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“Double Tap”

26 September 2012

“Double Tap”

By Gwynne Dyer

“Double Tap” is what mobsters do when they put somebody down. One bullet in the heart, one in the head. That way they stay down. It’s practically standard operating procedure among hitmen.

Then there’s a different, nastier kind of “double tap”. Suppose you live in some hill village in western Pakistan, and one of the families nearby has a boy fighting with the Taliban who has come home for a visit, bringing several friends with him. It’s worrisome, because you are always hearing American drones overhead – and sure enough, one day there is a terrifying explosion and his house is destroyed.

What do you do now? There was a whole extended family living in that house: children, old folks, a cousin or two. Some of them are probably still alive under the rubble, perhaps badly injured. Do you rush over and help to dig them out? Better not. The Predator or Reaper drone (lovely names) will wait until all the neighbours have gathered round, and then launch a second Hellfire missile onto the site. Double tap.

“These strikes are becoming much more common,” Mirza Shahbad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who represents the victims of drone strikes, told “The Independent” newspaper recently. “In the past it used to be a one-off, now and then. Now almost every other attack is a double tap. There is no justification for it.”

Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic have just released a report, based on nine months of research and 130 interviews, which concludes that barely 2 percent of the victims of US drone strikes were known militants. That’s not to say that everybody else killed or injured was an innocent civilian, but these are definitely not “surgical” strikes.

The best estimate of the number of people killed in US drone strikes over the past eight years comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: between 2,532 and 3,251 dead in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those, between 475 and 879 deaths were civilian non-combatants who just happened to be nearby when the Hellfire hit – often because they were trying to rescue survivors from an earlier strike.

The Stanford/New York University study, entitled “Living Under Drones”, describes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s database as “far more reliable than other aggregating sources,” based on a far wider range of sources than other comparable studies. And of course there are no official numbers. The US government doesn’t even try to count the casualties.

Washington doesn’t formally admit that the Central Intelligence Agency is running a remote-control assassination programme at all, because it is legally a very doubtful area. At the same time, it strives to reassure the American public that there is almost no “collateral damage”: that practically all the victims are “bad guys”. Including the 175 children who, according to the Bureau’s numbers, have been killed in the strikes.

Let’s be honest here: children always get killed in air strikes. When you explode 10 kg (20 lbs) of high explosives on a single target (the standard Hellfire load), there can be nothing surgical about it. The really questionable aspects of the CIA’s drone programme lie elsewhere.

First, is it legal to make air attacks in a country that you are not at war with? Second, can you distinguish sufficiently between “militants” and civilians living in the same area? And, above all, why are you making double-tap attacks?

The legal question is particularly problematic in Pakistan, where the government has not authorised the United States to carry out attacks. Islamabad tacitly accepts them, but sometimes public opinion forces it to respond vigorously, as when an American missile killed 24 Pakistani soldiers last year. That blunder also highlights the difficulty of distinguishing between “militants” and civilians through the lens of a remote-controlled camera.

It’s the double-tap attacks that are truly shameful. Do the controllers really think that the people rushing to rescue the survivors of a first strike are all “militants” too? Or are they just trying to deter people from helping those who were wounded in the first strike? That is certainly the effect of the policy: villagers now often leave the injured survivors of an attack in agony for hours before going to help them, for fear of becoming victims too.

There’s no point in telling the military and their masters that this tactic is counter-productive, generating more new “militants” than it kills. The bureaucratic machine doesn’t respond to such subtle arguments. There’s probably no point in talking about the moral problem of killing innocent people either. But the fact that some fifty countries now have drones should inspire a little reflection about this unwritten change in the rules of engagement.

The latest proud possessor of these weapons is Iran, which has just unveiled a new drone with a range of 2,000 km (1,300 mi), capable of flying over most of the Middle East. If it is really copied from the US drone that Iran captured last year, then it has major air-to-ground capabilities. So what if it starts using those capabilities over, say, Syria, against the rebels that the Syrian government calls “terrorists”?

The US could not really complain (though no doubt it would). What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 11. (“These strikes…it”; “The Stanford…casualties”; and “The legal…camera”)


Obama: The Limits of Power

30 October 2008

Obama: The Limits of Power

 By Gwynne Dyer

My favourite rumour about President-elect Barack Obama’s cabinet is that he will create the post of Secretary of the Environment and offer it to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Of course, it’s unlikely that Schwarzenegger would take the offer, because being governor of California is a much more satisfying job, but Obama will need a couple of Republicans in his cabinet and Arnie is serious about the environment. Stranger things have happened.

I know, Obama won’t officially be president-elect until Tuesday night, so I shouldn’t put it like that yet, but it really is over. The media have to keep it looking like a real race right down to the finish line, but you know and I know that Obama is going to win, possibly by a landslide.

With both presidential candidates essentially running against George W. Bush, the one who wasn’t a Republican started with a huge built-in advantage, and then the financial crisis and the recession sealed John McCain’s fate. So now it’s time to consider what Obama will do with his power — and even how much power he will really have, given that his spending options will be severely constrained by that same recession.

It helps that the Democrats will have firm control of both houses of Congress, of course, but Obama will benefit even more from the fact that he is probably going to enjoy one of the longest honeymoons in presidential history. Americans, including most of those who didn’t vote for him, are going to be immensely pleased with themselves for having elected an African-American as president.

It won’t transform race relations at every level and it certainly won’t lift all African-Americans into the middle class, but it will be seen as erasing the deepest stain on American history, the legacy of slavery. Most Americans have been uncomfortable about that for a long time, and they will make Obama a symbol of that cleansing even though he never set himself up as such. This will serve him well when he has to do politically unpopular things.

More importantly, he doesn’t face a long list of unpopular things that he must do at once. Rolling back the Bush tax cuts for the rich is not going to alienate a lot of people, nor is imposing tighter regulation on the financial industry.

Obama is extraordinarily fortunate that the huge financial bubble that built up on Bush’s watch collapsed while the man responsible was still in office, so people will remember for some time that the recession that dominates the first years of his term is not actually his fault. That memory will eventually erode, of course, but if it is an ordinary two-year recession it will be coming to an end by the time the public starts to blame him for it, and the economy could be booming again by the time he runs for re-election.

But that is getting well ahead of ourselves. What big thing is he actually going to do early in his term to make his mark? It needs to be something that doesn’t cost too much, at least in the early stages, so the answer is almost certainly health care reform.

The long-term cost of giving basic medical cover to the sixth of the American population that currently has no cover whatever will not be small, but Obama is unlikely to go for a comprehensive national system of the kind that exists in almost all other developed countries. The power of the insurance companies is too great for that. So it will be some insurance-based system supported by federal subsidies, and by the time the system is up and running federal revenues should be recovering from the recession.

Obama can also expect a honeymoon internationally, but it could be shorter. Opinion polls consistently showed that 80 to 85 percent of people in other developed countries would back Obama if they had votes in the American election, and his support in developing countries is even higher. The standing of the United States in the eyes of foreigners, so badly battered by eight years of George W. Bush, will soar as soon as Obama takes office — but there is reason to doubt that American foreign policy will actually change all that much.

Obama will pull American troops out of Iraq by 2010 as promised, but he is promising to reinforce the US military commitment in Afghanistan, the allegedly “winnable” war, and he is also on the record as supporting American attacks on Pakistani territory without Islamabad’s permission. His forte has never been foreign policy, and there are disturbing signs that he has bought into the whole “war on terror” narrative that has dominated the American domestic debate since the shock of 9/11.

If that is the case, then Obama’s present popularity in other countries will decline quite rapidly, but that is of limited interest to most Americans. They want healing at home more than anything else, and Obama can deliver that.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“It won’t…industry”)


Two Years On: The Score


7 September 2003

Two Years On: The Score

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years on, September 11th is still a raw anniversary for most Americans, who cannot forget the terrible scenes in lower Manhattan as three thousand of their fellow-citizens died in a terrorist attack. But not one further American has died from Islamist terrorism on home soil since then. Was it all just a flash in the pan?

The Bush administration pumps up the terrorist threat to distract attention from the economy and provide a pretext for some other actions, but for all the colour-coded alerts and the thousands of suspects held without trial, all the paranoia and duct tape, the past two years have been among the most terrorism-free in modern American history. Apart from the brief anthrax panic that cost four or five lives in late 2001, even the domestic crazies are giving it a rest.

Islamist terrorism is down in the rest of the world, too. If you ignore local conflicts of a more or less colonial character in which terrorism already played a major role before 9/11, the total number of deaths world-wide in Islamist attacks in the past two years is 348 — and fewer than fifty of the victims were Americans.

For obvious diplomatic reasons the governments in Moscow, Tel Aviv and New Delhi have been trying to re-define their own local struggles with Muslim opponents as part of America’s global ‘war on terrorism’, but it just won’t fly. The Palestinian militants of Hamas and Islamic Jihad only attack Israelis, the Kashmiri and Pakistani militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba and their associates only attack Indians, and the Chechen guerillas only hit Russian targets.

In every case the basic quarrel is about territory, and the terrorists see themselves acting in a tradition of national liberation war that stretches back to the Irish, Israeli, and Algerian wars of independence (all of which involved a good deal of terrorism). The recent terrorist attacks in Iraq also don’t count, whether carried out by secular Baathists or the burgeoning Islamic resistance movement, since they are part of a local struggle against foreign occupation. What’s left after all that is genuine international Islamist terrorism — and there isn’t very much of it.

Count the attacks up. Nothing for six months after 9/11, and then an attack on a Christian church in a diplomatic compound in Islamabad, Pakistan in March, 2002, in which five people were killed including the wife and daughter of an American diplomat. A truck laden with explosive and driven into a synagogue in Tunisia in April, 2002, killing 21 tourists, mostly Germans. A suicide bomb in Karachi in May, 2002 that killed 14, including 11 French engineers working on a defence project.

Another long gap until the autumn, and then the attack on a Bali nightclub last October that killed 202 people, mostly Western tourists. In the same month a suicide bomber attacked a French oil tanker off Yemen, killing one crewman. In November other suicide bombers drove into an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, killing 15 people and injuring 80, mostly Kenyans. In May of this year, suicide bombers in Saudi Arabia hit a foreign compound in Riyadh, killing 34, and others in Morocco blow themselves up in a number of places around Casablanca, killing 45. Finally, in August, 12 people were killed in the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta.

And that’s it. In two years, a total of 348 people have died in seven countries in attacks that could be loosely linked with al-Qaeda or its many affiliates and emulators — far fewer than have been killed by bolts of lightning in the same period. Global terrorism is a highly over-rated threat.

The attackers on 9/11 were extraordinarily successful because they employed teams of suicide hijackers including trained pilots, a new and unforeseen technique that would only be a surprise once, and because nobody was on a high state of alert. They changed everybody’s perception of terrorism because of the number of deaths they caused, and because they struck at the nerve centres of the world’s greatest power. But since then, it’s been back to low-tech attacks on soft targets, and the terrorists haven’t been having much success.

Even if the US invasion of Iraq generates a whole new wave of terrorist recruits, it won’t make much difference to this larger picture so long as the terrorists’ weapons remain conventional. So-called ‘weapons of mass destruction’ like poison gas and biological agents aren’t really very impressive either; in a real-life situation, they would generally be no more lethal than a well-placed truck bomb. A nuclear attack would be entirely another matter, of course, but how likely is that?

Extremely unlikely: terrorists do not have the resources to make nuclear weapons, and no existing government would give them one. No Muslim country except Pakistan even owns any nuclear weapons, and one of the unspoken truths of the current international order is that a take-over by radical Islamists in a nuclear-weapons state would trigger instant and decisive international action to disarm it. (Not that the invasion of Iraq was about that; Iraq had neither radical Islamists in charge nor WMD, which is why so few countries followed the US lead.)

Terrorism is not an enormous threat to life as we know it. It is a marginal nuisance which some governments find it useful to inflate into an enormous bogeyman. We should all get a grip on reality and stop worrying so much.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“For obvious…it”)