The Moral Case For Drones: Part II (Draft)

The moral case for drones are based on one simple idea: that those that we are using them against are terrorists.

If you look at any journalist, academic and political discussion about the legality and morality of the use of unmanned drones, they all rely on the fundamental assumption that they are being used in a theatre of war, and are being used against terrorists i.e men who would cause harm to America, American interests and even American allies. That no one questions the American definition of a terrorist reflects the power of American imperial hegemony over language and debate. It is a term unthinkingly placed into news reports, deliberately sprinkled in legal and other official documents, and casually used in drawing-room conversations.

And yet the term terrorism defies definition. In fact, the way that the Americans use it – whether in political speech, legal rulings, journalism and popular language, it carries only one very specific and prejudiced meaning – Muslim violence against American will. As Glenn Greenwald argued:

It is hard to overstate the centrality of the term “terrorism” when it comes to state power, policy and law. It is the term that launches wars and sustains the US posture of endless war, justifies unprecedented state secrecy, serves as the pretext for due-process-free imprisonment and assassinations, and sends countless of our fellow (Muslim) citizens to prison for decades for the most trivial, and often constitutionally protected, acts.

Yet this term, arguably in the abstract and certainly as applied, has no fixed meaning. It’s just a manipulative slogan legitimizing all forms of American violence against Muslims and delegitimizing any acts meaningfully impeding US will…As always, it’s the term that means nothing and justifies everything.

Terrorism is any act that meaningfully impedes US will. Notice how there is no need to judge whether the American will is legal, moral or just. It is just the American will. And in Afghanistan, and its

But the ability to influence the world’s idea of what terrorism means is precisely the kind of imperial hegemonic power I have been talking about. The USA does not need to explain the term, it merely has to use it and everyone else simply follows. The term sets the parameters of debate around any issue, and when it comes to America’s wars in the Middle East, the use of the term also acts as judge, jury and executioner, all without any oversight, due process or checks and balances. Screaming ‘terrorism’ closes the doors of the law, shuts down the procedures of gathering evidence, removes the possibility of the right to a defence, and ensures the likelihood of a secret execution. It also buys the silence of our allies, and our citizens.

And yet, the categorization of those whom we kills with drones as terrorists is the fundamental first act of any moral argument for drones. One only has to peruse the speeches of members of Obama’s justice and legal teams, or read the near daily new reports of drone attacks, to see how the terms terrorist/Taliban/Al Qaeda – all words with immensely fluid and vague meanings, are used to not only ‘explain’ who was killed, but also act as a justification for the killing.

The New York Times reported a story this week that reveals how blinkered an American view of the war is and how disconnected we as a society remain about how we are seen in not just Afghanistan, but of the rest of the world. It revealed how the reality we have created in Afghanistan – of us as a force of good, and them as terrorists/Taliban/Al-Qaeda, is unraveling in the face of continued violence, war, atrocities and injustices.

There has been an increase incidents of Afghani soldiers turning their weapons against the Americans. In an article by the Times journalist Matthew Rosenberg titled Afghan Soldier’s Journey From Ally To Enemy Of America the reporter writes that:

…insider attacks, by Afghan security forces on their Western allies, became “the signature violence of 2012,” in the words of one former American official. The surge in attacks has provided the clearest sign yet that Afghan resentment of foreigners is becoming unmanageable, and American officials have expressed worries about its disruptive effects on the training mission that is the core of the American withdrawal plan for 2014.

… behind it all, many senior coalition and Afghan officials are now concluding that after nearly 12 years of war, the view of foreigners held by many Afghans has come to mirror that of the Taliban. Hope has turned into hatred, and some will find a reason to act on those feelings.

Many residents [in the Ghaziabad District of Kunar] sympathized with the insurgents and often complained to Afghan soldiers about the abuses committed by Americans and the failure of Afghan soldiers to control much of anything beyond the perimeter of their own outpost, Mr. Mahmood said. The Taliban, they glorified.

The Americans and ISAF are considered an illegal occupation force in Afghanistan by many. It is seen as a brutal machinery of war whose leadership has foisted on the people of the country a government based on a cabal of warlords and war criminals while garlanding them with a false language of ‘government’, ‘parliament’, ‘democracy’ and ‘president’. The men who are fighting against this force are seen as resistant fighters and nationalist heroes. That much like their struggle against the Soviet Union, they are determined to resist to the bitter end the attempts of the Americans to own the politics, economics and culture of the country. That the American invasion of Afghanistan – a nation that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and the later military and political occupation of the country, are both illegal and immoral, is clear to many people both in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Of course, this version of events is not what we will read in our media, or hear in the hundreds of panel discussions that take place at academic institutions, Washington D.C. think tanks, government conference rooms, humanitarian organization offices and even journalists cubicles around the world. But it is a valid narrative and thought it is one that many will have trouble accepting, they must at least acknowledge that it is as valid and as motivating for some as the American narrative is for so many.

Equally powerfully, we also have a difficult time accepting another narrative which goes something like this: the large number of terrorists/Taliban/Al Qaeda that the Americans insist on remaining in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a direct result of the ongoing violence, brutality, and injustice produced as a result of the military operations and occupation. That is, our policies of drone attacks, extra-ordinary rendition, endless detention without trials, torture, and a military occupation are fueling radicalism, resistance and violence. This is not my conclusion, but one that in fact the Americans arrived at themselves.

In a report published in 2004, the Defence Science Board Task Force was directed by Donald Rumsfeld to research the impact of American policies in Iraq and Afghanistan on the terrorism and Islamic radicalism (I will not argue those labels at the moment). The Task Force’s conclusion was clear and explicit – American direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States. I can’t imagine that there are many who are surprised by this conclusion. Or perhaps there are.

There is another narrative to the Afghan war. More often than not, those who oppose an alternative narrative remind us that the terrorists/Taliban/Al-Qaeda are violent, fanatical, blood thirsty and that in the past carried out terrible atrocities and violence against even their own society in Afghanistan. They point to video and photographic documentation produced by organizations such as RAWA to confirm their points – that the Taliban are a group of fanatical retrograde and degenerates and that anyone arguing on their behalf is a deviant and naive. What these voices fail to realize is that we still have an obligation, a responsibility, to fight for the rights of even those we abhor and fear. That simple disgust does not allow us to contort history, re-write the past, or kill with impunity. Particularly when the very practices we now claim to be ‘shocked’ and ‘outraged’ by, were quietly ignored and tolerated for the decades prior.

Regardless of the crimes of the Taliban, they find themselves are in a situation unrelated to their crimes in the past, and their targeting and extra-judicial executions stem from the priorities and perspectives of an American occupation of the country. We can detest them, fear them, but that still does not give us the right to casually kill them. Or subject an entire nation to collective punishment, which is what the American attack and invasion of Afghanistan is. And it certainly does not give us the rational to label them as terrorists. This will shock some, offend others, but it is a fact. Furthermore, it does not give us the right to re-write history so that the occupier is the liberator, the resistor the terrorist. That is the other narrative of the Afghan war and it is one shared by thousands inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

In fact, if we were to continue to work with RAWA we would learn that today they remain a powerful voice speaking out against the American and ISAF presence in Afghanistan, and against their propping up of a venal, corrupt and criminal government. A recent RAWA post actually reveals a more complex reality that most would like:

The only way our people can escape the occupant forces and their obedient servants is to rise against them under the slogans of: “Neither the occupiers! Nor the bestial Taliban and the criminal Northern Alliance; long live a free and democratic Afghanistan!”

There is another narrative to the Afghan war and in this narrative it is the Americans who find themselves in a position of illegality, and criminality. In this narrative, those who are fighting them whether in Afghanistan or in other parts of the world, are justified in their determination to rid themselves of the burden of occupation, repression and murder. Trying to label them as terrorists/Taliban/Al-Qaeda – labels that are subjectively applied without providing any evidence, is trying to discredit them, dehumanize them and pave the way to killing them.