On coming into office, US president Barack Obama promised to shut down the US prison camp for suspected terrorists on Guantanamo within a year and to fight terrorism “in a manner that is consistent with our values and our ideals”. As our last issue went to press, Obama quietly indicated that he will continue to deny the right to trial to hundreds of terror suspects held at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, a place human rights lawyers call “Obama’s Guantanamo”. Bagram is to double its size, enabling it to house five times as many prisoners as are left in Guantanamo. The expansion will cost £42m.
Obama’s death squads
On 26 February, Amnesty International published a report on international forces in Afghanistan entitled Getting Away With Murder. On 16 January 2008, two Afghan civilians, brothers Abdul Habib and Mohammed Ali, were violently killed inside their home while their families watched. Eyewitnesses told Amnesty International that a group comprised of uniformed international troops as well as Afghans raided the family home of the two men.
The international military personnel, wearing desert camouflage uniform, entered the premises in the early hours of 16 January and shot the two men at close range, without first attempting to arrest them, giving them any warning or otherwise attempting to communicate with them. Both men were unarmed at the time of being shot. Meanwhile, Afghan personnel reportedly waited outside to provide perimeter security.
Witnesses, local sources, and international sources in Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan and in the US all told Amnesty that the raid was carried out by forces operating from the US-controlled “Firebase Gecko/Maholic” located on the outskirts of Kandahar City.
This firebase is housed in what used to be the residence of Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s leader. Under Obama the killing continues. On 2 March, the Washington Post quoted truck driver Abdul Ghaffar, interviewed after a night-time raid on his village Bagh-I-Soltan on 20 February 2009, in which a man (Sher Agha) was shot dead: “We are afraid of the Taliban, but we are more afraid of the Americans now. The foreign forces are killing innocent people. We don’t want them in Afghanistan. If they stay, one day we will stand against them, just like we stood against the Russians.”
At the end of February, the MoD announced that it was breaking with tradition and allowing pilots without full combat training to fly frontline missions – using video screens to control armed but pilotless drone aircraft in Afghanistan.
RAF chiefs saved money by authorising the use of “lower grade” staff who have done 30 hours of basic flying training – rather than those who have undergone the £4m fighter pilot programme.
“We don’t necessarily need highly trained pilots,” said wing commander Richard McMahon.
Studies show the “best” drone crews are often young video-game players rather than experienced combat air crews. Which may explain why the MoD is rolling out a new kind of recruitment centre, the arcade game parlour in which you can drive virtual tanks and enter battlefield simulators used by soldiers in army training. The first of these “arcades of death” was opened in Dalston, Hackney, one of London’s most deprived boroughs, on 14 March.
By 2011, it is planned that the RAF’s 39 Squadron, which currently pilots the drones from a base in Nevada, will be controlling “Reaper” pilotless aircraft from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. At the moment, the RAF is using both Reapers and their predecessor “Predator” drones.
According to the USAF, Predators and Reapers shot missiles on 244 of their 10,949 missions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.
Without risking a single British or US pilot’s life.