Questions arise over civilian casualties, program’s effectiveness
The Bureau of Investigative Reporting, a U.K. based non-profit, estimates that the U.S. drone program under President Barack Obama has tallied up an estimated death toll of at least 2,400 people in a variety of countries ranging from Somalia to Yemen to Pakistan. In Pakistan alone between 416 and 959 civilians, including 168 to 204 children, have been killed by drone strikes between 2004 and January 31, 2015.
The drone program was authorized by President George W. Bush in 2001 following the Sept. 11 attacks. According to an article from The New Yorker, the new mandate allowed for the “authorized targeted killings of Al Qaeda terrorists and their allies.” It goes into greater detail about how an individual believed to be actively involved in terrorist plots could be nominated and approved for capture or killing. According to Jeremy Scahill of The Intercept, for the first several years of the program under Bush, drones strikes were used sparingly. But after 2006, following the appointment of Michael Hayden to director of the CIA, the amount drone strikes increased on Pakistani soil.
According to The Intercept’s massive story, “The Drone Papers,” the majority of drone strikes in Pakistan are conducted in the northern semi-autonomous tribal regions known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. This region is home to a majority population of ethnic Pashtuns, according to The Intercept. Many political theorists have claimed that drone strikes, especially those conducted in Taliban or insurgent-controlled areas, have a detrimental effect to not only the local area but also to the security of the United States as well. Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy, a non-governmental organization dedicated to reforming United States foreign policy, said in an interview with PBS that strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are doing more harm than good and should be curtailed as they cause anti-U.S. sentiment and undermine local governments.
There is no exact count on the number of civilian casualties caused by drone strikes, and there have been significant disputes over claims by the U.S. government of low levels of civilian casualties. The U.S. government counts every “military age male” killed by a U.S. drone strike as a “militant” unless someone is able to prove otherwise, a task that is almost always impossible.
Both the U.S. and Pakistani governments have remained quiet on drone strikes as transparency would make the strikes more difficult for both sides, stirring up anger if official statistics were released, Judith Bello of Upstate Drone Action, a grassroots movement that protests the use of drones, said. The results are drone strikes that are rarely reported on in mainstream U.S. media, with the reason for this still unclear. Bello said there are many reasons for the lack of media coverage on the mass-casualties caused by drone strikes, including the isolated and hard to reach places that the drone attacks are conducted as well as the complacency of the governments where strikes are hitting.
Naiman also stated in his interview that according to reports in the U.S. press, many current and former U.S. officials, especially those who worked or are working as political and diplomatic officials, believe that political and humanitarian costs of the drone strikes outweigh the claimed benefits that the CIA relies upon, and therefore that the drone strikes should be stopped or be sharply curtailed. Naiman goes on to say, “But the military and the CIA assert otherwise, and so far it is mainly the military and the CIA that are running the policy, while the diplomats and the political people have been largely marginalized on the drone strike policy.”
The drone program has resulted in the accidental deaths of a high number of civilian bystanders. This is not only fueling anti-American sentiment in the countries which the strikes are conducted, but encouraging some to join terrorist groups or insurgencies as retribution for the killings or their neighbors. Robert Grenier, the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center during the Bush administration, said recently that “we have been seduced” by drones, and that drone killings “are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield.” Nathan Wessler, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project said “Whatever short-term gain there might be from targeted killing is outweighed by long-term damage to our national security.”
As Ibrahim Mothana, a Yemeni pro-democracy activist wrote, “Drone strikes are causing more and more Yemenis to hate America and join radical militants; they are not driven by ideology but rather by a sense of revenge and despair.”
Parita Desai is a freshman journalism major who sometimes wishes people wouldn’t drone on for so long. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.