The widespread flooding in western Pakistan has inundated an area the size of Florida while killing at least 1800 as of Sept. 10. The sheer scope of the disaster has also serve to dramatize the Obama Administration’s schizoid policy toward this Muslim nation: supplying humanitarian aid to the flood victims while at the same time regularly launching drone missile attacks against alleged Taliban and al-Qaida operatives.
While it would be wrong to call the U.S. government’s humanitarian relief effort miserly, since it has pulled together more than $100 million in aid and the loan of dozens of helicopters since early August, the response to the flood has been only a fraction of the response by Western nations to the Haiti earthquake. The disparity is due in part to the Haitian tragedy having been a single, high-profile event in a neighboring country, compared to the extended drama of the flooding half a world away. But without question, an element of anti-Islamic sentiment and suspicion of the Pakistan government’s ability to get aid to those who need it has also come into play, which has tempered private (if not public) donations.
As we consider the political jockeying in the West around the relief efforts, though, it’s important to note that the flood itself can actually be viewed as a product of the Western world. A study in the August 14 Economist magazine tied both the Pakistan flood and Russian fires to the formation of large “Rossby waves,” or planetary upper-atmosphere waves at the height of the jet stream. Global warming—driven overwhelmingly by the industrial world’s carbon emissions—will virtually guarantee the formation of more “standing” Rossby waves over the next few decades, increasing incidences of both drought and flooding. In very real ways, the flooding we will continue to see in South Asia, particularly in the Bangladesh delta, can be traced back to Western nations’ fossil fuel use.
Blame aside though, it is safe to say that the flooding of 65,000 square miles of Pakistan has set back reconstruction efforts by “years, if not decades,” according to Carlotta Gall in The New York Times (8/27/10)—precisely in a hazardous venue where the Taliban is threatening to harm aid workers seeking to reach victims in the Swat Valley area. The flood damage total estimated by Ball State University, $7.1 billion, is larger than the entire five-year aid package to Pakistan passed by Congress last year. The U.S. has pledged to contribute the majority of the $350 million package of flood relief promised by the UN (with $100 million already sent to the country). But much of the short-term aid so far has been implemented by ‘borrowing’ money and materiel from the Afghanistan war. At some point, the makeshift nature of simultaneously funding relief and the war will have to give—perhaps catastrophically.
For U.S. security managers waging the Obama Administration’s covert campaign in Pakistan, the timing and specific geography of the floods could scarcely be worse. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had visited Pakistan July 19, with $500 million in allocated aid funds, on the assumption that Pakistan leaders knew where in the tribal areas al-Qaeda maintained safe havens. At the time of Clinton’s visit, rivers already were swelling in the northern part of the areas later to flood—the contested border region known as “Khyber Pakhtunwa” (formerly the Northwest Frontier Agency). As the floods headed south down the Indus River tributaries, Taliban influence extended to new areas such as Charsadda, giving specific support on the ground to the Taliban’s threat to target foreign aid workers. And, if the claims aired on a September 13 Democracy Now! broadcast are true, the U.S.’s secret war may in fact have actually influenced the course of the flooding tragedy. Pakistani actress and former UN good will ambassador Feryal Ali Gauhar told Amy Goodman that the levees of the Indus River near the town of Jacobabad were deliberately breached—and the lives of thousands of people endangered—in order to protect the secret U.S. drone base at Shamsi.
Even the ‘humanitarian aid’ package the U.S. has putatively assembled for flood relief may be as advertised. As the administration’s counterinsurgency strategy inherently involves activities such as bridge and road building, we should expect to see funds from State Department, U.S. AID, and the Pentagon creatively ‘blended’, making it difficult to determine what is in fact used in flood relief, and what is used in support of the war. Inside the Pentagon, responsibility for executing the secret war in western Pakistan is being shared among U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), CIA, and other intelligence agencies, making it next to impossible to determine what is being spent on which missions.
America’s military intervention in Pakistan remains largely invisible, because President Obama has opted to wage the bulk of the war with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or ‘drones’), whose missile attacks on targeted individuals or groups are generally regarded as more ‘humane’ than massive aerial bombing. Further, this remotely conducted warfare has obscured command authority for these drone attacks and pretty much allowed the administration to disavow knowledge of them—what the CIA often calls “plausible deniability”.
According to author Jeremy Scahill and several other sources, JSOC manages unacknowledged armed UAV missions in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. These missions are run directly by the private contractor, Blackwater/Xe, through two of the company’s subsidiaries—Blackwater Select Inc. and Total Intelligence Solutions Inc. The bases from which these drones are launched are located directly in Pakistan and Afghanistan, yet their existence is denied at every level of military command.
Drone attacks—and related civilian deaths—have escalated virtually every month since CIA Director Leon Panetta proposed new drone missions with President Obama in February 2009. Some analysts who only recently became aware of the power of drones have thus termed Obama “the drone president.”
Even as Kandahar appeared close to falling to insurgents in mid-September, a new follow-on drone, the RQ-170 Sentinel (nicknamed the “Beast of Kandahar”), was being introduced to the border region. Sentinel was developed at the Lockheed Martin’s famed ‘skunk works’ plant, and applies stealth technology to make this drone similar to a B-2 bomber—essentially a flying wing with no radar cross-section. Since neither Afghan Taliban forces, nor even the Pakistan armed forces, have significant radar assets, the primary reason for using the Sentinel seems to be to allow a drone to be flown in Pakistan without Pakistani military authorities being aware of it. Rumors persist that an armed MQ version of the Sentinel exists, and may already have been deployed.
The furtive Joint Special Operations Command’s collaboration with both StratCom and the CIA in this new drone deployment is an important—and worrisome—development. JSOC has established a deniable operation in Karachi, Pakistan, staffed exclusively by employees of Blackwater Select and Total Intelligence Solutions Inc. The CIA itself launches UAVs out of Shamsi and Jalalabad in Pakistan, but its operations have come under growing criticism in Pakistan, particularly since Obama and CIA Director Leon Panetta agreed to expand the program last January. The base in Shamsi (the site of a controversial flood control operation in early August) originally was constructed by JSOC in 2001 to aid the Afghanistan invasion. But by 2006, the base already played host to Predator drones, thought to be under direct CIA control.
This new drone management structure must be seen in the light of StratCom’s “Prompt Global Strike” conventional weapon plans, leaked by the Obama Administration at the time of the nuclear treaty talks in May. Global Strike is nothing new. The idea of building an arsenal of precision, prompt delivery conventional weapons was first discussed at length in August 2003 at Strategic Command in Omaha, when military leaders talked about uniting drones with conventionally-armed Minuteman III missiles. Since that time, Strategic Command gained a dedicated sub-command called “Global Strike”—one which the Obama Administration views as critical to U.S. global security in a world with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons.
Since the delivery of a special software platform to Strategic Command in 2009, the “Integrated Strategic Planning and Analysis Network Collaborative Information Environment “(ISPAN-CIE), the Global Strike and Air Force Space Commands, as well as the component commands, have a central role in planning the missions and targeting of all unarmed and armed UAVs—these include JSOC UAVs, and some indirect oversight, if not control, of CIA UAVs. Access to these tools gives the StratCom authorities the illusion of still having a human in the command loop. Outgoing Strategic Command Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton says this ‘command loop’ has been reduced to microseconds. But many critics, even within the military, worry that the existence of three levels of armed UAV rules of engagement (alongside the ability of ‘hunter-killer drones’ to decide at will when to strike a particular target) may allow many UAVs to make the decision to attack without any human intervention.
It is easy to predict that U.S. aid to Pakistan will increase
significantly, and that it will grow increasingly hard to separate
relief aid from war support. If the Kandahar region should fall to
the Taliban, the aid requests could swell exponentially. We know
the role of StratCom, JSOC and the CIA will continue to be
critical to the unseen drone war—but it may prove to be all but
impossible to attribute dollar amounts or death counts to the
players in this war, or to disentangle the budgets from those
allocated to flood relief. For the White House, sadly, it’s
appearing more and more as if they’re all one.