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The Illegitimacy of U.S. Drone Strikes... And the Entire "War on Terror"

By davidswanson - Posted on 07 November 2013

By Larry Everest
excerpted from The Illegality, Illegitimacy & Immorality of U.S. Drone Strikes

There is a logic and a reason the "double-tap" and mass civilian casualties. It's rooted in the nature and objectives of the U.S. "war on terror," and imperialist logic and necessities driving it.

In his May speech, Obama claimed, "America's actions are legal. We were attacked on 9/11. ... Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces. We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war—a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense."

This statement is packed with distortions, half-truths, and outright lies. The U.S. "war on terror" is, at heart, an unjust war for greater empire—not a "just" war to liberate people, "defend the American homeland," or rid the world of violence and terror. A key aim of this war is defeating al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other "associated" Islamist forces. This is not simply or mainly because these groups are plotting attacks on the U.S. It's mainly because they pose a big challenge to U.S. control of Central Asia and the Middle East, including because they're directly clashing with U.S. client regimes. This could greatly weaken the U.S. hold on these regions, which are key to U.S. global dominance and the functioning of its empire of exploitation. And provide openings for rival regional and global powers.

The U.S. initially tried to deal with this problem by invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq. But this strategy has, in many ways, backfired. The U.S. has not succeeded in either outright defeating the Islamists or in "draining the swamp"—restructuring these societies to undercut the societal roots of the Islamic fundamentalist opposition. And these occupations have cost the U.S. dearly, and have further fueled anti-U.S. Islamist trends.

So the U.S. has wound down the occupations of Iraq and now Afghanistan. But it hasn't abandoned the "long war" to defeat Islamic fundamentalism and maintain control of the arc from Morocco through Saudi Arabia to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rather it is increasingly employing drone warfare and other covert operations to achieve its imperial objectives, while avoiding, as Obama has put it, American "boots on the ground."

The U.S. drone war in North Waziristan in northwest Pakistan is a key front in this war, which shows a lot about what it's actually about, and why so many are being blown to bits. North Waziristan, home to some 840,000 people, borders Afghanistan. It's where Zowi Sidgi, Ghundi Kala, and Miranshah are located and is a base area for the Taliban fighters from both Afghanistan and Pakistan and other Islamist forces. These groups oppose the U.S. puppet government in Afghanistan and the current regime in Pakistan, and are fighting for reactionary Islamic states in both countries.

This is why U.S. drone surveillance is constant and drone strikes have been concentrated in this region. Here the U.S. is targeting individual Taliban, al Qaeda, or other Islamist leaders or fighters.

Even when the targets of U.S. drone attacks actually are commanders of jihadist forces who may be plotting or carrying out terrorist attacks, these attacks are not about "saving lives." U.S. drone attacks, regardless of the intended victim, create a state of ongoing terror among all the people in large regions of the world. They are in the service of imposing the U.S. empire, which has brought so much misery to the Middle East, North Africa, and the rest of the world.

Again, the U.S. drone strikes are not at all limited to targeted strikes on jihadist leaders. There is also the "double-tap" logic at work of attacking any who might be Islamists or their supporters, or "associated forces"—a definition which can be stretched to mean most anything. This leads to murdering, injuring, and terrorizing whole groups—even whole populations—of people who may support, sympathize or just tolerate the Islamists, or who're just part of the population the fundamentalists draw from. And so these drone attacks perpetuate and accelerate the vicious cycle of U.S. imperialist aggression driving people into the arms of the jihadists.

These patterns have been evident since the drone strikes began a decade ago. Wedding parties in Afghanistan were obliterated. Funerals have been attacked. And then there were widely used "signature strikes" targeting people or groups of people based on "behavior patterns"—not because they'd been specifically identified as members of al Qaeda or "terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people."

The New York Times report (October 22, 2013) on the impact of the drone war on Miram Shah [Miranshah], a small town of some 3,500 in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border, paints a picture of systematic terror impacting a whole population:

[V]iewed from Miram Shah, the frontier Pakistani town that has become a virtual test laboratory for drone warfare, the campaign has not been the antiseptic salve portrayed in Washington. In interviews over the past year, residents paint a portrait of extended terror and strain within a tribal society caught between vicious militants and the American drones hunting them. "The drones are like the angels of death," said Nazeer Gul, a shopkeeper in Miram Shah. "Only they know when and where they will strike."

It has become a fearful and paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with an additional 25 in adjoining districts—more than any other urban settlement in the world. Even when the missiles do not strike, buzzing drones hover day and night, scanning the alleys and markets with roving high-resolution cameras... the strikes in the area mostly occur in densely populated neighborhoods. The drones have hit a bakery, a disused girls' school and a money changers' market, residents say... While the strike rate has dropped drastically in recent months, the constant presence of circling drones—and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike—is a crushing psychological burden for many residents. Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared, said Hajji Gulab Jan Dawar, a pharmacist in the town bazaar.

The Immorality of American Lives First

The reality of life under U.S. drones in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Afghanistan is systematically suppressed and hidden from people in the U.S. But when the news leaks out, when people begin to get a glimpse of what the U.S. is doing around the world (whether spying, drones or whatever), the rulers have an answer: it's all to protect you and yours, to save American lives. "To begin with, our actions are effective," Obama said in May. "Simply put, these [drone] strikes have saved lives."

Far too many have swallowed or passively tolerated the ideological poison that they should accept the slaughter of unnamed and uncounted thousands in distant lands because it makes them more "secure." That obliterating people in Pakistan is a small, and acceptable, price to pay for their own personal safety.

Putting American lives ahead of the lives of others is profoundly immoral. Today this is the moral equivalent of supporting slavery in the 1800s because you benefited, or thought you benefited, from it.

"Transparency" Is Not the Essential Problem, Imperialism Is

The exposure of the U.S. drone war, calls for disclosing government secrets, and for prosecuting those who have carried out war crimes—done by human rights organizations, UN special rapporteurs, and news agencies—is important. But these reports accept the framework and basic legitimacy of the U.S. "war on terror" and its "right to self defense." So while Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, some UN agencies, and others have called for "transparency," "legality," and "accountability," they have neither challenged nor opposed the "war on terror." For instance, Amnesty's Qadri stated on Democracy Now!, "There are genuine threats to the USA and its allies in the region, and drone strikes may be lawful in some circumstances."

But the root problem is that the entire "war on terror" is illegitimate, unjust, and directly contrary to the interests of humanity—as is the system of imperialism from which it flows. The U.S. rulers have violated their own laws and international agreements, but their greatest crime is waging an immoral and unjust war in service of global exploitation and oppression, a war that has further stoked reactionary Islamic fundamentalism which inflicts its own set of horrors on the people. And making such an unjust war of empire more "transparent," and concocting a more coherent and public legal justification for it, even restricting certain military actions or more complying with existing international law (which is bourgeois law), doesn't make it just or in the interests of humanity—quite the contrary.

What Is the U.S. Trying to Defend and Preserve in Pakistan?

Think about what the U.S. is fighting to preserve in Pakistan: an oppressive tyranny ruling over one of the most brutally exploited and impoverished countries on earth. A country where 82 million people will spend their entire lives in poverty, earning less than $19 per person per month. Where millions of children are driven to work in factories earning perhaps $10 a week to support their families. Where nearly all medium-size and large agricultural enterprises are owned by a tiny elite—less than 1 percent of the population. A country shackled by feudal, patriarchal traditions where less than half of women living in rural areas can read.

This is why—despite tensions and contradictions—the U.S. and Pakistani governments work together to crush any challenges, whether reactionary like the Islamists, or revolution, to the current order. This is why the Pakistani government, like the Islamists and the U.S., target restive populations: "We are scared that at any time there could be a blast [from an armed group] and then the Army will fire mortars without caring who they hit," one villager told Amnesty. And this is why despite its public protests, the Pakistani government supports U.S. drone strikes: "top officials in Pakistan's government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos,"Washington Post reports (October 24, 2013).

What kind of empire and global order is it that depends on violence to preserve such oppression and suffering? That murders 68-year-old grandmothers, blowing them to pieces as they tend their small fields, and then attacking their children and grandchildren when they try to help? Or that massacres chromite miners, landless farmers, and near-penniless drivers? What is legitimate about trying to violently preserve a world in which millions upon millions are forced to live in destitution and fear, now, in the 21st century? Yet this is, at bottom, what the "war on terror" is about.

Why should anyone accept U.S. drone strikes, Obama's lies, and most fundamentally, this kind of world?


Amnesty International, "'Will I be next?' US drone strikes in Pakistan", October, 22, 2013

Amnesty International photos

Human Rights Watch, "Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda," October 22, 2013

"Documents reveal NSA's extensive involvement in targeted killing program," WashingtonPost, October 16, 2013

Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report," New York Times, October 22, 2013

"'How Do You Justify Killing a Grandmother?' Amnesty Says U.S. Drone Strikes May Be War Crimes," Democracy Now!, October 23, 2013

"The Deaths of Innocents," New York Times, October 23, 2013

Amnesty International, "USA Must Be Held To Account For Drone Killings In Pakistan," October 23, 2013

."Pakistan says drones killed 67 civilians since 2008," BBC, October 30, 2013

"Too Scared to Go Outside": Family of Pakistani Grandmother Killed in U.S. Drone Strike Speaks Out," Democracy Now! October 31. 2013

For extensive documentation of the U.S. "war on terror," drone strikes, and other covert operations, see Jeremy Scahill, Dirty War: The World Is A Battlefield (Nation Books, 2003)


Larry Everest is a correspondent for Revolution newspaper, where this article first appeared, and author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda (Common Courage 2004).  He can be reached at


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