Johann Hari: Obama's robot wars endanger us all

The drones have killed some jihadis. But the evidence suggests they create far more jihadis than they kill - and make an attack on me or you more likely with each bomb

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Imagine if, an hour from now, a robot-plane swooped over your house and blasted it to pieces. The plane has no pilot. It is controlled with a joystick from 7,000 miles away, sent by the Pakistani military to kill you. It blows up all the houses in your street, and so barbecues your family and your neighbours until there is nothing left to bury but a few charred slops. Why? They refuse to comment. They don't even admit the robot-planes belong to them. But they tell the Pakistani newspapers back home it is because one of you was planning to attack Pakistan. How do they know? Somebody told them. Who? You don't know, and there are no appeals against the robot.

Now imagine it doesn't end there: these attacks are happening every week somewhere in your country. They blow up funerals and family dinners and children. The number of robot-planes in the sky is increasing every week. You discover they are named "Predators", or "Reapers" – after the Grim Reaper. No matter how much you plead, no matter how much you make it clear you are a peaceful civilian getting on with your life, it won't stop. What do you do? If there was a group arguing that Pakistan was an evil nation that deserved to be violently attacked, would you now start to listen?

This sounds like a sketch for the next James Cameron movie – but it is in fact an accurate description of life in much of Pakistan today, with the sides flipped. The Predators and Reapers are being sent by Barack Obama's CIA, with the support of other Western governments, and they killed more than 700 civilians in 2009 alone – 14 times the number killed in the 7/7 attacks in London. The floods were seen as an opportunity to increase the attacks, and last month saw the largest number of robot-plane bombings ever: 22. Over the next decade, spending on drones is set to increase by 700 per cent.

The US government doesn't even officially admit the programme exists: Obama's most detailed public comment on it was when he jokingly told the boy band the Jonas Brothers that he would unleash the drones on them if they tried to chat up his daughter. But his administration says, behind closed doors, that these robot-plane attacks are "the only show in town" for killing suspected jihadis. They do not risk the lives of US soldiers, who remain in Virginia and control the robot-planes as if they were in a video game. They "undermine the threat to the West" by "breaking up training camps, killing many people conspiring against us, and putting the rest on the run".

But is this true? The press releases uncritically repeated by the press after a bombing always brag about "senior al-Qa'ida commanders" killed – but some people within the CIA admit how arbitrary their choice of targets is. One of their senior figures told The New Yorker: "Sometimes you're dealing with tribal chiefs. Often they say an enemy of theirs is al-Qa'ida because they want to get rid of somebody, or they made crap up because they wanted to prove they were valuable so they could make money."

True, the programme has certainly killed some real jihadis. But the evidence suggests it is creating far more jihadis than it kills – and is making an attack on you or me more likely with each bomb.

Drone technology was developed by the Israelis, who routinely use it to bomb the Gaza Strip. I've been in Gaza during some of these attacks. The people there were terrified – and radicalised. A young woman I know who had been averse to political violence and an advocate of peaceful protest saw a drone blow up a car full of people – and she started supporting Islamic Jihad and crying for the worst possible revenge against Israel. Robot-drones have successfully bombed much of Gaza, from secular Fatah to Islamist Hamas, to the brink of jihad.

Is the same thing happening in Pakistan? David Kilcullen is a counter-insurgency expert who worked for General Petraeus in Iraq and now advises the State Department. He has shown that two per cent of the people killed by the robot-planes in Pakistan are jihadis. The remaining 98 per cent are as innocent as the victims of 9/11. He says: "It's not moral." And it gets worse: "Every one of these dead non-combatants represents an alienated family, and more recruits for a militant movement that has grown exponentially as drone strikes have increased."

Professor of Middle Eastern history Juan Cole puts it more bluntly: "When you bomb people and kill their family, it pisses them off. They form lifelong grudges... This is not rocket science. If they were not sympathetic to the Taliban and al-Qa'ida before, after you bomb the shit out of them, they will be." This is why all the people who have been captured or defected from Osama Bin Laden's circle, from his bodyguard to his son, say the same: he is delighted when Western governments fight back by recklessly killing Muslims.

Of course jihadism is not motivated solely by attacks against Muslim countries by the West. Some of it is motivated by a theocratic desire to control and tyrannise other humans in the most depraved ways: to punish women who wish to feel the sun on their hair, for one. Yet it is a provable fact that violence against Muslims tips many more people into retaliatory jihadi violence against us. Even the 2004 report commissioned by Donald Rumsfeld said that "American direct intervention in the Muslim world" was the primary reason for jihadism.

A good example of this is Faisal Shahzad, the 31-year-old Pakistani-American who tried to plant a bomb in Times Square in May. A police survey of his emails over the past 10 years found he obsessively asked: "Can you tell me a way to... fight back when the rockets are fired at us and Muslim blood flows?" The Pakistan drone attacks – on the part of the world he came from – were the final spur for him. When he was arrested, he asked the police: "How would you feel if people attacked the United States? You are attacking a sovereign Pakistan." At his trial, he said: "When the drones hit, they don't see children, they don't see anybody. They kill everybody... I am part of the answer... I'm avenging the attack."

Yet many people defend the drones by saying: "We have to do something." If your friend suffered terrible third-degree burns, would you urge her to set fire to her hair because "you have to do something"? Would you give a poisoning victim another, worse poison, on the grounds that any action is better than none?

I detest jihadism. Their ideology is everything I oppose: their ideal society is my Hell. It is precisely because I want to really undermine them – rather than pose as macho – that I am against this robot-slaughter. It enlarges the threat. It drags us into a terrible feedback loop, where the US launches more drone attacks to deal with jihadism, which makes jihadism worse, which prompts more drone attacks, which makes jihadism worse – and on and on, in a state with nuclear weapons, and with many people in Europe who are from the terrorised region. It could be poised to get even worse: Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars says the US has an immediate plan to bomb 150 targets in Pakistan if there is a jihadi attack inside America.

The real and necessary fight against jihadists has to have, at its core, a policy of systematically stripping them of their best recruiting tools. Yet Obama and the CIA are doing the opposite – to an accompanying soundtrack of the screams of innocent civilians, and the low, delighted chuckle of Osama Bin Laden.

j.hari@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/johannhari101

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