commentators whose sole ambition appears to be to authorize the actions of the state — have been particularly insistent in advancing the view that their actions always seek to minimize civilian casualties, and that technological advancements have given them the capacity to wage relentless war with precision attacks that spare civilian lives.
The most notable, and increasingly visible, arsenal in American warfare technology is the invisible predator drone. The drone attack has become the new front of American warfare, and its incidence has increased markedly over the last two US administrations, and most notably since Barack Obama occupied the White House. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially, drone attacks are bitterly resented, but not only because many civilians have been killed. To take one instance, only into the third day of Obama’s administration, on January 23rd, one of two predator strikes run by the CIA eliminated the entire family of a pro-government tribal leader just outside Wana in South Waziristan.
Whatever the rhetoric about precision attacks and the reverence for life that is the supposed feature of American liberal democracy, there is but no question that drone attacks permit the execution of an untamed and aggressive foreign policy in new and unheralded ways. Though President Gerald Ford’s executive order of 1976 banning American intelligence agencies from carrying out political assassinations has in principle never been repudiated, predator attacks are only the latest and most shameless instantiation of the repeated violation of this order. That some of the people who have been assassinated, such as the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud — killed (along with much of his family) by a Predator drone in early August — themselves led lives of violence is not disputed. There is yet a more significant consideration: if histories of war stress, in ancient times, the face-to-face combat and the rules of chivalry that guided combat, we have now moved to the other extreme where the entire intent is to wage as faceless a war as is possible. Apparently bravery, in an extension of merciless air power, now consists in bombing people into extinction, all the while ensuring that no lives should be lost on one’s own side.
As Obama struggles to reach a decision on American involvement in Afghanistan, an increasing number of voices purport to take the middle ground. The US, these voices argue, cannot win the war in Afghanistan, certainly not without a major escalation of the conflict and increase in commitment of troops; on the other hand, the US cannot merely abandon Afghanistan. The question of ‘losing face’ aside, the ‘Great Game’ must continue, unless the US is prepared to concede ground to all others who have eyes on Afghanistan, including Iran, China, Russia, and Pakistan. The war, then, must be waged off-shore, with a full deployment of intelligence, cruise missiles, drones, guerrilla units, and so on. What rules of conduct will apply to this warfare? The military and the CIA, as a policy of matter, already do not make public any information on drone attacks, but the entire idea consists in ensuring that there shall be no accountability for American attacks. This is indeed the new front of American warfare: faceless, cowardly, geographically indeterminate, indeed groundless in every respect. Let us recognize terrorism’s drones for what they are.