The Killing of Hakimullah Mehsud, Or Why Liberals Should Support Obama's Drone War on the Taliban

Far from seeing the drones as "indiscriminate killers" that are carpet bombing Pakistani cities and hunting innocent civilians, they seem to know that they are perhaps the best "worst option" in the campaign against fanatical terrorists like Hakimullah Mehsud who have deliberately killed thousands of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and here in the U.S... and are hell-bent on killing more.
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By all accounts Hakimullah Mehsud, the bloodthirsty leader of the Pakistani Taliban deserved to die in a CIA drone strike on Friday November 1st. Among other terrorist outrages he had carried out a senselessly brutal suicide bombing campaign against civilians in Pakistan that slaughtered up to 3,000 last year in a slow motion version of 9/11, he led a secessionist terrorist organization that transformed his breakaway region of North Waziristan into a harsh shariah Islamic law prison camp for its long-suffering people, his followers attacked NATO convoys travelling through the neighboring tribal region of Khyber and burnt hundreds of transport trucks, one of his followers tried to set of a car bomb in Times Square in 2010, he deployed a suicide bomber that wiped out a CIA team in Afghanistan in 2009, his Taliban fighters butchered thousands of Shiite "heretics" in their region, he played a key role in the defeat of Pakistani troops that tried to reconquer his secessionist region which is often known as Talibanistan, his followers burnt over 400 schools in Pakistan as part of their anti-education campaign, his forces conquered territory within a hundred miles of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, his followers killed activists who were trying to combat the spread of polio in North Waziristan, and he was actively involved in efforts to overthrow the Pakistani government and enforce a strict Taliban theocracy for all of Pakistan.

Among Hakimullah Mehsud's victims was Malala Yousufzai, the brave little schoolgirl who stood up to the Taliban and resisted their campaign to prevent girls from attending school. For this outrage the Taliban stopped her bus and shot her point-blank in the head (amazingly she survived and was recently interviewed on Jon Stewart). If you are not familiar with her tragic story and the story of the Taliban's cruel conquest of her peaceful valley you owe it to yourself to watch the powerful Times video here on Youtube. Or maybe you recall the shy 18-year-old girl whose nose and ears were cut off by the Taliban who later posed for the controversial Time magazine article found here. If this is not evidence enough of the Taliban's cruel misogyny then perhaps the unbearably gruesome video of Taliban stoning of a woman to death in Pakistan should do the trick (warning it is extremely graphic).

So the big question is why aren't liberals, Pakistanis, women's activists, secularists and those who simply believe in the right of plucky girls like Malala to attend school celebrating the death of this monster? In fact far from rejoicing in the death of this man who was the scourge of everything women, Pakistani patriots, liberals and democracy lovers everywhere stand for, Mehsud's death and those of other Taliban terrorists at the hands of CIA drones have been condemned. The Pakistani Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, for example, criticized the killing of Mehsud. Khan's rationale was that the Pakistani government had been preparing negotiations with the terrorists who have declared a jihad to overthrow the state. But it should be recalled that the government has tried this policy of appeasement with the Taliban before and the terrorists have always taken advantage of these temporary truces to spread their power and conquer more land. Britain's Guardian reported of the doomed peace talks/capitulation to terrorists.

Mehsud's outlandish conditions for dialogue included the imposition of a harsh version of Islamic law across the country. Peace talks with the TTP [Pakistani Taliban] have taken place before, and have always ended in failure, so it perhaps an over-statement to imply that had Mehsud survived, peace in Pakistan would have prevailed.

To compound matters, the political party that controls the tribal zones in Pakistan's northwest region which is led by the anti-drone activist politician Imran Khan has threatened to cut off NATO supply convoys in retaliation for the drone strike. This is the same politician who led a march against drone strikes wherein his followers chanted "death to America." Ironically, Imran Khan's march, which was intended to go through the tribal zones that the Taliban control as de facto shariah law state, had to be halted because the Taliban threatened to kill him with a suicide bomber because he was a "liberal."

Which brings up the obvious question. Why do liberals like Khan, who cannot even march through the secessionist Taliban-controlled religious prison camp he claims to be defending, feel the need to vociferously attack President Obama's drone campaign against the very terrorists that deliberately target their country's civilians and ours?

In the Pakistani context, part of this response is due to reflexive anti-Americanism. About 7 out of 10 Pakistanis see America as their enemy. Much of this anti-Americanism can be traceable to extremist Muslim world views, a reaction to strong U.S. support for Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians, Washington's ties with India, and the overall war on terror which is defined by many in Pakistan as a war on Islam. Most alarmingly, it may also be compounded by the fact that the Pakistani media paints a picture of the CIA drone campaign in the remote tribal regions as being exclusively against civilians, not terrorists like Mehsud.

It has become an article of faith in many Pakistani circles that the CIA drones hunt not Taliban and Al Qaeda, but only prey on innocent Pakistani civilians. Typical of this viewpoint was Maulvana Sami Ulhaq of the Pakistani Jamiat Ulema e Islam (the "Community of Islamic Scholars," an extremist Pakistani Islamist party) who announced in a conference in Lahore that the U.S. drone attacks kill "dozens of innocent people daily."The Pakistanis news website GeoNews similarly stated, without citing any study to back up its claim, that;

Of the 60 cross-border predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American drones in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, only 10 were able to hit their actual targets, killing 14 wanted al-Qaeda leaders, besides perishing (sic) 687 innocent Pakistani civilians. The success percentage of the US predator strikes thus comes to not more than six per cent.

Sadly, such unsubstantiated charges of high civilian-per-terrorist death ratios in the drone campaign are not limited to Pakistan. There is a vibrant anti-drone movement in the US that is dominated by anti-war liberals. Such groups as the anti-war/anti-drone organization Code Pink, which is led by women activists, have been quite vocal in attacking president "Obamba" for the "mass slaughter of innocents in Pakistan" at the hands of "robotic" drones (I have found no evidence of similar criticism of the Taliban terrorists from this group and the drones are not robots, they are flown by remote pilots at CIA HQ in Langley). Code Pink speaker and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, for example, raised the number of slain Pakistani civilians at the hands of drones even higher than the Pakistani claims when she stated (once again without ay proof or studies to back up her claim) that the CIA drone campaign "is by its own admission (sic) killing 100 or more innocent civilians for every so-called terrorist that they get. We think this is morally reprehensible."

But are there any studies to back up these claims that the CIA's remote control drones, which can fly over their targets for up to 48 hours carefully monitoring their movements with high-resolution cameras before striking them with precise, laser-guided missiles, are actually waging the most uniquely imprecise "bombing" campaign in history as these American and Pakistani voices claim?

Fortunately, there have been three independent studies that have tracked the drone strikes and recorded who has died in them. One study was carried out by the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth led by political scientist Professor Avery Plaw one was led by Bill Roggio of the widely respected Long War Journal and one led by CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen of the Washington DC think tank the New America Foundation. Contrary to the anti-drone activists' claims, these studies' findings all backup the Obama administration and CIA's claims that the drones are waging the most precise bombing campaign in history.

Among the more interesting findings in these three independent studies, which are all based on publicly accessed media accounts of drone strikes (including a wide reliance on Pakistani media sources), is the finding in the Long War Journal that "Since 2006, there have been 2,563 leaders and operatives from Taliban, Al Qaeda, and allied extremist groups killed and 153 civilians are estimated to have been killed" (i.e. just six percent of those killed in the strikes were civilian). Most remarkably, The New America Foundation reports that there have been no civilian deaths thus far in the 2013 drone campaign.

Which begs the question, how is this level of unprecedented accuracy achieved? The answer lays in several steps that are taken to avoid precisely the sort of civilian death (or "collateral damage" as it is euphemistically known to the military and CIA) that the Obama administration fears could lead to a backlash of anti-Americanism in the tribal areas of Pakistan. These steps include a wide use of terrorist-tracking spy networks in the tribal zones controlled by the Taliban, the use of homing beacons known as prathrais which are put on the target's vehicle or house to direct missiles to them, the increased targeting of Taliban and Al Qaeda militants when they are driving in easily followed vehicles instead of in houses where one cannot detect civilian bystanders, the use of smaller and smaller missiles such as Scorpions which create less lethal explosions that only kill their intended target, and the use of telephone intercepts to track the enemy. Contrary to glib claims that "any male in the tribal zones is considered by the CIA to be Al Qaeda or Taliban" made by the anti-drone voices, the CIA has to have corroboration from at least two distinct sources that an intended target is Al Qaeda or Taliban before a drone strike is called for.

Surprisingly, the Taliban have acknowledged this CIA drone precision. One pamphlet issued by the Pakistani Taliban acknowledged, "Westerners have some regard for civilians, and they do distinguish between Taliban fighters and civilians, but the Pakistani army doesn't." A resident of North Waziristan who witnessed numerous drone missile strikes told ABC News: "The attacks have become so precise. In a village, if they want to hit a house in the middle of the village and it's surrounded by other houses, the missile would come and hit that one house only." Similarly, Malik Naveed Khan, a provincial police chief from the tribal zone, could not contain his admiration for the drones when he stated, "They are very precise, very effective, and the Taliban and al-Qaida dread them."

It is such "threading of the needle" precision that has allowed the CIA to avoid large numbers of civilian deaths while killing scores of high-ranking Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists, including three number three ranked leaders in Al Qaeda and two chiefs of the Pakistani Taliban prior to the killing of the latest chief Hakimullah Mehsud, (for a breakdown of dozens of top terrorist leaders killed in the Pakistani drone strikes see here and for the first history of the CIA's murky drone campaign see my recent book Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda.)

Certainly President Obama, whose first major foreign speech as president was in Cairo, Egypt where he called for a new era of understanding with the Muslim world, knows these facts. He also knows that if there is another major terrorist attack on U.S. soil like the one on 9/11 or the 7/7 bombing in London, both of which were hatched in Taliban sanctuaries on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, then he will be held responsible for it. Hence his support for the CIA's disruptive drone campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists in what is a de facto Taliban state despite the fact that he previously attempted to try Gitmo terrorists like Khaled Sheikh Muhammad in U.S. courts (but was prevented from doing so by the Republicans), ended the CIA's black site rendition program, banned waterboarding and other Bush-era war on terror techniques etc.

It might also help explain why 77 percent of American liberal Democrats support Obama's drone campaign according to a recent poll. Far from seeing the drones as "indiscriminate killers" that are carpet bombing Pakistani cities and hunting innocent civilians, they seem to know that they are perhaps the best "worst option" in the campaign against fanatical terrorists like Hakimullah Mehsud who have deliberately killed thousands of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and here in the U.S... and are hell-bent on killing more.

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