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The Magical Realism of Body Counts

The US government, and a pliant mainstream media, are making sure the public remain ignorant of civilian casualties.

A gypsy named Melquiades who died many years ago in Singapore returned to live with the family of Colonel Aureliano Buendia in Macondo, because he could no longer bear the tedium of death. These are the kinds of characters that populate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magnificent work One Hundred Years of Solitude. Today they also seem to occupy the tribal badlands of Pakistan's north-western frontier.

On June 3, when Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in a US drone strike, he had already been dead for over a year. In September 2009, the CIA claimed that it killed Kashmiri along with two other senior Taliban leaders in North Waziristan. But the lure of the limelight was seemingly irresistible even in death, because on October 9, Kashmiri returned to give an interview to the late Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times Online.  

Baitullah Mehsud, the former commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also rose from the dead many times. On at least 16 occasions, Mehsud was in the gun-sights when CIA drones loosed their Hellfire missiles. Yet, until August 2009, he proved unable to settle into the afterlife. Mullah Sangeen also experienced at least two resurrections.

Death is clearly not what it used to be.

Or perhaps the people who were killed in the other attacks were not Kashmiri, Sangeen or Mehsud. Indeed, the attack on a funeral procession on June 23, 2009, which killed Sangeen was supposedly aimed at the TTP chief. It killed 83 people who certainly were not who they were supposed to be.

These are not isolated events. At the end of 2009, the Pakistani daily Dawn calculated that, of the 708 people killed in 44 drone attacks that year, only 5 were known militants. Earlier that year, The News, Pakistan's other major English-language daily, had calculated that between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009, 60 drone attacks killed 701 people - of whom only 14 were known militants.

The US has come a long way since July 2001 when it rebuked the Israeli government for its policy of "targeted assassination", which it said were really "extrajudicial killings". In September of that year, CIA director George Tenet confessed that it would be a "terrible mistake" for someone in his position to fire a weapon such as the predator drone. By 2009, such qualms were obsolete. Indeed, the new CIA director Leon Panetta declared predator drones "the only game in town". The catalyst was 9/11 - and lifting the ban on extrajudicial killings was just one of the many illegal policies it licensed.

Many of the post-9/11 criminalities were eventually rolled back, yet the policy of extrajudicial killings not only survived the Bush years, it was intensified. During his eight years in office, Bush ordered a total of 45 drone strikes in Pakistan; in fewer than three years, Obama has ordered more than 200. On his third day in office the president ordered two drone strikes, one of which incinerated a pro-government tribal leader along with his whole family, including three children. Obama has since also expanded the drone war in Afghanistan.

The politics of body counts

The new tactic has many sceptics, and not all of them are antiwar activists. Criticism has also been voiced from within the CIA and the military. Yet drones have been embraced with remarkable warmth by Obama and the US intelligentsia. This partly has to do with an existing US tendency to see technology as a panacea for all problems, including military ones. But the tactic is also made palatable by a routine exaggeration of its accuracy and a downplaying of its human cost.

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