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DRONE WATCH: Sharif Calls for End to Drone Attacks

In what was largely a formality following last month’s popular elections, Pakistan’s parliament yesterday elected Nawaz Sharif as prime minister. In Mr. Sharif’s first speech, he said that he wanted better relations with the U.S., but included among his priorities an end to drone strikes. According to the Associated Press:

"This daily routine of drone attacks, this chapter shall now be closed," Sharif said to widespread applause in the parliament hall. "We do respect others' sovereignty. It is mandatory on others that they respect our sovereignty."

But he gave few details on how he might end the strikes. Many in Pakistan say the strikes kill large numbers of innocent civilians — something the U.S. denies — and end up breeding more extremism by those seeking retribution with the U.S.

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DRONE WATCH: Tribal Societies Under Siege

Akbar Ahmed, Islamic Studies chair at American University, writes in the New York Times this morning about the effect of both violent extremist groups and U.S. drone strikes on traditional tribal societies.

Drone strikes like Wednesday’s, in Waziristan, are destroying already weak tribal structures and throwing communities into disarray throughout Pakistan’s tribal belt along the border with Afghanistan. The chaos and rage they produce endangers the Pakistani government and fuels anti-Americanism. And the damage isn’t limited to Pakistan. Similar destruction is occurring in other traditional tribal societies like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen. The tribes on the periphery of these nations have long struggled for more autonomy from the central government, first under colonial rule and later against the modern state. The global war on terror has intensified that conflict.

In recent decades, these societies have undergone huge disruptions as the traditional leadership has come under attack by violent groups like the Taliban, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia’s Al Shabab, not to mention full-scale military invasions. America has deployed drones into these power vacuums, causing ferocious backlashes against central governments while destroying any positive image of the United States that may have once existed.

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Guns Kill More People Than Motor Vehicles in 12 States, D.C.

A new study from the Violence Policy Center found you are more likely to die from gun violence than be killed in a traffic accident in 12 states and the District of Columbia. Motor vehicle fatalities are on the decline because of safety measures instituted by the government. Firearms remain as the only consumer product not regulated by a federal agency. The Huffington Post reports:

Overall, there were 31,672 firearm deaths in 2010 and 35,498 motor vehicle deaths. Compare these numbers to 1999, when there were 28,874 firearm deaths and 42,624 motor vehicle deaths.

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Attack Kills Peace Talks

A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban confirmed that Waliur Rehman, the group’s second-in-command, was killed in yesterday’s drone strike. Ahsanullah Ahsan also announced that an offer to begin peace talks with the new Pakistani government was being withdrawn.The Associated Press reports:

The militant group had said earlier that it was open to peace talks. But Ahsan said Thursday that the Taliban believe the government approves of the drone strikes so they are withdrawing their offer of peace talks.

"We had made the offer for peace talks with the government with good intention but we think that these drone attacks are carried out with the approval of the government so we announce the end of the talks process," he said.

The incoming government, headed by Nawaz Sharif, promised in the campaign that it would work to bring about peace after years of violence. A U.S. drone has now called that into doubt.

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DRONE WATCH: Strike in Pakistan Kills 7

In the news this morning are reports of a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan that killed seven people, including the unconfirmed death of the number two leader of Pakistan’s Taliban. It is the first strike since Pakistan’s election, and the first since President Obama’s speech last week on drone policy. Reuters reports:

A U.S. drone strike killed the number two of the Pakistani Taliban in the North Waziristan region on Wednesday, three security officials said, in what would be a major blow in the fight against militancy.

The drone strike killed seven people, Pakistani security officials said, including Taliban deputy commander Wali-ur-Rehman, in the first such attack since a May 11 general election in which the use of the unmanned aircraft was a major issue.

Wali-ur-Rehman had been poised to succeed Hakimullah Mehsud as leader of the Pakistani Taliban, a senior army official based in the South Waziristan region, had said in December.

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DRONE WATCH: Pakistan Responds to Drone Speech

News reports over the weekend had Pakistani reactions to President Obama’s Thursday speech on drones.

DAWN reported a statement from the Pakistani Foreign Office:

The Government of Pakistan has consistently maintained that the drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives, have human rights and humanitarian implications and violate the principles of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and international law.

The Associated Press reported that while Pakistanis welcomed the speech and its more restrictive rules on drone strikes, there was also disappointment that strikes will continue:

Obama has finally responded to the popular sentiment in this country, which is fiercely against the drones, and I think that shows a certain sensitivity," said Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the defense committee in Pakistan's Senate. "But for the people of Pakistan that is not good enough unless there is a cessation of drone attacks."

Several Pakistani officials and analysts noted that the President’s comments could help in improving relations between the U.S. and the new government in Pakistan.

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DRONE WATCH: Force Alone Cannot Make Us Safe

Saying that drone killings were “effective” and “legal,” President Barack Obama defended the program in a policy speech this afternoon at the National Defense University. He also conceded that “To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.”

The administration, he said, has “worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists—insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday.” He did not go into specific detail, but indicated it included more restrictive targeting criteria along with measures to prevent civilian casualties (“before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”)

The president said that “the use of force must be seen as part of a larger discussion about a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. Because for all the focus on the use of force, force alone cannot make us safe.” And as an important part of that strategy, “we must help countries modernize economies, upgrade education, and encourage entrepreneurship.”

Over the next days and weeks, we will certainly learn more, and we will see what happens on the ground.

Read reports on the speech in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

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DRONE WATCH: Administration Acknowledges American Deaths

The Obama administration formally acknowledged this afternoon that four American citizens have been killed by drone strikes, one intentionally and three who were not targeted. The New York Times reports:

In a letter to Congressional leaders obtained by The New York Times, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. disclosed that the administration had deliberately killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Muslim cleric who was killed in a drone strike in September 2011 in Yemen.

The American responsibility for Mr. Awlaki’s death has been widely reported, but the administration had until now refused to confirm or deny it.

The letter also said that the United States had killed three other Americans: Samir Khan, who was killed in the same strike; Mr. Awlaki’s son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was also killed in Yemen; and Jude Mohammed, who was killed in a strike in Pakistan.

“These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States,” Mr. Holder wrote.

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DRONE WATCH: Number of Drone Strikes Declines

President Barack Obama will deliver a major speech on drone policy tomorrow. And for a number of reasons—including a smaller number of important al Qaeda targets, issues such as bad weather to diplomatic problems, and concerns about the costs and benefits—the number of drone strikes being carried out is dropping. The New York Times reports:

But lost in the contentious debate over the legality, morality and effectiveness of a novel weapon is the fact that the number of strikes has actually been in decline. Strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010 and have fallen sharply since then; their pace in Yemen has slowed to half of last year’s rate; and no strike has been reported in Somalia for more than a year.

In a long-awaited address on Thursday at the National Defense University, Mr. Obama will make his most ambitious attempt to date to lay out his justification for the strikes and what they have achieved. He may follow up on public promises, including one he made in his State of the Union speech in February to define a “legal architecture” for choosing targets, possibly shifting more strikes from the C.I.A. to the military; explain how he believes that presidents should be “reined in” in their exercise of lethal power; and take steps to make a program veiled in secrecy more transparent.

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DRONE WATCH: Serious Moral Questions

In a letter sent to the White House and the leadership of key Congressional committees, Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, chair of the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, wrote that the use of drones in counter-terrorism “raises serious moral questions.”

Even when viewed through the prism of just war principles, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for targeted killings raises serious moral questions. The Administration seems to have focused narrowly on the just cause of protecting citizens, but other elements of the tradition pose significant questions, including discrimination, imminence of the threat, proportionality and probability of success. Targeted killing should, by definition, be highly discriminatory. The Administration's policy appears to extend the use of deadly force to alleged "signature" attacks and reportedly classifies all males of a certain age as combatants. Are these policies morally defensible? They seem to violate the law of war, international human rights law, and moral norms.

He concludes by asking:

We understand the necessity for operational secrecy in counter-terrorism, but isn’t it critical to have a public discussion of the terms of the Administration’s policy of employing drones for targeted killings? Don’t the moral and strategic issues involved require broader discussion? Shouldn’t a policy with such wide potential consequences be subject to public scrutiny, at a minimum by representative institutions in a democratic society?

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Church Whistle-Blowers Join Forces on Abuse

A group of priests and nuns, some of whom were assaulted as children, has quietly been gathering to publically urge the pope and American bishops to "clean house" on sexual abuse in the church. 

Many members in the group, though vocal on sexual abuse cases in the past, did not know eachother until last year, when a laywoman brought them together for as a "confidential support group."

The New York Times reports:

Their aim, they say, is to support both victims and fellow whistle-blowers, and identify shortcomings in church policies. They hope to help not just minors, but also adults who fall prey to clergy who exploit their power for sex. They say that their motivation is to make the church better and safer, and to show the world that there are good priests and nuns in the church.

“We’ve dedicated our lives to the church,” the Rev. John Bambrick, a priest in the Diocese of Trenton, said at a meeting of the group last week in New York. “Having sex offenders in ministry is damaging to our ministry.”&nbsminp;

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: From CIA to Military

One of the ongoing discussions of the U.S. drone program is who should control it. Having it under the military provides more oversight and accountability; having it under the CIA provides more secrecy. The Obama administration has apparently decided to begin moving control of at least some drone operations to the military. Reuters reports:

Four U.S. government sources told Reuters that the decision had been made to shift the CIA's drone operations to the Pentagon, and some of them said it would occur in stages.

Drone strikes in Yemen, where the U.S. military already conducts operations with Yemeni forces, would be run by the armed forces, officials said.

But for the time-being U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan would continue to be conducted by the CIA to keep the program covert and maintain deniability for both the United States and Pakistan, several sources said.

Ultimately, however, the administration's goal would be to transfer the Pakistan drone operations to the military, one U.S. official said on condition of anonymity.

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Yemen Drone Strikes

After nearly a month’s lull, two drone strikes were carried out in Yemen over the weekend, killing at least six suspected militants. Reuters reports:

Two suspected al Qaeda militants were killed on Monday in a drone strike on their vehicle south of the capital Sanaa, tribal and government sources said. The strike follows another on Saturday in which at least four militants were killed in Abyan governorate, in southernYemen.

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DRONE WATCH: Drone Pilot Burnout

A high rate of burnout among drone pilots is leading to concerns in the U.S. Air Force over how they are selected. NBC News reports:  

Pilots may be thousands of miles away from the flying weapons system they're operating. They often head home at the end of the day, as if returning from any other office job, maybe picking up milk on the way. But while at work, their drones' onboard cameras put them in a unique position to watch people being killed and injured as a direct result of their actions.

As psychologists learn more about the mental scarring warfare leaves on drone pilots — caused by long shift hours, isolation, witnessing casualties and those Jekyll-and-Hyde days split between battlefield and home — experts from within the U.S. Air Force are calling for a review of drone pilot selection.

Read more here.

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DRONE WATCH: Authorizing Drone Strikes

Congress is beginning to assert its oversight role in declaring war by examining drone attacks. Yet, in Congressional testimony yesterday, Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan said that the Pentagon sees no reason to seek additional Congressional authority for the strikes. The Washington Post reports:

“At this point we’re comfortable with the AUMF as it is currently structured,” Assistant Defense Secretary Michael Sheehan said of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress in 2001. “Right now . . . it serves its purpose,” he said.

“In my judgment,” Sheehan said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “this is going to go on for quite a while, yes, beyond the second term of the president. . . . I think it’s at least 10 to 20 years.”

Read more here.

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