Gen. Robert E. Lee
It has been just over a year since Mamana Bibi was blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired from a pilotless U.S. aircraft while she was picking okra in the family field near the village of Ghundi Kala in Pakistan’s northwest frontier region. Four of Bibi’s young grandchildren saw and felt the impact of the explosion; two suffered shrapnel injuries. A three-year-old grandson was seriously injured when he was thrown from the roof of the family home by the force of the blast.
The U.S. drone attack near Ghundi Kala on Oct. 24, 2012, appears to have gone unreported in U.S. media until Amnesty International used it to open its new report, “Will I Be Next? U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan.” The report was released last week [Oct. 22] in conjunction with a parallel report by Human Rights Watch on U.S. drone warfare in Yemen: “Between a Drone and al-Qaeda.”
Together, the two reports, dissecting a dozen of the hundreds of drone attacks in the past four years, provide a powerful corrective to the antiseptic picture of U.S. drone warfare that emerges from the limited information about the attacks given out by the government. They refute the anodyne assurances from President Obama and others that the government is exercising extreme care to target attacks accurately and minimize collateral damage to innocent victims or property. And they present a strong case that the United States is violating not only Obama’s stated guidelines but also international law.
Drone warfare appeals because it allows the United States to take out bad guys from al Qaeda without ever putting Americans in harm’s way. U.S. military or CIA technicians, safe in a command center in the United States, supposedly guide the remote-controlled aircraft into position over the identified target and hit the launch button only after taking precautions against collateral damage to innocent victims or property.
That is not what it looks like on the ground, according to the disturbing images and accounts gathered by researchers from the two human rights groups from witnesses, survivors and Yemeni and Pakistani officials. Beyond doubt, many of the victims were innocent bystanders. Bibi, a 68-year-old grandmother, was one; so too were the youngsters among the 18 killed when missiles rained down on a group of laborers in the village of Zowi Sidgi in July 2012. In an especially poignant example, previously reported, Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber, an anti-al Qaeda cleric in Yemen, was killed on Aug. 29, 2012, along with three al Qaeda operatives who had set up a meeting with him to challenge his positions.
Human Rights Watch counts 82 deaths from the six drone attacks in Yemen it studied, including 57 civilians more than two-thirds of the total. The group cites an estimate that puts the total death toll in Yemen at 473, civilians and combatants lumped together. Amnesty International relays estimates from other non-governmental organizations and from Pakistani sources that put the civilian death toll in Pakistan since 2004 somewhere between 400 and 900. If true, the number appears far larger than the number of deaths of al Qaeda combatants suggested by U.S. government accounts.
The civilian casualties are an inherent risk from the fog of war, the reports suggest. Bibi may have been mistargeted in an attack aimed at a Taliban fighter who had been located nearby but drove away before the missiles were fired. Zowi Sidgi appears to be in a corridor for Taliban fighters, but villagers interviewed afterward insisted that most if not all of the victims had nothing to do with the Taliban. From afar, Jaber’s innocent reasons for meeting with al Qaeda fighters were unknowable.
Even apart from the unknowables, however, the reports fault the United States for violating rules established by international law and in some cases incorporated by Obama in the reset of drone policy he outlined in a speech at the National Defense University in May. Obama said the United States prefers capture to targeted killing whenever feasible. In Yemen, Human Rights Watch argues that lethal force is barred in any event in the absence of an armed conflict with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that targeted suspects could have been captured in at least two of the attacks studied. Obama says the United States goes after individuals only if they present an imminent threat to the United States; both groups say some of the targets appear not to qualify under that criterion.
More generally, both groups fault the administration for failing to provide a clear legal rationale for the drone attacks, for releasing so little information about the attacks, and for failing to ensure compensation for innocent victims or their families. And both reports emphasize that opposition to the drone attacks is widespread in Pakistan and Yemen; the ill will created may outweigh any benefits from the attacks in terms of counterterrorism policies.
Elders from Ghundi Kala held a press conference two days after the attack that killed Bibi to protest the drone warfare, but it attracted no news coverage in the United States. The drones are weapons in a war that is largely unseen in the United States. They are terrible in their own way, but out of sight it is easy for the government and the public to grow fond of them.