At the beginning of 2012, the U.S. experienced a watershed moment in the history of its eight year old Drone program: the President of the United States acknowledged, for the first time, that it existed at all. President Obama described the program, which by then had spread from Northern Pakistan into Yemen, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, as one with “pinpoint” efficiency that is “kept on a very tight leash.”
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as many as 884 civilians have been killed since 2004.
He went on to say that the program doesn’t inflict large civilian casualties, an idea echoed by state officials speaking anonymously to major media outlets and people like John Brennan. The Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism said in April, during a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, that he had “no information about a single civilian being killed” in a drone strike, and that drone technology “allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qa’ida terrorist and innocent civilians.”
However, as a new joint study by NYU and Stanford states unequivocally in its opening paragraphs, “this narrative is false.”
The study, which involved nine months of research, two investigations in Pakistan and 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, provides damning new evidence that the U.S. drone program not only kills civilians regularly, but has created a massive culture of fear in Pakistan’s FATA region. On top of analyzing the program’s effects on the native population, the study also delves into the legality of the U.S. drone program and the problems with major media outlets’’ reporting on drones.
Strikes Without A Lot of Personality
First, a few notes about the U.S. drone program, and the area where it’s most heavily used. Of the drone strikes launched by the U.S. against Pakistan, the vast majority took place within an area called FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), an area of Northern Pakistan about the size of Maryland.
FATA is one of the poorest places on Earth. The per capita income is approximately US $250 per year, and 60 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line. Most of the population depends on sustenance agriculture, manual labor and small businesses. The literacy rate in FATA is about 17%, and there is “an estimated one doctor for every 6,762 residents.” Residents of FATA and professionals who live there, including doctors and humanitarian workers”, live in constant fear of “violence from Pakistani, American, and Taliban forces”.
The U.S. drone program in Pakistan (officially) kicked off under former President George W. Bush in 2004, with a strike against a Pakistani Taliban commander named Nek Muhammed. Strikes were used 52 times during his time in office, according to The Bureau for Investigative Journalism (TBIJ). President Obama, however “ha[d] reportedly carried out…292 strikes” as of September 2012.
Initially, the Pakistani government supported the use of drones by the U.S. The report mentions a Wikileaks-released embassy cable, in which Pakistan’s Prime Minster allegedly told US officials that he didn’t “care if they [conduct strikes] as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.”
The differences between the policies of Bush and Obama don’t end at scope, however; it’s also a matter of style. Former President Bush tended to use drones for “personality strikes” against “named, allegedly high-value leaders” of terrorist groups. President Obama, on the other hand, has made frequent use of “signature strikes”, where “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or…characteristics associated with terrorist activity are targeted.”
What exactly constitutes these “defining characteristics” of potential militants has not been made public. The little we do know has come from rare leaks to journalists by anonymous government sources.
For instance, a widely publicized report in the New York Times recently revealed that, under President Obama, “all military-age males [killed] in a strike zone” are considered “combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” The issues with this definition weren’t lost on the NYU/Stanford team, who wrote:
“How the US would go about gathering such posthumous evidence is unclear, in part because drone victims’ bodies are frequently dismembered, mutilated, and burned beyond recognition.”
The report states that since 2004, an estimated 49 high-profile “militant leaders” have been killed by drone strikes, representing just two percent of all those killed. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as many as 884 civilians have been killed since 2004.
The Sound of a Buzzing Mosquito
During interviews conducted for “Living Under Drones,” researchers discovered that the U.S. drone program has had massive psychological, social, and economic impacts on residents of FATA. From the wreckage, a culture of fear has begun to blossom.
First responders, medical professionals, and NGOs have had to exercise greater caution as well, due to the use of a practice known as a “double tap,” in which a targeted strike site is hit multiple times” within several minutes. A situation like this makes it difficult to administer necessary aid to those who are wounded, as first responders must now worry that an indiscriminate drone operator will mistake them for a militant.
One man said that “some people have been tied in their houses because of their mental state.
In FATA, many parents have become afraid to send their children to school, due to fears that they will be killed in a drone strike. Funerals, an immensely important event for the Muslims of North Waziristan, have been complicated because, as the report claims, “drone strikes have targeted funerals and spaces where families have fathered.” Because of a strike on March 17, 2011, which killed dozens of civilians attending a Jirga—a male-only community decision-making assembly—it has become more difficult for local-level government activities to take place.
There has also been considerable economic hardship imposed on the people of FATA. No victims have yet been remunerated for the damage done by drones, though the cost of strike can often be insurmountable. In addition to material losses, like a car or a house, victims are often “burdened with enormous medical bills…for surgeries, mental health care, and hospital stays…running up bills of several lakhs each (each lakh equivalent to more than US $1000 each)…”
But the damage to the wallets of FATA residents pales in comparison to the long-term psychological effect of living under drones. The report describes how Pakistanis’ “powerlessness to minimize their exposure to strikes” has affected their mental state:
“Several interviewees provided a troubling glimpse of the methods some communities turn to in order to deal with mental illness in the absence of adequate alternatives. One man said that “some people have been tied in their houses because of their mental state.
A Waziri from Datta Khel—which has been hit by drone strikes over three dozen times in the last three years alone—said that a number of individuals “have lost their mental balance . . . are just locked in a room. Just like you lock people in prison, they are locked in a room.”
The constant threat of a strike has put many residents in a state of perpetual fear. Violence was already a major part of North Waziristan’s landscape before the strikes began —with both militant groups like Al Qaeda and state groups like the Pakistani military playing a role—but the last few years have added a new dimension to this violence, one that is unpredictable and devastating.
Or, as “Mohammad Kausar”—a FATA resident and father of three—put it, “They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.”
In the Face of Uncertainty, Media Glosses Over the Details
Much information about the U.S. drone program and its effects is still under wraps.
Part of the problem is due to the Pakistani government’s barring of the “media,” “virtually all international organizations,” and “NGOs” from entering FATA, and the difficulty of travel both within and out of the region. Part is due to the Obama administration’s refusal to clarify or release more details about the program. But as this report makes clear, one of the biggest roadblocks to transparency has been the media’s compliant attitude towards the (often) anonymous sources it uses:
“Those who work for major news outlets and wire services tend to spend more time embedded with military and intelligence officials and are thus more likely to report “official” accounts. Those who are not escorted into FATA by the military rely more on locals and stringers. The result is that different journalists with different contacts get different stories, make different decisions about who to trust, and frequently end up publishing conflicting accounts…”
The effects of relying on anonymous officials are often reflected in the language used by news outlets, the study holds. When reporting on a drone strike, most media outlets divide those killed into two categories, “civilians” and “militants.” Government officials have been shown to have consistently denied that any civilian casualties occurred after a strike, and have at times refused to recognize a civilian death once proof has been furnished (see the charts at the bottom of this post). Often, these unnamed, unaccountable sources are the only source provided for a story.
This, in turn, helps to shape the public discourse around the efficacy and necessity of the U.S. drone program. All the while, the term “’militant’ is never defined…this often implies to the reader that the killing of that person was lawful,” even if no follow-up has been done to confirm or refute this. According to the study, there is “little evidence that US authorities have engaged in any effort…to investigate the backgrounds of those killed”.
Both directly and indirectly, the report puts forward a number of questions for both citizens and journalists to consider. How can the media accurately report on the impact of drone strikes, with so much conflicting information swirling around? Does the U.S. have legal ground to conduct drone strikes against Pakistan, a country the U.S. is not at war with?
A Google search yields a generic definition for “terrorism” as meaning “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” In reality, there is no universal academic or legal definition of the term. It might be crass to suggest that the U.S. seeks to intimidate and control Pakistani civilians, but considering the information in “Living Under Drones,” one wonders if this isn’t the practical effect of the U.S. drone program: a state-sponsored terrorism against a tribal civilian population.