From a Distance
During the last two years or so, news of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas and along our border with Afghanistan have become a regular occurrence. For me, and many others who I have spoken to, it was very difficult to form an opinion about whether these strikes were good for our country or bad. Depending on which channel you watched, which newspaper you read, which blog you clicked on or who you followed on Twitter, some claimed they were helpful in eliminating militants, others that innocent civilians were being killed. Not surprising really, as internationally there has been disagreement on this topic. The Brookings Institution claims that ten civilians are killed in drone strikes for every militant that dies. Estimates by the New America Foundation, on the other hand, say that eighty percent of those killed are militants. Whichever version you choose to believe, one thing is certain: innocent civilians do die in drone strikes.
The reasons the Obama administration has been so supportive of the drone programme are that:
- operations are conducted remotely by ground crews from an Air Force base near Las Vegas, eliminating the possibility of US military casualties;
- the entire programme is run by the CIA as a classified activity, which means that the US government does not even officially admit to actually being responsible for drone strikes; and
- the US public relations machine has successfully deflected attention from some very serious human rights questions being asked about the programme.
The frequency of these attacks, disinterest from the media, the distance of the northern tribal areas from the urban television audience, conflicting opinions about the consequences of the attacks and the use of terms such as “collateral damage” have desensitized us. Even using the word “strikes” rather than “attacks” is in itself a PR master stroke as it invokes the image of surgical precision, rather than destruction caused by a 100lb Hellfire missile carrying an 18lb blast fragmentation or incendiary warhead. So much so, that after 118 such strikes in 2010 and more than 70 in 2011, in which as many as 1,500 people have been killed, we have actually stopped thinking about the human cost of drone strikes.
Jemima Khan, in her recent article in the New Statesman has called it “Nintendo Warfare” and relates her meeting with a young Pakistani man during a conference arranged by Clive Stafford Smith of the UK legal-aid charity, Reprieve, on the subject of drone attacks by the CIA. She wrote:
“Two weeks ago, in Pakistan, I met a boy called Tariq who, at 16, is a year older than my son. He was a fanatical footballer, like my boy, though more politicised, like everyone in Pakistan from rickshaw wallahs to university lecturers. Political apathy is the preserve of countries that are not on the brink.
Three days later Tariq was dead.
He died alongside his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed, both victims of one of the drones he was protesting about. Stafford Smith believes that a tracking device was put on his car by a CIA informant at the conference in Islamabad. There are 800,000 people living in the north-western region of Waziristan: the odds of hitting one of the 80 delegates, Stafford-Smith points out, was therefore one in 10,000.”
Tariq was killed not because he was a militant. Clive Stafford Smith and Jemima Khan believe that he died because he attended the Reprieve conference in Islamabad. He was 16. His cousin who died with him was 12. Think about two of your cousins who are that age. Imagine, for a minute, the impact on your family if they were to suddenly and unexpectedly die one day. Disbelief, devastation, hopelessness, despair, rage.
Closer to Home
The most extensive study on the impact of drone attacks has been conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The key findings of this study are that more than 300 CIA drone attacks have taken place in Pakistan, of which 253 were under President Obama – one every four days. As many as 150 named militants are among the nearly 2,500 people killed in these attacks, and up to 781 innocent civilians have died in the strikes. The Bureau has also cited credible reports showing a child dies in every third drone attack and that at least 175 children have been killed.
781 citizens of Pakistan, dead.
175 of our children, dead.
Some may argue that this is a price worth paying for the eradication of militants. We are in a war, they will say, and we have to make sacrifices in order to win against the terrorists, the suicide bombers, the fanatics who have made a vow to kill and injure as many of our brothers and sisters as they can.
The war against terror has now been fought for more than ten years and Pakistan has been involved since the first day. As I think about what has been achieved, one thing is very clear to me: that the might of the US military machine has been thoroughly unsuccessful in this war. At the cost of billions of dollars, the lives of many NATO and allied soldiers, popularity with the American people, respect in the international community and many countless thousands of innocent deaths, not a lot has been achieved. Suicide bombings, attacks on key government installations, pressure on the military, instability in government, economic ruin and embarrassment for Pakistan: that is our legacy from the war on terror.
The Republican presidential hopeful, member of the US House of Representatives from Texas, Ron Paul has said that the US is inciting civil war in Pakistan by persisting with drone attacks. In an interview he said that civilian casualties from CIA strikes only create more enemies for the US and jeopardize security in the US. Speaking to Fox News, Ron Paul said:
“Sometimes they miss and sometimes there’s collateral damage. And every time we do that, we develop more enemies. We’re dropping a lot of drone missiles/bombs in Pakistan and claim we’ve killed so many, but how about the innocent people [who have] died? Nobody hears about that. This is why the people of Pakistan can’t stand our guts and why they disapprove of their own government. We’re bombing Pakistan and trying to kill some people, making a lot of mistakes, building up our enemies, at the same time we’re giving billions of dollars to the government of Pakistan. We’re more or less inciting a civil war there, so I think that makes us less safe.”
This is exactly what Imran Khan has been consistently saying, drawing criticism from various elements in the media. However, as time passes, he is being proved right, as the Taliban office in Qatar has been established, the US have said that the Taliban are not their enemy, President Obama prepares to fulfill his pledge of troop withdrawal in 2014 and everyone is suddenly agreeing that negotiations are the only way forward.
In the meantime, millions of innocent civilians’ lives continue to be utterly disrupted, their livelihoods destroyed and their family and loved ones killed. Using desensitizing terminology like “collateral damage” and “internally displaced persons” may save us from guilt, but it does nothing to lessen the suffering of the Pakistani villager who has to live for months on end in a refugee camp, having lost her daughter to an errant missile fired by an unmanned drone, while her home, her farm, her village are destroyed by helicopter gunships bearing the emblem of her national army.
You have probably heard the story of Shakira, the little 4 year old girl who was left disfigured from severe burns she suffered when a drone attacked her village in the Swat valley. Shakira was lucky. She was spotted by a US aid worker, who rescued her and took her back to America for reconstructive surgery. Thousands like her are not so fortunate. As you think about them, remember this: they are human beings just like you and me and they are ordinary, law-abiding citizens, who have done nothing wrong, but their fundamental rights are being completely violated every single day, until all they are left with is disbelief, devastation, hopelessness, despair and rage.