Drone Strikes

The recent incriminating report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK has revealed mountains of damning information regarding drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan. According to this report a drone strike occurs every four days and has resulted in the deaths of 775 civilians including 168 children since 2004. The report states that 45 civilians have died in the past year which is contradictory to Obama’s counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan’s statement that no civilians have died in nearly a year. However, the US has rejected the report’s findings and “unknown” officials have attacked the report, claiming that the numbers are exaggerated. Doubts have been cast on Mirza Shahzad Akbar’s role in the report since he is suing the CIA on behalf of Pakistanis who lost their family members to drone strikes. Mirza is a lawyer and was one of the sources used for the report. The Pentagon stated its concern about Mirza’s connection with the ISI since he ousted the undercover CIA chief in Pakistan.

The CIA has maintained that drone strikes do not result in any civilian deaths or “collateral damage” but since the beginning of the drone program in 2004, there has been controversy over the numbers of civilian deaths. The ability of the predator drone to loiter over a target for hours before striking supposedly gives it the ability to precisely aim at its intended target but the following reports depict otherwise. David Kilcullen, former adviser on counter-insurgency to General David Petraeus said for every single terrorist killed 50 civilians died, which is a hit rate of only 2 percent. Meanwhile in 2009 the Brookings Institution concluded that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also perished. On the other hand the Long War Journal stated that only 10 percent of those killed by the drone strikes were civilians reflecting that a low amount of collateral damage is acceptable. Finally an analysis carried out by the New America Foundation revealed that since 2006 till 2010, about 250 to 320 civilians died. Though they did cite difficulty in recognizing civilians from the militants since the latter live amidst the population and do not wear a uniform. These contrasting numbers over the past few years are troublesome. One of the reasons for the disparity is that people who were present in the same building as terrorists are counted as civilians in some reports whereas in others they are not. Similarly if a drone targets one house but ends up destroying three houses around the target then are the dead neighbours also counted as terrorists? Hence many questions arise regarding the data collection methods used in order to determine the accuracy of drone strikes.

The drone program is controversial because it doesn’t recognize any legal, ethical, or political boundaries. Under the United Nation’s charter drone strikes are illegal; Article 2(4) clearly states that all members shall refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. The UN Human Rights special investigator Philip Alston said “The CIA is running a program that is killing significant numbers of people and there is absolutely no accountability.” He warned the US for failing to track, and punish soldiers for drone strikes that result in civilian deaths, for not revealing the number of civilians killed, and for no plans on compensating victim’s families. Nonetheless, the US claims that the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly have no say regarding killings during an armed conflict.

Currently there are two drone programs in effect in South Asia. A military program which operates in Afghanistan and a CIA run covert drone program in Pakistan, which the US is not at war with. These drones are controlled by an operator in the Creech Air Force base which is forty five miles north of Las Vegas. This base is the first in Air Force history that solely flies unmanned aircraft. The UAVs used in Pakistan are MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper which fire AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Reports also came out that the CIA operatives were paying Pakistanis to identify al-Qaeda targets by placing electronic chips in their homes so that they can be targeted by predator drones.

The US seems to believe that continued drone strikes will significantly diminish al-Qaeda’s abilities. However, drone strikes are counterproductive because they play into the hands of militant propaganda seeking to gather and recruit the local populace to their cause. Since the US is preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan it is time to realize that drone strikes are here to stay despite their illegality and the civilian deaths they produce. With no boots on ground drones will remain the weapon of choice for the US. These strikes have hindered the capabilities of al-Qaeda and other militant groups but have not been successful in eliminating these groups all together. The US and Pakistan share a common enemy thus; a joint control of the drone program appears to be a logical approach at the moment. Jointly coordinated drone strikes will ease the level of anti-Americanism in Pakistan and also eliminate civilian deaths; since there will not be a complete disconnect between the drone operator and the reality on ground. Pakistan has demanded veto power over drone strikes and new detailed agreements between the governments of US and Pakistan are allegedly in the works. Former US Intelligence chief, Dennis Blair also supported giving Pakistan the veto power over drone strikes arguing that continued unilateral action in Pakistan is disadvantageous. Indeed a more effective strategy would entail development and investment in education and infrastructure but the area needs to be cleared of militants first before such programs can be enacted. Persistent unilateral actions by the US threaten to push the country over the brink. Pakistan continues to wallow in an era of political violence and terrorist attacks. Openly acknowledged joint efforts in pursuit of terrorists will ease public criticism while still providing a method to combat the extremist plague.


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