Civilians are dying. Campaigners are being kidnapped. The world cannot turn a blind eye to America’s drone attacks in Pakistan

Why was Karim Khan prevented from speaking out against drone warfare?

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Karim Khan is a lucky man. When you’re picked up by 20 armed thugs, some in police uniform – aka the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – you can be “disappeared” forever. A mass grave in Balochistan, in the south-west of the country, has just been found, filled with the “missing” from previous arrests. But eight days after he was lifted and – by his own testimony, that of his lawyer Shasad Akbar and the marks still visible on his body – tortured, Mr Khan is back at his Pakistani home. His crime: complaining about US drone attacks – American missiles fired by pilotless aircraft – on civilians inside Pakistan in President Obama’s Strangelove-style operation against al-Qa’ida.

There are, as the cops would say, several facts “pertaining” to Mr Khan’s kidnapping. Firstly, his son Hafiz Zaenullah, his brother Asif Iqbal and another man – a stonemason called Khaliq Dad – were killed by a drone attack on Mr Khan’s home in December 2009. Secondly, he had filed a legal case in Pakistan against the American drone strikes, arguing that they constituted murder under domestic law. And thirdly – perhaps Mr Khan’s most serious crime – he was about to leave for Brussels to address European Union parliamentarians on the dangers of American drone strikes in Pakistan.

In Madiha Tahir’s recent documentary film Wounds of Waziristan, Mr Khan had talked about his family loss. His son Hafiz was a security guard at a local girls’ school, and also studying for Grade 10. Asif, who had a Master’s in English, was a government employee. Karim Khan saw what was left of their bodies, “covered in wounds”. He found some of their fingers in the rubble of his home.

Thanks to constant reports of his kidnapping in the courageous Pakistani media and to the Rawalpindi bench of the Lahore High Court who ordered the Pakistani government to produce Karim Khan by next Thursday, the anti-drone campaigner is safe. For the moment.

But this is not going to set the world on fire. The “drone war”, as American journalists inevitably call it – after all, it’s not as if al-Qa’ida or the innocent victims are firing back with drones of their own – started under George W Bush, but most of the attacks, 384 of them since 2008, have been authorised by Mr Obama. The statistics of civilian deaths fluctuate wildly since most of the missiles are fired into the Pakistani frontier districts in which the government has little power. The minimum figure for civilian victims is almost 300 dead – some say almost 900 – out of a total of 2,500 killed. At least 50 people are believed to have been killed in follow-up strikes which slaughtered those going to the rescue of the wounded.

Of course, the drone syndrome has spread across the Middle East. The missiles rain down on al-Qa’ida and civilians alike in Yemen. The Israelis fired them into Lebanon in 2006; when a youth on a motorcycle fired at a night-time drone over Beirut, it fired back a missile that destroyed a downtown civilian apartment block. In Gaza, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported 825 deaths from Israeli drones during the 2008-09 war, a large percentage of them civilians.

Pakistani witnesses have told me that the missiles don’t just appear suddenly in the sky. The drones arrive in clusters – 10 or 12 at a time, circling villages for an hour or two – a looking for targets on behalf of their “pilots” in the United States. Until at least 2009, the Americans flew drones – the most impressive was called the Reaper – from air bases inside Pakistan. Hence the sensitivities of the boys from the ISI and their irritation with Karim Khan.

The ethical disgrace of the drone syndrome is not that Mr Obama – or some US officer near Las Vegas – decides on the basis of satellite pictures, mobile phone calls, numbers dialled and the speed of vehicles, who should live or die. The really shameful aspect is that the drone war has become normal. It has gone on so long – and been the subject of so much protest, so regularly – that it has become banal, boring, matter-of-fact.

It was just the same in the 1990s when the US and Brits went hunting for Iraqi targets over the so-called “no-fly zones” in Iraq. For years they bombed and missiled “military targets” that supposedly threatened them. In the eight months up to August 1999, US and British pilots had fired more than 1,100 missiles against 359 Iraqi targets, flying about two-thirds as many missions as Nato pilots conducted over Yugoslavia during the 78-day bombardment of the same year. As well as anti-aircraft batteries, oil pipelines were blown up, storage depots destroyed and dozens of civilians killed, including several in a Basra housing estate. But each air raid was merely “nibbed” in our newspapers – a nib is a single paragraph in an inside-page News in Brief column – so that an entire air campaign was effectively carried out behind the backs of the US and British public in the years before the 2003 invasion.

In southern Lebanon, the Israelis controlled for 28 years a torture prison at Khiam for insurgents and their families – women as well as men – and electricity was frequently used on inmates by Israel’s “South Lebanon Army” thugs. Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross complained. But I will always remember the words of a Swiss Red Cross official when I asked him, within sight of Khiam, why the world did not condemn this dreadful place. “It has become normal,” he replied.

And that’s it. Kill or torture often enough, over a long enough time – not too many massacres, just a dribble of deaths over months and years – and you’ll get away with it. If you kill the bad guys, it’s OK. Pity about the rest. Just make sure that the war is sufficiently prosaic, and don’t listen to Karim Khan.

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