MURDER BY NUMBERS
The US government has made bold claims for the extraordinary accuracy of its wonder-weapons. In a press conference earlier this year, US president Barack Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan insisted that “nearly for the past year there hasn’t been a single collateral death” in the CIA’s drone war.
This would be remarkable indeed if it weren’t demonstrably false. A major investigation by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) has shown that in just ten CIA drone attacks since August last year there were a minimum of 45 individuals killed who were confirmed civilians. These include women, children, policemen, students and rescuers among others. TBIJ has also identified an additional 15 attacks in which 65 more civilians might have been killed.
Unlike the New America Foundation or the neoconservative Long War Journal - the two most frequently cited, and least reliable, sources on drone casualties - TBIJ’s investigation does not rely on official claims or the media reports that exclusively rely on them. Chris Woods, the journalist who led the TBIJ investigation, told me earlier this month that, besides reviewing thousands of media reports about the attacks - including those written days, weeks, or even months after the initial incident - the Bureau has worked with journalists, researchers, and the lawyers representing the civilians killed in the attacks. The Bureau has also employed its own researchers in Waziristan to corroborate the evidence it has gathered.
However, as the Bureau notes, its figures for civilian casualties are a “conservative estimate”. It has only included those in its list whose civilian status it can confirm through multiple sources. The actual figures are likely much higher. But given the restrictions on travel to the region, a more comprehensive assessment of the war’s human cost remains impossible.
The respected Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai told me that it is no longer possible for journalists from outside to travel to the tribal region and, as a result, most of the reporting comes from a handful of stringers based in Miranshah and Mir Ali.
Confined to the environs of the region’s two main cities, even the journalists based in FATA have to call up the military’s press office for information on all strikes that occur beyond those limits. The kind of courage exhibited by 39-year-old Noor Behram, who photographed the aftermath of 27 drone attacks in North and South Waziristan between November 29, 2008, and June 15, 2011, is rare. The photos are currently on display at London’s Beaconsfield gallery. Unsurprisingly, the picture that emerges does not quite jibe with the CIA’s claims. “For every ten to 15 people killed,” he told the Guardian, “maybe they get one militant”.
The CIA claims that of the nearly 2,500 Pakistanis killed in the drone attacks, 35 were “high value targets” - that is, people it actually intended to kill. The rest it claims were mostly “suspected militants”. The world of think-tankery is even more linguistically challenged - in the New America Foundation’s database there is no category for “civilian” - there are only “militants” and “others”. Given the history of both the US and Pakistani spy organisations there is ample ground for scepticism, but in the light of the Bureau’s investigation, the public would be wise to treat all future victims of the drone war as civilians unless proven otherwise.
But even where guilt is established, the killings would still constitute extra-judicial murder since no declared state of hostilities exists between the US and Pakistan. Things have come a long way since July 2001, when following Israel’s “targeted killing” of Palestinians, the then US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk declared: “The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations ... They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”
Under Obama, extrajudicial killings have been adopted as a less complicated alternative to detention. Earlier in the year, Newsweek quoted one of Obama’s legal svengalis - American University’s Kenneth Anderson, author of an essay on the subject that was read widely by Obama White House officials - as saying: “Since the US political and legal situation has made aggressive interrogation a questionable activity anyway, there is less reason to seek to capture rather than kill.”
“And if one intends to kill, the incentive is to do so from a standoff position because it removes potentially messy questions of surrender.”
So far, the drones policy has been an unmitigated disaster. The handful of Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders killed have been replaced by a more ruthless leadership which has progressively expanded its operational ambit into the Pakistani mainland. To the extent that “militants” are killed, they are mostly foot soldiers whose death has no discernible impact on the outcome of the insurgency; indeed, it merely helps deepen resentment and broaden the militants’ support base. The CIA practice of bombing funerals and rescuers has ensured that even those who might otherwise disdain the Taliban identify with them as common victims of a uniquely barbarous adversary. Unable to strike back at the US, the Taliban instead revenge themselves on Pakistani soldiers and civilians in attacks that are no less brutal.
Two years ago, when I spoke to Yusufzai amid one of the most ferocious wave of terrorist attacks on Peshawar, he remained optimistic that, once the US withdrew from Afghanistan the militancy would recede. Events of the past two years have tempered his optimism. Last week when I spoke to him again, he told me that conditions have deteriorated so much that Pakistan will have to live with the consequences of America’s reckless war long after it has withdrawn.
The drone attacks are merely compounding the mess.
Campaigners in Britain and Pakistan are determined to bring transparency to Obama’s secretive war and justice to its victims.
Barrister Akbar told me in an email that with his team of researchers, he is “working to dig out information beyond the news reports, trying to find out the identities of individuals killed in drone strikes”. He is now representing a growing number of individuals who have lost family members to the CIA drones, and many more are coming forward.
“This is only the start of a long, long, peaceful battle to stop this kind of ‘murder by videogame’,” says Smith. “What we most need are allies willing to work with us, and help provide truthful information about what is really happening on the ground in Pakistan’s border regions.” –Aljazeera