Activist Strikes Blow Against Drones

Steve Law | Portland Tribune

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT – Trudy Cooper is one of four Oregonians who recently returned from a one-week peace mission to Pakistan.

Peace activist Trudy Cooper once laid her body across railroad tracks in a protest.

The 63-year-old from Northeast Portland says she’s unafraid of conflict because she works as a mediator for a living.

But Cooper admits to a bit of nerves when she and three other Oregonians landed in Pakistan Oct. 3 as part of a 31-person peace delegation protesting unmanned drone airplane attacks by their own country.

Three weeks earlier, violent anti-American protests swept the Muslim world, triggered by a YouTube clip of an anti-Islamic video produced by a Californian.

When the mostly female delegation landed in Islamabad at 3 a.m. after a 13-hour flight, Cooper says they heard loud shouting and noticed a crowd of 100 people in waiting.

It turned out it was a friendly group shouting “welcome, welcome,” which showered the delegation with rose petals and bouquets, she says.

But the peace mission grew tense three days later, as the delegation joined a large caravan to Pakistan’s Waziristan tribal areas, where the Taliban take refuge and most American drone strikes occur. The Taliban is the Islamic militant group at war with the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Some people tried to talk the delegation out of going to the tribal areas, saying they could be kidnap victims, Cooper says. The original security team for the group had to be replaced. On the way to South Waziristan, the delegation was ordered to pull the curtains on its bus, and never told why, Cooper says.

Later, the group was told it was targeted by the Taliban.

“The rumor was that they were going to attach explosives onto an animal and send it into a rally,” Cooper says.

Warned that they were jeopardizing the entire caravan’s security, the delegation turned back just before the tribal areas, Cooper says. A short time later, the rest of the caravan was blocked from entering the tribal areas by concrete barriers placed on the roadway by the Pakistani military.

Though the delegation never achieved its ultimate goal of personally witnessing devastation caused by American drone strikes, Cooper says the one-week trip was a success because it helped shine an international spotlight on drone warfare, which she says kills too many innocent bystanders and violates international law.

Critics say that for every militant the U.S. kills with unmanned drones, it creates 10 new enemies because of the innocent people that are slayed, Cooper says.

“Once I was there in Pakistan,” she says, “I wondered why we stop at 10.”

Anti-war at early age

Growing up in Southern Oregon during the Vietnam War buildup, Cooper says she was always interested in peace. “I was a real little girl when I first realized there was a thing such as war, and I demanded that my parents explain it to me,” she says.

Cooper started hanging out with Quakers in her neighborhood, and learned to appreciate their attempt to make decisions by consensus. That would stick with her as she carved out a career in mediation and conflict resolution.

Cooper actively opposed the Vietnam War, and recalls having eggs tossed at her during a Medford protest. Later, once her three children were raised, she lived for 18 months in the Peace House, a Northeast Portland collective of war resisters associated with the Metanoia Peace Community United Methodist Church.

Cooper hasn’t supported any U.S. wars during her lifetime, including the Afghanistan War, saying there’s always better ways to solve problems.

In recent years, she’s grown concerned about the widening use of unarmed drones firing missiles on targets in the isolated tribal areas of Pakistan, where the government has little presence. The relatively slow planes are piloted remotely from thousands of miles away, such as a military base outside Las Vegas, where, guided by the Central Intelligence Agency, someone sitting at a computer screen focuses on a target and remotely fires a Hellfire missile.

The “video game aspect of it was very disturbing to me,” Cooper says, noting that 60 nations have drones usable for military purposes. “It was difficult to see where that was going to end,” she says.

Cooper read Medea Benjamin’s book released in May, “Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control,” which includes interviews with eye witnesses and people victimized by U.S. drones in Pakistan. Benjamin, cofounder of the peace group Code Pink, came to Portland to speak at the Peace House. When she mentioned taking a delegation to Pakistan to give witness to American attacks, Cooper signed up.

Also on the trip were Michael Glaskill, a Portland glass artist and musician; Linda Wenning, a Beaverton accountant active in the Mennonite Church; and Leah Bolger, a retired U.S. Navy officer in Corvallis and president of Veterans for Peace.

The idea for the trip, Cooper says, came from Clive Stafford Smith, a British human rights lawyer who founded the group Reprieve and is trying to get international redress for drone victims.

Hosting the delegation were Imran Khan, a charismatic former cricket star who’s now chairman of Pakistan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf political party; and Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani human rights lawyer.

Meeting with victims

In Islamabad, the delegation heard two panels deliver firsthand tales of drone attacks. One speaker was journalist Karim Khan, whose 18-year-old son and brother were killed in a 2009 drone attack. Khan insists his family was innocent of any involvement in terrorism.

The delegation also met with Pakistani feminists, student groups and others.

Cooper heard tales of Pakistanis offering false tips about the whereabouts of so-called terrorists, to earn rewards offered by the United States.

People from the tribal areas told of being terrified at the ever-present drones buzzing audibly overhead, rendering them afraid to venture outside.

Many Pakistanis live in compounds with extended families, Cooper says. Women in the tribal areas go outside infrequently, she says, and usually are inside those compounds with children. So firing a Hellfire missile at a compound, she says, “is a de facto decision to have civilian deaths involving women and children.”

People from Waziristan told of a disturbing pattern of drone strikes, in which a second strike follows closely after the first, making people afraid to help survivors get medical treatment.

Residents in the tribal areas are scared to attend outdoor funerals, which they fear could make them targets for drones, Cooper says.

“They’re not doing that any more; they’re doing that in tiny groups in their homes,” she says. “They have had weddings hit by Hellfire missiles.”

The U.S. military and others in President Obama’s administration are reluctant to talk publicly about the CIA-run drone program. Defenders of drone warfare say they eliminate U.S. pilot casualties and offer a more precise way to attack targets, causing fewer unintended deaths than conventional weapons.

In Islamabad, the delegation met with U.S. Charge d’affaires Ambassador Richard Hoagland, who was amiable but appeared ill-informed, Cooper says.

“You get this feeling, My goodness, who’s minding the store?” Cooper says.

Hoagland told the group that people in the tribal areas can’t hear the drones buzzing overhead, and insisted that civilian casualties from drones were low, in the “double digits,” she says.

Independent verification

A month before the delegation went to Pakistan, a report called “Living with Drones” was released after a nine-month study by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law.

Legal researchers concluded that the best casualty estimates have come from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent British nonprofit. The bureau estimates that Pakistan drone strikes since 2004 have killed 2,562 to 3,325 people and injured 1,228 to 1,362 people. Among the deaths, it estimates that 474 to 881 were civilians, including 176 children.

“Drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning,” researchers reported. “Their presence terrorizes men, women and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.”

Researchers from law schools independently confirmed the allegations of multiple attacks on sites that Cooper heard about while in Pakistan.

“The U.S. practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims,” researchers wrote.

Cooper says everyone in the delegation knew they might never get to the tribal areas, so she doesn’t feel disappointed.

She admits to feeling very conflicted about alternatives to war in the tribal areas and the outlook for peace, which she sees as pretty dim right now.

But it was particularly chilling, she says, to hear about the Pashtun cultural perspective on honor and revenge. Pashtuns are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, and the dominant tribe in the Taliban and Waziristan.

As one tribal elder told the group, “You’re creating hatred.”

Cooper says she sees no short-term solutions, but will keep fighting for peace.

“What’s the alternative?” she asks.

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