Chen Weihua

Drones launched from your backyard

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-05-18 07:50
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I never realized I was so close to the war zone in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border until I went to Syracuse in upstate New York a week ago.

The Hancock Field there has been turned into a base for drones that fly over Pakistan and Afghanistan for bombing missions. This means that someone sitting in the control room is playing a computer game that is killing real people thousands of miles away.

The strikes may have achieved the goals of assassinating some Taliban leaders and militants; yet, high collateral damage has been reported by both Pakistani and US sources. Pakistani authorities reported that in 2009 alone, some 700 civilians died during the drone attacks.

The high casualties - of innocent people - should be a grave concern for "anti-war" President Barack Obama, who authorized more drone strikes in his first year as president than his predecessor George W. Bush did in his last four years in office.

Civilian deaths are clearly a problem. A CNN report last week quoted Tadd Scholtis, spokesman for General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander in Afghanistan, as saying US and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan could someday win medals for restraint that prevents civilian casualties in combat.

This proposal under consideration simply means that too many innocents are being killed, and that the army has not exercised enough restraint.

Unfortunately, many Americans are unaware of the nature of the drone attacks launched from an air force base near their home, despite numerous protests across the country against the drones.

Just a few days before my trip to Syracuse, peace activists from upstate New York gathered outside the Hancock Air Force base to oppose the unmanned aircraft attacks.

On May 18-19, protesters from across California and some from Nevada will hold a rally in San Diego outside the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, which builds the Predator and Reaper drones.

Cindy Sheehan, who held a prolonged anti-war protest in 2005 outside George W. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, led a rally near the CIA headquarters in Virginia early this year, calling the CIA-operated drone bombing "immoral" and "terrorism with a big budget."

Demonstrations were also witnessed last year outside the Creech Air Force Base, only 35 miles from Las Vegas, resulting in the arrests of a number of peace activists.

In contrast to the anti-war activists, mainstream US media and scholars have been relatively quiet on the issue. Most have been talking endlessly about Times Square bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad's ties to the Taliban and whether his legal rights and citizenship should be deprived.

They have largely ignored the rising anger among Pakistanis about the drone Hellfire missile attacks. Shahzad also reportedly claimed that his intention was to retaliate for the drones, which he saw in Waziristan, in northwest Pakistan.

A Gallup poll last August showed that only 9 percent of Pakistanis support the drone attacks, while 67 percent oppose them. The majority saw the US as a bigger threat than the Taliban.

A recent Newsweek report quotes local villagers as saying that every family there has one male member in the Taliban force.

In the war on terror, many Americans seem to be worried that criticizing the US government and military would make them look unpatriotic or un-American.

Each Predator and Reaper costs American taxpayers $4 million to $12 million and each Hellfire missile some $70,000, and the drones are causing anti-American sentiment to spread, especially in the Muslim world.

If that money is used to build schools there to reflect the US' soft power, it will win more hearts and minds and make Americans safer.

Stopping the drones launched from American citizens' backyards is no less urgent than finding the true connection of Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad.


(China Daily 05/18/2010 page8)