Jonathon Shafi looks at the US’s increasing use of drone warfare and argues it is just one prong in the US’s wider strategy to reassert imperial control over the region

On 23rd July the latest in a concerted campaign of US drone attacks over Pakistan took place in the North Waziristan Agency of Pakistan. 13 people were killed after the drone unloaded 8 hellfire missiles on a house. Only one in every forty deaths is ever named. On this occasion the CIA have said that all 13 were ‘suspects’.

A presence of drones was reported throughout the evening with locals in a state of fear and panic, not knowing if there was to be another attack.

There have been repeated protests about the use of drones both in municipalities and in the Pakistani parliament which passed a resolution calling for the US to halt the attacks as it is a violation of international law.

The US has said that they will not stop using drones for both surveillance and deadly force.
The Reaper drones, which cost $36 million each and carry out extensive operations, receive barely any mention from the media establishment.

The CIA are the main organisational force behind the use of the unmanned drones. Use of drones has massively increased under the Obama administration as US strategy had to reorientate away from the use of occupational armies and towards highly technological and covert missions in states of interest.

There are three countries in particular that have been targeted: Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The most intensive drone manoeuvres take place in Pakistan. US military officials view use of drones as highly effective to the degree that the CIA claim that there have been zero civilian deaths through drone attacks since 2010.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) has carried out extensive research of drones and the impact in Pakistan. The result of their work highlights the scale of the US offensive and shames much of the corporate media and the BBC for their largely uncritical reporting of drone warfare.

Obama and the drone wars

Obama has managed to keep the coverage and analysis of the drone attacks in check. On one rare occasion in which he was willing to take questions on the matter he nonchalantly argued that ‘Drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties’.

The increase in attacks post Bush is staggering. Of the 336 strikes that the US has carried out over Pakistan, Obama is responsible for 284 of them. He personally approves each strike. Since taking office, this averages at around one attack every 4 days. These are actual missile runs, not just surveillance missions.

2004 – 2012

Total reported killed: 2,518-3,239
Civilians reported killed: 482-835
Children reported killed: 175
Total reported injured: 1,199-1,325

It is difficult to get accurate information as the CIA does not release specifics; they simply claim that everyone that gets hit is either a militant or militant sympathiser.

In February of this year the BIJ reported that ‘a three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.’

The US defence secretary seemed unphased as he told a conference in June this year in Delhi that the US and India would need to ‘continue to engage Pakistan, overcoming our respective – and often deep – differences with Pakistan to make all of South Asia peaceful and prosperous’

The backlash against the drone strikes is palpable in Pakistan. Street protests and huge funerals for those killed in attacks are common. It is an issue which permeates Pakistani society from top to bottom. Pakistani officials are condemning the strikes as illegal and almost pleading with the US to stop the attacks. But there is a degree of impotence in protesting to the United States against its own illegality, for in reality the US want to project themselves as immune to the laws governing the rest of the world.

Hegemony or survival

The US is faced with a number of serious threats to its imperial orbit. The ‘War on Terror’ has been a failure. Its aim was to achieve ‘full spectrum domination’ over the region, instead the US is more isolated than when it began; bogged down in an unwinnable war with the Taliban; Hezbollah and the Iranian regime strengthened through blunders in Iraq and Lebanon; and Arab revolutions which have destabilised previously consistent state supporters, most notably in Egypt who now have a Muslim Brotherhood president.

In this context, China’s rise is also threatening, as although it may not be a comparable military force, its growing economic strength at a time in which world economic crisis was initially centred upon Wall Street, throws question marks up about US hegemony in the world.

Of course America won’t go without a fight. They have various options in which to re-establish control. One is to generate joint initiatives through imperial alliances like NATO. The intervention in Libya gave US imperialism a root back into the Arab world after the destabilisation of the Arab Spring. The civil war in Syria is being utilised to gain a further foothold and reshape the revolutions towards US geopolitical interests.

The question of Iran is still up in the air, as an improvement in diplomatic relations between the US and Ahmadinejad must be countenanced by the fact that there has been a build up of military force in the Gulf over recent weeks.

Drone warfare is part of this wider imperial strategy. The use of proxy and covert warfare through drones asserts a sense of domination over key areas of strategic importance. The drones provide a mobile American presence which flaunts technological and military supremacy in a very direct way. They want to say that America is there, watching and striking at will, regardless of official protest. There are parallels here with Israeli strategy in Palestine: we will kill at will, and we will humiliate you while doing so.

Imagine if China or Russia used drones in the same way as the US. The US would be the first, alongside the Western media, to declare it to be unacceptable. The point is that the significance of drone strikes go beyond the terror they create amongst Pakistani communities, they are part of an overarching narrative of re-affirming US hegemony.

The contradiction of course is that while pursuing this route they make only more enemies in the process. And making an enemy of Pakistan is a dangerous road to travel.


This article first appeared on the website of the International Socialist Group

Jonathon Shafi

Jonathon Shafi is organiser of the International Socialist Group (ISG) Scotland. He has played a long-standing role in anti-cuts and anti-war in Glasgow and a founder member of the Radical Independence Campaign.