From the air, the terrain of the Department of Energy’s Nevada National Security Site [as they claim, it actually is Western Shoshone land], with its arid high plains and remote mountain peaks, has the look of northwest Iran. The site, some sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, was once used for nuclear testing, and now includes a counterintelligence training facility and a private airport capable of handling Boeing 737 aircraft. It’s a restricted area, and inhospitable—in certain sections, the curious are warned that the site’s security personnel are authorized to use deadly force, if necessary, against intruders.
It was here that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) conducted training, beginning in 2005, for members of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, a dissident Iranian opposition group known in the West as the M.E.K. The M.E.K. had its beginnings as a Marxist-Islamist student-led group and, in the nineteen-seventies, it was linked to the assassination of six American citizens.
The Obama administration has found a good way to avoid both the domestic political and international fallout that comes of waging constant warfare: let machines do the dirty work. Of course, the Obamaites don’t get the full credit for the discovery – drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan were part of the Bush team‘s strategic plan, but the Obama White House has gone much further in utilizing this tactic to escalate and extend American military operations around the world, and they’re doing it in secret – without congressional oversight, without public debate, and without the knowledge or consent of the American people.
The theater of operations is vast – potentially as vast as the world itself, given the rationale of pursing “terrorists” wherever they might be detected – and, so far, the range extends from the tribal regions of Pakistan to the African savannah, where pilotless “Reapers” take off from airfields in Ethiopia and Djibouti in search of prey. According to reports, US bases have also been established in Saudi Arabia and the Seychelles for this purpose. The latter, I hear, are quite happy about what this has done for local business: Americans may be standing in the unemployment lines, while their taxes go to fund endless war, but the Seychellois are in relatively good shape these days.
In any case, the latest targets of these unmanned killer-drones are located, as far as we know, in Somalia, where the Islamic group al-Shabab is alleged to have some vague ties to al-Qaeda. But that’s just what they’re telling us: because this is a secret war, we don’t know the real targets. It is highly likely, however, that among those targets are numerous rebel groups rising against the tyranny of Ethiopian “president” Meles Zenawi.
Targeted killing by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), commonly known as drones, has become the central element of U.S. counterterror operations in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, a safe haven for Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. Over nearly a decade, drone-attack frequency and death rates have increased dramatically. Rather than calming the region through the precise elimination of terrorist leaders, however, the accelerating counterterror program has compounded violence and instability. These consequences need to be addressed, since the summer of 2011 has seen the dramatic expansion of the drone program into Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
Drone warfare has complicated the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a sisyphean counterinsurgency and nation-building project, by provoking militant attacks in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan.1 At the strategic level, fragmented U.S. intelligence and military policies are working at cross purposes, eroding trust through “covert” drone warfare on the Pakistani side of the Durand line while trying tardily to build trust on the Afghan side. The growing outrage of Pakistani society came to a head in spring 2011 over the Raymond Davis incident and the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. These events put great stress on relations between the United States and the world’s most volatile nuclear state.