Posts Tagged ‘Drones’

Five Years On & Hope Became Terror

January 13, 2016


13 January 2016


Five years ago this week the Arab Spring began in earnest. On 14 January 2011 President Ben Ali of Tunisia resigned. The social media went into fast thumb tap and click. The Middle East began to throw off its identity and took to the streets demanding change.

The freedom squares were full of protest within days. Egypt. Lebanon. Yemen.Bahrain. Jordan. Libya. Morocco. Iraq. Less than a month from the going of Ben Ali Hosni Mubarak was gone as President of Egypt.  On 6 March the first shots were fired in Syria. A week on and the Saudi sent in troops to rescue the Bahrainian leadership in case the anger spread to Riyadh.

In that same March NATO went into Libya  not to support their recent ally Gaddafi but to join the rebels against him. By the summer Yemen was in full fire and President Ali Abdullah Saleh fled for his life.  Five months later, October 2011 a cringing Mummer Gaddafi was assassinated.

The change was all to see and just as predictable.  Libya spilled its blood in political anger and still bleeds. Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi as president in June 2012 and then the army  overthrew him the following year and returned to virtual military rule and in 2014 elected former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. There was worse, to come

Out of this political and zealous carnage on 9 May 2013 ISIS, IS, ISIL ,Daesh – call this Jahadi as you will – was formed, declared a caliphate and the world quickly witness barbarism that could never have been imagined at the start of the Arab Spring. James Foley was Daesh’s first beheading.

By the autumn of 2014 a token coalition of forces but mainly American went after Daesh with a series of airstrikes into Syria.  The war there had been joined with ‘Western’ nations declaring for the rebellion and calling for the downfall of President Assad.

They are still bombing. Assad is still there.  In 2015 Russia joined in the hopeless of it all and said it was bombing ISIS in Syria but was truly bombing (and not very accurately) anti-Assad rebel positions.

Russia had signed up with Iran to defend Assad and equally to defend his constitutional and international right to rule as an elected leader. Iran, a Shia nation saw the fight for Assad (an Alewife and therefore a branch of Shia) as chance of a proxy war against Saudi Arabia and its Sunni royalty.

As to show this conflict could never be held tight in the Middle East, gunmen attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo the satirical French magazine and then in November of last year other gunmen and bombers killed 130 in Paris.The rest of Europe waits to see who is next.

Where has all this got us? Syria is in ruins beyond its capital. Iraq remains a failed Shia led state with Daesh in its strongholds and moving freely between Iraq and its “capital” Raqqa in Syria. There is hardly a state not spilling over with refugees.

If there is a deep anxiety than this in the region it is in Riyadh.  The ruling royal family, itself born beneath the green flag of Wahhabism and the ruthless of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, now fears for its own survival. So it should.

There is not a government from Washington to Brussels to the whole of the Middle East that does not fear the collapse of the Saudis.  The manner of its going would be a stage in the Arab Spring totally unthinkable five years ago. The consequences unpredictable and unwanted even among its harshest critics. The ruling family is now unstable in the sense that it is unlikely to be able to defend itself.

Here then the rub of the lamp that whips up the ghoul and not the friendly genie.

If Saudi Arabia starts to go then the United States will have to launch a major defence.  The advanced operation of US military forces are already in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf but not enough to defend the unthinkable. The British are having built (with Saudi money) a new base in the region. London would have to reinforce it if things go the way they so easily could.

Five years ago there was candle lit and iPhone glowing hope in the Middle East especially among the young and the educated longing for new times to come that would give them back their dignity of national identities instead of impossible dictatorships.

Five years ago and Ben Ali went quietly. Five years later no one can go quietly. Before this year is out the US and her allies including the United Kingdom and France could be heading for the biggest firefight since Viet Nam. Hope is done for. Terror has the next move.



The Ethics of War?

November 3, 2015


3rd November 2015


I was through the Amargosa Valley in Nevada which boasts a gas station and the second best bordello in the state.  Nevada’s like that. I was heading for US Highway 95 and Creech Air Force Base close by India Springs. It is bare country and bare country has simple rules. You do what you got to do and never stand around unless maybe there’s a beer.

Forget the bordello. There’s not a batwing door to be seen and you won’t hear the clink of a dollar set of spurs. The nearby abandoned MX missile test site is known for its scorpion collection.  Packs a megaton sting they tell me.

We had moved from the base and were approaching Creech and a beer with a top sergeant who runs a four or five target analysis on some regular guy in a beat-up Toyota. The sergeant says that when Intelligence confirms that he is a baddie then the sergeant’s partner  a young lieutenant signs off the To Go sheet and takes a shot from an RPA. Goodbye says the sergeant and moves onto the tracking habits of another potential hit.

Could be a good morning for crispy bacon, easy over and maybe a beer.  The sergeant tells me that  the Predator drones (that is what a Remotely Piloted Aircraft is) are a good way to do some of the war. She says you get to track a baddie’s habits. You have a time from cover to automobile to destination. When the people at command one are sure then the baddie is as good as toast.

The score rate is high and most of the time the target is the only casualty.  Aborting a hit is easy.  You simply don’t press go. There will be another time. Clean.  What are we to make of this?

In World War One admirals talked about submarines not being fair weapons. Sneaky.  You watch the folk at Creech AFB and it cannot be sneaky. The technology is not a secret and, it is mostly clean.  War being mostly mucky that single fact could easily make it right.  Could it?

I was listening to something of an answer. I was listening to an Oxford professor discussing “Applying Ethics to Public Policy”. When it came to tracking a guy in a Toyota 7,800 miles away and then blowing him to seven waiting virgins the seemed no problem. But the ethics of what? Ethical revenge? Does it exist?

The ethics of using technology to do the damnedest thing because you have the technology is dangerous ground. In its simplest form ethical public policy has nothing to do with an eerie sensation of knowing that the baddie was about to get his. Is this not how it should be?

Taking out the enemy with no thought other than if he had a drone and I had a Toyota there would be no ethical discussion.

Then we get to think the next stage.  They say down here at Westminster the home of the world’s first bordello of democracy that the political risk of joining in the Global Coalition effort to air strike Syria is looking shakier every day.  They need a UN Resolution because President Assad has not asked the RAF to do it.

The ethicist cannot be certain of course.  To strike and prevent a massacre seems the very stuff of Biggarean moral philosophy.  I mentioned that at Creech.  The top sergeant looked puzzled.  You need a beer?

Cameron and Co need know nothing of all this.  He may not even ask Parliament to let him unleash what is left of the RAF (they have not really got enough assets to do this anyway) onto targets in Syria.  For there is the awesome fascination of the war against an unsophisticated enemy with the ethics of a zealot.

One is based at Raqqa.  One is based at Creech. One arouses horror, The other rouses ethical wonder.  And the British (complete with their own drones) don’t want to get their boots bloodied. No ethics. No uncompromising zealotry. Simply a frightened off political caste whose indecision is final.

Christopher Lee

May 22, 2013


Drone Attacks On the Decline, But That Won’t Shine Obama’s Legacy

22 May 2013

Is the United States running out of al-Qaeda kill targets? Has the cutting off of the serpents heads been more effective than President Obama thought possible when he sanctioned drone killing as what he was told would be the best way of beating terrorism?  And has this meant nothing to the legacy Obama so keenly seeks in his final term?

In Washington, drone attacks remain a combined military, counter-terrorism and even an ethical issue.  That is why President Obama went Thursday to the American National Defense University with a speech that fundamentally attempted to justify his global counter-terrorism policy.  Given where he was speaking, he was getting to a captive and committed audience.  For others, what he said does not necessarily get high-fives.

Firstly, Obama has struggled to define what the White House calls a “legal architecture” for target lists. The only way to satisfy some, but not all, critics of the drone program is to take it out of the exclusive hands of the CIA.  If, for example, the drone targetting schedule were in two groups – the CIA and the military – there would have to be a certain higher level of transparency in who gets lined up for a hit and what is done to limit the civilian casualties that have become a factor that makes a mockery of the claim that drones are pin point accuracy weapons.  They are not, not can they be.

Secondly, Obama signs off each strike.  That means also that he has lethal powers that sit uneasily in the White House and have done so since Vietnam and carpet bombing.

Thirdly, the US is clearly rethinking its drone target policy, not because it has an ethical revelation, but because major targets have been taken out and identifying new ones harder.

Fourthly, Obama and his advisers have both publicly and privately made a case for drone hits on the basis that they are cheap, they work and they do ot cost American lives. Precision targeting is now questioned and so is the diplomatic cost of continuing with them at the present level.  

Many countries that once turned a blind eye to strikes in their homeland now object. That sets up a local political destabilizing factor and that makes it harder for America’s one time vital allies to continue to publicly do American bidding or at least assist where it once thought reasonable. Internal pressures and local political intriguing mean that US  support in many countries is becoming harder to pin down and this includes the once willing passing of information on radical groups and personalities – candidates for drone attacks. So the “dangerous man is dead” justification no longer remains an uncomplicated issue.

When, for example, attacks started in 2004 in Pakistan, there was just one that year. It took another four years for the attacks to reach double figures – 35 in 2008. Two years on, the strike figure was more than 100 into Pakistan territory. Since then the kill rate has reduced the so-called threat target list to just 13 this year so far.

As a security problem, the dispassionate would argue that it is a good problem to have.  American must be a safe place. But ethically it is not and Obama knows this too well. This White House does not do any better than previous administrations on war ethics.

For example, when he arrived at the White House for his first term, Obama made a big deal about the wrongness of the Guantanamo detention centre on the island of Cuba where America incarcerated often dubiously come-by prisoners for indefinite detention and interrogation.  He said he would close it down.  He hasn’t.

A difficult aspect of Guantanamo for this lawyer President is the heavily classified, 6,000 page analysis of the CIA’s interrogation program and the refusal of requests that it should at the very least be partly released as a freedom of information request. Difficult decisions for a President so vulnerable to an accusation that he’s a good talker but can not get crucial issues through a po-faced Congress.

All this is why the National Defense University speech is so important.  It will be the public definition of Obama’s most controversial military authority for the rest of his term. So far, not so good for a President who still hasn’t hit upon a legacy that he’s want in the book of American presidential history.

Christopher Lee

January 20, 2013


Mali is the new Afghanistan and the US drones are coming – they say you can’t duck

21 January 2013

Following what went down in Algeria and how the Intelligence stuff says the terrorists involved were Mali based, Mali is now, almost officially in Washington, the new Afghanistan.


During the past 72 hours, US drone schedules are now including Sahara and Sub-Sahara Target Lists. The US is going after Islamists in that region and telling the Maghreb and neighborhood Islamists to just look around that part of the world.


The few remains of other al Qaeda-linked Islamists including leaders such Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdulrahman in Yemen, have been smeared across the burned wrecks of too many supposedly safe houses and vehicles for them not to get the message: the US is coming after them.  Nobody the US wants today runs for long.


As the new breed of drone operators chalk on the anti-al Qaeda and Taliban briefing sheets: God May Be Great – Predators Spitting Hellfire missiles are Greater.


Equally this is not where President Obama wanted to be, especially during inaugural week. It certainly turns the iconic Don’t Ask What America CanDo For You into Just Think What America Can Do To You.  Obama’s next four years won’t all be economy fixing. But with John Brennan as his drone hitman set to head the CIA, Obma will be signing off more drone attacks than health care Bills.

Although drone technology has been around since World War II, the priority technology programmes developed especially by the US and Israel – and often in collaboration – turned what was second line weaponry into the most talked about system. The big kick in the program came in the 1990s when the Department of Defense (DoD) signed a three way contract with Israel’s Maziat and America’s AAI Corporation of Maryland to produce a new generation of unmanned airborne vehicles.

One of the systems that came out of that deal was the still-in-use AAI Pioneer. The came General Atomics MQ-1, known as Predator and living up to its name. Putting  an air-to-ground Hellfire missile aboard changed the effectiveness of this form of theatre attack warfare.

Take all this on board because America is not stopping there.  There is almost no weapon system apart from heavy cruise that cannot be carried by the latest systems and there is hardly any target that can hide once data transfer from human to satellite information is patched in.Most importantly, Obama’s people are saying here that there is no sovereignty issue that will stop them attacking a suspect target.  That’s important because until recently, say the past five to seven years, the idea of attacking a target in another country unless you were at war in that place, was very delicate diplomacy and didn’t pick up too much support even from allies.

All that’s changed in Afghanistan when Taliban targets were droned in Pakistan. A ball park one thousand people have been killed by US drones – Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk – in Pakistan during the past five or six years. A few, maybe 20 were al Qaeda/Taliban leaders. But not all the victims of the drones were on any wanted lists.  The best estimate suggests that innocent people – including children – were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So when the US says they’re going for the al Qaeda leadership it means that bystanding is unwise. And back in Main Street USA, you won’t see too many Human Rights Watch activists getting too many petitions going to stop the drone. Americans had heard of Osama Bin Laden, but that’s about it.


Names abroad mean nothing and what happens to them and those caught in the target radius is of little interest. If the President says he’s a Bad Guy, then the answer is blow the black Stetson to pieces. In a society that has more privately held weapons than voters, America won’t blink on this one especially as ground troop commitments are zero.  The bonus is the evidence of the past 72 hours that there are many Bad Guys on the run.


And the President knows that mostly, American allies have the same view. No one, not even the French, wants to sign up for the new Afghanistan.  Maybe they say, just maybe Predator will do the truly dirty work for them.


Could be they’re right, but when the place is clean it has to be assumed that they new Bad Guys will be back.  Then the reality is that boots have to be on the ground – and they won’t all be African.