I’ve never been a fan of Vegas. Masked by grand shows and stars, the artificial magnanimity of the strip coupled with the pick-your-guilty-pleasure from our round-the-clock menu of booze, gambling and prostitution, makes it seem like a one-stop-shop just waiting to buy your soul.

To me, it made sense that the remote-control toy-operators that have killed over 900 people on Pakistani soil since August 2008, were running their secret war right outside that very shop, from a base in Nevada.

Little did I know that, they are also locking-into and annihilating targets 30 minutes away from my home in Houston, Texas.

In the Sunday edition of the Houston Chronicle, Lindsay Wise features 36-year-old Major Stiles with the Texas Air National Guard who starts his day bright and early by feeding his one-year-old daughter waffles and sausage, then heads over to his job in a windowless room at Houston’s Ellington Airport, where he sits down “at the controls of a Predator drone as it cruises over insurgent hideouts and convoy routes in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

The article did not or could not mention Pakistan, because the 100 or so attacks since 2008 in the Waziristan region are after all only ‘suspected’ drone attacks, a part of what is largely believed to be a publicly rebuked but privately acquiesced deal between the Pakistani government and the US.

Most Houstonians probably assumed the Ellington Airport’s military ops were shut down in 2008 (the same year drone strikes really picked up in Pakistan), when the 147th Reconnaissance Wing lost its F-16 fleet. Until the article was published they had no way of knowing that some fighter pilots like Major Stiles stayed on to be re-trained as predator drone operators.

In the same piece Wise writes, “At any given time, the ground control station inside a top-security building at Ellington has two Predators in the skies over Afghanistan or Iraq. Each drone is controlled by a three-member crew. Crews rotate in shifts, so they’re always fresh.”

The crew consists of a pilot, a sensor operator and a military intelligence co-coordinator. By swapping F-16s for predators, the staff at Ellington has been reduced from hundreds to a handful. And these guys fly drones 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.

Wise was not allowed to actually visit the top-security building at Houston’s Ellington Field, but the wing’s PR team was kind enough to give her a four-and-a-half minute long film of their operations. This is a must-see.

A far cry from the thousands of lives the drones are actually responsible for taking, the video glorifies the predator, features smiling drone operators, and easy-to-understand graphics showing how a trigger pulled in Ellington, launches a missile into the war-zone, neutralising a target. With no natural sound of its own, the video has been overlaid with a soundtrack that sounds like a cross between an ’80s number the ISPR would use and trippy home-made trance.

Wise also interviewed Col. Ken Wisian, the commander of the Ellington unit, who said drones are the “largest growth industry in the military.”

The US army uses three types of drones: the more sophisticated “big daddy” that operates from Ellington, aka the 56-foot wingspan weapon-carrying Predator that supports division-level operations. The basic Raven, just under three feet long, supports battalions down to the platoon level. And the intelligence-gathering Shadow, which is 11 feet long with a 14-foot wingspan, supports brigade-level operations and will most likely be wrapped in a red bow-tie for Pakistan soon.

In January, US Defense Secy. Robert Gates said the US would be providing Pakistan with RQ7 Shadow drones to support their fight against extremists. Pakistan wasn’t too happy with the drone sans weapon-capability offer. The chief army spokesman Maj-Gen Athar Abbas said it was “too little, too late.

The spokesman was probably thinking about the hundreds of Pakistani civilians that have already fallen prey to the Predator and are now featured in the ‘collateral damage’ category in US Senate reports.

Earlier in June, a study conducted for the UN concluded that the “prolific” use of US drone attacks amounted to “a license to kill without accountability.”

The report argued “because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a “Playstation” mentality to killing.”

And that video-game thinking probably played into what a US military investigation in May called the “inaccurate and unprofessional” reporting by the Predator operators in Nevada, which led to an air-strike that killed as many as 23 civilians in Uruzgan province, last February.

But the Ellington operators maintain it is not a game for them. Maj. Stiles admitted “sometimes I’ll hear guys screaming and gunfire in the background. Your heart’s racing, probably just like theirs, even though you’re not actually there.”

According to the American Forces Press Service, the Pentagon’s unmanned aircraft operational hours have more than tripled since 2006. That translates into 550,000 hours of overhead humming in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq annually. The military’s drone inventory has gone from less than 3,000 to more than 6,500. And their annual budget has grown from $1.7 billion in 2006 to $4.2 billion in 2010.

Pentagon officials say the latest programme expansion is just the beginning.

Wise’s feature ends with a reflection from Maj. Stiles that truly outlines the hazards of today’s drone wars. “I flew a combat mission overseas and saw my daughter born, all within a couple of hours, so that was pretty neat,” said Stiles.

Sitting in my cozy home 30-miles away from the Ellington control room, I can only help but think that for Americans, drones have become what the mujaheddin were in the ’80s – a distant weapon of choice that leaves their own soldier’s conscience clear of blood.

Sahar Habib Ghazi is a Pakistani journalist who has recently relocated to Houston, Texas. She blogs at www.outsideislamabad.com

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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