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War games – and why does the CIA lie while men, women and children die?

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Comment and summary of story from Huffington Post UK, July 20, 2011.

The story is simple, and apart from the use of new technology in the form of drones, very familiar.

It is the same story when it comes to attacks the West has undertaken all over the world throughout the darker side of its military history, for example in Cambodia or Vietnam.

The USA is using drones – ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ - to carry out military strikes on terrorist suspects in semi-autonomous tribal areas of western Pakistan, such as Waziristan.

Photographer Noor Behram has managed to reach 60 sites of drone strikes, in both North and South Waziristan. Strikes in which he estimates more than 600 people were killed.

And an exhibition of his work, currently at London’s Beaconsfield Gallery until August 5, features pictures from 27 different drone strikes.

But there are no pictures of the women killed: the conservative culture in Waziristan will not allow Noor Behram to photograph the women, even if dead and dismembered.

So he makes do with documenting shredded pieces of women’s clothing.

Clive Stafford Smith, head of Reprieve, the campaigning group, has launched a lawsuit along with a Pakistani lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, seeking to bring to justice those responsible for civilian deaths from drones.

“I think these pictures are deeply important evidence,” said Stafford Smith. “They put a human face [on the drone strike campaign] that is in marked contrast to what the US is suggesting its operators in Nevada and elsewhere are doing.”

“They show the reality of ordinary people being killed and losing their homes, not senior al-Qaida members.”

For President Obama’s senior adviser on counter-terrorism, John Brennan claimed, on June 29, 2011, that no civilians had been killed for nearly a year; a claim he seems to be making on the highest authority - that of the US President.

“One of the things President Obama has insisted on is that we’re exceptionally precise and surgical in terms of addressing the terrorist threat,” he said.

“And by that I mean, if there are terrorists who are within an area where there are women and children or others, you know, we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger….” and that: “…nearly for the past year there hasn’t been a single collateral death.”

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism begs to differ.

The areas in which the CIA attacks take place in western Pakistan are regions that are incredibly difficult to report from, yet they are covered in local media, and – less often - by the international press.

The Bureau’s coverage of the strikes is thorough and detailed, and it directly refutes the claim being made by the Obama administration that no civilian deaths – that is deaths of unarmed men, women and children – have occurred.

In one post, the Bureau – working mostly through the exemplary Chris Woods – gives a detailed breakdown of 10 individual attacks by CIA ‘secret’ drones that have taken place in Pakistan since 2010, in which 45 or more civilians appear to have died.

The civilians killed include: four children killed alongside militants – September 8, 2010; at least 19 civilians killed attempting to rescue militant victims of a previous strike – March 11, 2011; and four civilian members of a family killed when their car was destroyed – June 15, 2011

That list goes on – and there are 15 additional strikes that warrant urgent investigation, with many more civilian deaths possible.

Along with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there has also been coverage in ABC news, the Wall Street Journal and the  BBC.

So why is the CIA lying?

Chris Woods’ article hints that this is not the question to be asking.

“The mystery is not that John Brennan and others are claiming ‘no civilian deaths’. The mystery is that they are not being firmly challenged given the many credible reports to the contrary,” he says.

“The CIA could hedge its bets. It could say it is making every possible effort to reduce the risk to civilians, and leave room for tragic error. ”

“Instead it stands by its absolute claim of zero civilian deaths, as a counter-terrorism official confirmed to me this week.”

WVoN comment: In a dark week for journalism because of the hacking scandal, organisations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and journalists such as Chris Woods not only restore our faith in the field of journalism, but also light the way to showing us the power of good journalism to act as a critical voice in global affairs.

The issue of drone strikes itself is one worth raising, and not only because of its uses in Pakistan.

There are extensive reports on the deaths of civilians in Israeli drone strikes on Gaza, reported for example in The New York Times, Demotix and Uncensored Magazine.

Another issue accompanying the use of drone strikes is the remote nature of the technology – and not just the geographic distance between drone control base in Nevada and strike point Waziristan.

The exhibition currently running at the Beaconsfield Gallery in Lambeth, London, is called ‘Gaming in Waziristan’ – and implicitly highlights the similarities between drone strikes in Pakistan and contemporary gaming platforms popularly used for war-based games.

The use of drone strikes allows the military to kill people at a sanitised distance, and as the US denial of civilian deaths shows, at such a distance that it can deny the effects on local populations completely.

This is something that risks dehumanising all of us, and increases the very threat of terrorism that the Western military claims to wish to prevent.

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