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Terrors of U.S. Drone War Brought to Light

Health Letter article, June 2013

The U.S. use of armed drones against countries around the world is now in its 12th year. President Barack Obama, whose successful 2008 campaign largely relied on discontent with the foreign policy of George W. Bush, has overseen a dramatic expansion of Bush’s drone program. While certain commentators rightly railed against Bush for his use of torture and indefinite detention, Obama’s similar policies, including his dramatic expansion of the drone killing campaign, have been met with relative silence, or at most exclusive reliance on and deference to administration sources. This indifference has extended to the human impact of the drone wars.

In September 2012, the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic of the New York University (NYU) School of Law released the report “Living Under Drones,” which documented the effects of the Bush/Obama policy on the civilian population in Pakistan. The Stanford/NYU report was based on nine months of “… intensive research — including two investigations in Pakistan; more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts; and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting... .”

The exhaustive investigation concluded that contrary to official U.S. denials, drones have killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan alone. Beyond these deaths, however, the report concluded that the drones, which “hover 24 hours a day” over northwest Pakistan, have “terrorize[d] men, women, and children,” disrupting whole communities’ ways of life and causing widespread psychological trauma.

Escalation of drone war

As the Stanford/NYU report points out, the use of drones in various forms dates back to World War I, but the weapons were used solely for surveillance purposes until 2001. The George W. Bush administration was the first to deploy armed drones on the battlefield in October 2001, during the initial invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, followed by a 2002 strike on six men in Yemen. Strikes on Pakistan began in 2004. (Though the invasion of Afghanistan was illegal under international law, there was at least a formal state of war with that country, unlike with the other countries whose people have been targeted by the weapons.)

Obama’s inauguration brought a dramatic escalation in the scale of the attacks. There were 52 drone strikes on Pakistan from 2004 through the end of Bush’s term in 2009, but in the subsequent five years, President Obama allegedly launched at least 316 drone strikes on Pakistan, at least 43 on Yemen and three on Somalia. (In the cases of Yemen and Somalia, Obama has not restricted himself to drones. His administration also launched an attack on Yemen in December 2009 that consisted of cruise missiles laden with cluster bombs that killed 41 civilians, including 12 women and 22 children.)

Civilian deaths not aberrations

The Stanford/NYU report notes that the best estimates of the ongoing deaths and injuries caused by U.S. drones come from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), which has compiled a database of all known drone strikes conducted in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2004. From the first drone strike in Pakistan in 2004 through May 1, 2013, between 2,541 and 3,533 people were killed by U.S. drones, of which 411 to 884 were civilians, including 168 to 197 children. The Obama administration has been responsible for between 241 and 592 of the Pakistani civilian deaths, including 62 to 74 children, through May 1, 2013.

According to a database compiled by The Guardian, drone strikes that kill civilians are by no means rare aberrations. Of 337 strikes on Pakistan through August 2, 2012, noted in the database, 79 have resulted in confirmed civilian deaths and 52 others in possible civilian deaths. In another 79 cases, it is unknown whether civilians had been killed. In other words, in only a minority of drone strikes (128, or
38 percent) can it be confirmed that civilians were not killed.

Attack details

Though these statistics have been known for some time, the Stanford/NYU report was among the first to give voice to the individuals who have suffered from the attacks. The report described the human aftermath of three such drone strikes at a level of detail rarely reported in the U.S.

The earliest strike described in the report was launched on Jan. 23, 2009, three days after Obama took office. The drone struck an evening gathering of relatives for “tea and conversation” in the home of Mohammad Khalil, a “tribal notable” who may have been targeted because he was reported to be a Taliban sympathizer. According to the report: “At about 5:00 that evening, they heard the hissing sound of a missile and instinctively bent their heads down. The missile slammed into the center of the room, blowing off the ceiling and roof, and shattering all the windows.” The strike killed an estimated five to 11 civilians. The only survivor, 14-year old Faheem Quereshi, suffered shrapnel wounds to his abdomen, lost his left eye and hearing in one ear, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

According to the authors, the details of this case raised “… important questions about whether the U.S. complied with basic principles of proportionality and proper precautions in attack.” The U.S. had still not formally acknowledged the strike by the time of the report’s publication.

The second case focused on a March 2011 strike on a jirga, a traditional mechanism for making community decisions or resolving disputes. This jirga was convened to resolve a local dispute over a chromite mine, a major source of employment in the region. The apparent impetus for the drone strike was that four of the 40 or so individuals gathered happened to be from a nebulous “local Taliban group” whose presence was deemed necessary to resolve the dispute successfully.

This strike killed an estimated 42 people — mostly civilians — and injured 14 others. As is so often the case, most of those killed were heads of large households, leaving their extended families in the poorest region of Pakistan to fend for themselves. Civilian victims of drone attacks in Pakistan have not been financially compensated by the U.S. government, although federal law authorizes the U.S. to make such payments.

The third strike, launched in June 2011, killed five civilian men in a car: Akram Shah, a father of three; his young student cousin, Sherzada; Atiq-ur-Rehman, a young pharmacist; Irshad Khan, a teenage student working in Rehman’s pharmacy; and Umar Khan, the owner of a local auto parts store. More than a year after the strike, the families of the dead men were still suffering in its aftermath.

Indiscriminate strikes

Perhaps the most disturbing part of the Stanford/NYU report describes certain categories of drone strikes that belie the administration’s claims that the strikes have been carefully targeted only at individuals known to be actively involved in plotting terrorist attacks against the U.S.

According to the report, the Obama administration conducts two distinct forms of strikes. Personality strikes target specific, named individuals, while signature strikes attack unknown individuals based solely on patterns of behavior that the administration deems suspicious of terrorist activity. Anonymous administration officials cited in a May 2012 New York Times article on the drone program complained that the criteria for suspicious activity, which remain a closely guarded secret, are “too lax” (e.g., men loading fertilizer onto a truck could hypothetically be targeted).

Even more disturbing are so-called double-tap attacks. These involve multiple strikes in quick succession on a target, which inevitably includes those who flock to the scene of an initial strike, including rescuers and family members. One eyewitness quoted by the Stanford/NYU investigators described the following strike on the home of his in-laws: “Other people came to check what had happened; they were looking for the children in the beds and then a second drone strike hit those people.”

The widespread use of double-tap strikes has led many to avoid rescuing victims of drone strikes for fear of being killed themselves. Even medical first responders in northern Pakistan have instituted policies requiring personnel to wait for up to six hours before attending to victims, resulting in potentially fatal delays in caring for the wounded.

Terrorized civilians

The central aim of the “Living Under Drones” report was to go beyond mere statistics and humanize the public debate, which has previously “focused narrowly on whether strikes are ‘doing their job’ — i.e., whether the majority of those killed are ‘militants’” (a nebulous and all-encompassing term) and to give voice to the “people on the ground who live with the daily presence of lethal drones in their skies and with the constant threat of drone strikes in their communities.”

An eyewitness account from former New York Times reporter David Rohde, who was kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive in Pakistan for months, described the experience for civilians on the receiving end of the drones: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

This constant fear has caused widespread psychological trauma. PTSD, with symptoms of anxiety, nightmares and emotional breakdowns, was commonly reported by survivors and witnesses to strikes. Those lucky enough not to have personally experienced a strike experience anticipatory anxiety due to the strikes’ unpredictability. With little in the way of mental health treatment available in the area, some have resorted to drastic measures, including tying or locking up those deemed mentally unbalanced. Others reported taking tranquilizers to “save them from the terror of the drones.”

The drones have also disrupted normal community life across large swaths of northern Pakistan. Due to the indiscriminate nature of the drone attacks, including “signature” strikes, people have been afraid to gather for weddings, funerals or the all-important jirgas, and parents have pulled their children from school for fear of being hit.

These fears are well-founded. Past strikes on schools have killed dozens of children. Obama’s first year in office included two strikes on funeral gatherings, one of which occurred eight days after Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. Between 23 and 50 civilians were killed in these two strikes, both of which were deemed “deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners” by TBIJ.

Official denials

President Obama officially denied the drone program’s existence for years before finally acknowledging it in an online interview in January 2012. Since then, his administration has attempted at every turn to downplay civilian casualties, with a senior administration official putting the total number of Pakistani civilians killed by drones in the “single digits.” Obama has claimed that while civilians had indeed been killed by drone strikes, it was not “a huge number,” maintaining that his drone policy was a “targeted, focused effort.”

Obama’s claims of a low number of civilian casualties are in part due to his administration’s shrewd bookkeeping minimizing the appearance of civilian harm. According to The New York Times, Obama considers “all military age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” Other victims, including women and children, are — like the program itself for years — simply unacknowledged.

International law ignored

Obama’s quiet but dramatic escalation of drone attacks on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia has merited scant or subdued criticism from the mainstream media, contributing to a perception that the weapons constitute a low-risk, precise, necessary evil to combat terrorism. Perhaps as a result, the program has consistently enjoyed majority support among the American public, including Democrats.

Some criticize the drone policy on procedural rather than substantive grounds, decrying the lack of transparency surrounding the strikes or advocating that all strikes be conducted by the U.S. military rather than the CIA, but accept that civilian casualties, while tragic, are an unintended consequence of an otherwise necessary policy.

Ignored in such debates is that international law only allows an attack on another country’s territory if United Nations authorization is granted or if conducted in self-defense, traditionally defined as an armed attack that is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” The drone policy does not meet these conditions because the U.S. has never pursued international authorization of the program, and the Obama administration revealed in a recently released white paper that it does not restrict its strikes only to situations involving immediate threats of armed attack.

Even if international law permitted such attacks, however, what is legal for one country would be legal for all. Logically speaking, supporters of the right of the U.S. to carry out its drone program are essentially advocating for the right of other countries to wield drones of their own against self-described “threats” around the world, including some in the U.S. This is clearly not the intention of supporters of U.S. drone strikes, yet this obvious implication is rarely discussed.

Equally ominous implications are found in Pakistani views on the strikes. Although rarely reported here, a 2010 Pew poll found that only 23 percent of Pakistanis approved of the drone strikes at that time. Predictably, the number of Pakistanis who view the U.S. as an enemy steadily rose from 64 percent in 2009 to 74 percent by 2012. Approval of the strikes also slid further, to 17 percent, by 2012.

Attacks continue unabated

The recent confirmation of John Brennan, one of the architects of the drone program under President George W. Bush, as head of the Central Intelligence Agency met with bipartisan support (notwithstanding Senator Rand Paul’s historic filibuster) and enjoyed little attention from the media beyond the initial Senate confirmation hearings. Despite public gestures from the administration to increase the transparency of the program, drone strikes continue unabated under a shroud of secrecy, with 12 strikes already launched on Pakistan in the first four months of 2013. It remains to be seen how many more thousands will die or continue to live in a state of perpetual dread before Obama hands the trigger to his successor.

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