Imagine if, an hour from now, a robot plane swooped over your house and blasted it to pieces. The plane has no pilot. It is controlled with a joystick from 7,000 miles away, sent by the Pakistani military to kill you. It blows up all the houses on your street, and so barbecues your family and your neighbors until there is nothing left to bury but a few charred slops. Why? They refuse to comment. They don’t even admit the robot planes belong to them. But they tell the Pakistani newspapers back home it is because one of you was planning to attack Pakistan. How do they know? Somebody told them. Who? You don’t know, and there are no appeals against the robot.
Now imagine it doesn’t end there: These attacks are happening every week somewhere in your country. They blow up funerals and family dinners and children. The number of robot planes in the sky is increasing every week. You discover they are named “Predators,” or “Reapers” — after the Grim Reaper. No matter how much you plead, no matter how much you make it clear you are a peaceful civilian getting on with your life, it won’t stop. What do you do? If there were a group arguing that Pakistan was an evil nation that deserved to be violently attacked, would you now start to listen?
This sounds like a sketch for the next James Cameron movie — but it is in fact an accurate description of life in much of Pakistan today, with the sides flipped. The Predators and Reapers are being sent by Barack Obama’s CIA, with the support of other Western governments, and they killed more than 700 civilians in 2009 alone — fourteen times more than the 7/7 attacks in London. Last month there was the largest number of robot plane bombings ever: 21. Over the next decade, spending on drones is set to increase by 700 percent.
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The US government doesn’t even officially admit the program exists: Obama’s most detailed public comment on it was when he jokingly told the Jonas Brothers he would unleash the drones on themif they tried to chat up his daughter. But his administration says, behind closed doors, that these robot-plane attacks are “the only show in town” for killing suspected jihadis. They do not risk the lives of US soldiers, who remain in Virginia and control the robot planes using a Playstation-style panel. They kill “with accuracy,” they say, and “undermine the threat to the West” by “breaking up training camps, killing many people conspiring against us, and putting the rest on the run.”
But is this true? The press releases uncritically repeated by the press after a bombing always brag about “senior al Qaeda commanders” killed — but some people within the CIA admit how arbitrary their choice of targets is. One of their senior figures told the New Yorker: “Sometimes you’re dealing with tribal chiefs. Often they say an enemy of theirs is Al Qaeda because they want to get rid of somebody, or they made crap up because they wanted to prove they were valuable so they could make money.”