By Aijaz Zaka Syed
08 May, 2012
They say beware of what you wish for; your wishes might just come true. All those who cheered for Barack Hussain Obama must be ruing the day and kicking themselves. What a crushing disappointment!
The much feted prophet of change has turned out to be just another regulation politician, only interested in perpetuating and protecting his own power and interests. Principles, ideals and convictions. Well, they sound nice but belong only in those wonderful, sublime speeches that he is so good at making.
Incredible as it sounds, more people – five times more – than those imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay by his predecessor have died in drone attacks on the watch of this president. Indeed, as the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen puts it, drones have become the coin of Obama’s realm. The man who voted against the Iraq war and questioned the “dark side” of the neocon wars lost little time in embracing the same world view.
And now his counterterrorism honcho John O’ Brennan has the audacity to claim that the use of pilotless planes to kill the usual suspects and everyone in the vicinity without giving them time and a chance to explain and defend themselves is perfectly “legal, ethical, proportional and saves American lives.” Even international law, argues Brennan, allows America to do what it well pleases!
In a 7,000-word speech at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre in Washington this week, Obama’s top adviser put up a passionate defence of America’s drone war, arguing that “the constitution empowers the president to protect the nation from any imminent threat or attack.”
With a straight face, Brennan told his audience that the drones, now operating from Pakistan’s tribal areas to Yemen to Somalia, do not touch civilians and only kill the terrorists: “It’s hard to imagine a tool that can better minimise the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft. Nothing casual about the extraordinary care we take in making the decision to pursue Al-Qaeda terrorists, and the lengths to which we go to ensure precision and avoid the loss of innocent life.”
Really? Is this how you saved those four young girls who died in the drone strike this week on a Waziristan school? While the US claims it took out four “Al-Qaeda-linked fighters,” the locals insist the victims were actually four school girls.
Precision or not, there’s a long history of drone strikes that have invariably targeted innocents, resulting in the loss of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives. From schools to weddings to funerals, nothing is beyond the pale of cowboy justice.
The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) reported in February that at least 260 drone strikes had taken place since Obama took over, killing 535 civilians, including 60 children, in Pakistan. Many more have been claimed by the aptly named Hellfire missiles since. The BIJ report noted that the killing machines in the sky do not spare even those rushing to help the victims or survivors. Even mourners are routinely targeted – a pattern that has been diligently followed in Afghanistan.
The day Obama’s counterterrorism czar went public defending the indefensible, Salon, a respected US-based publication, did an interesting feature on Shahzad Akbar, a UK-educated Pakistani lawyer who has been valiantly fighting for justice for drone victims. Introducing the crusader, Salon wrote: “If you want to see how Obama’s drone war efficiently turns America’s friends into adversaries, meet Pakistani attorney Shahzad Akbar.”
An ardent admirer of the American dream, Akbar returned to Pakistan with ambitions to make it big as a corporate and public advocacy litigator in the fashion of US lawyers. He even worked with the US Agency for International Development, briefly. This adulation of all things American soon gave way to frustration and anger when he witnessed the devastating effects of the endless, all-out war on his people.
Speaking at a Code Pink event in Washington on Saturday, Akbar explained why he gave up a promising legal career to join the hopeless cause after a chat with the brother of a schoolteacher killed in a 2009 drone strike: “He convinced me we had to do something because there are so many civilians being targeted and being thrown into militancy and extremism because the rest of the country and world are not listening to them,” Akbar told the conference.
By 2010, he was representing scores of families who had lost loved ones in the strikes, besides organising protests against the drone war across Pakistan. Akbar says his clients are the voiceless people of Waziristan: “No one cares to give them names or identities – just the general label of ‘militants’ and that is enough to kill them and then justify that killing.”
Akbar rejects the Obama administration’s claims that the US attacks do not target civilians. “They are lying to their own people,” he insists. As proof he showed his audience the picture of 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, who travelled eight hours from Waziristan to Islamabad to attend a conference on drone attacks last October. Aziz and other participants were given cameras and training so they could document the human cost of drone strikes. Three days later, Aziz and his 12-year-old cousin were killed by a Hellfire missile.
There must be hundreds of Azizs out there, ignored by the American public and a world that has grown weary of this never-ending, one-sided war on a people abandoned by their own leaders.
Does President Obama ever pause and ponder the consequences of his policies? As he faces his reelection battle later this year, does he realise he has ended up embracing the very war and policies of his predecessor that he once despised? Having repeatedly promised a better world and a ‘new way forward,’ how does he live with himself today? Indeed, it was on the basis of those lofty promises, not to mention his soaring rhetoric, that he was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize within months of taking office.
Following the Nobel announcement that surprised many, including the recipient of the world’s most coveted honour himself, distinguished US economist Dr Jeffrey Sachs, known for his lifelong fight on poverty, had said, “the Nobel has started a fire under Obama’s feet. He’d better earn it now!”
Quoting Dr Sachs – it was a real pleasure meeting him during the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – yours truly had cheered: “That’s it, Mr President! Go earn it now. And your countdown has already begun.”
And true enough, Obama has worked hard over the past four years to earn it – droning on and obliterating anyone who looks like a terrorist, which is almost everybody sporting a turban or a cap along the frontier territory. This is summary justice at its best, without going through inanities like courts and trials and without so much as a blip on those huge computer screens of the DC boys. The Israelisation of America is a frightening reality now.
The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs.