Din Mohammad had the misfortune to live next door to militants in Danda Darpakhel, North Waziristan. His neighbours were reportedly part of the Haqqani Network, a group fighting US forces in nearby Afghanistan.
On September 8, 2010, the CIA’s Reaper drones paid a visit. Hellfire missiles tore into the compound killing six alleged militants. One of the Hellfires missed its target, and Din Mohammad’s house was hit. He survived. But his son, his two daughters and his nephew all died. His eldest boy had been a student at a Waziristan military cadet college. The other three children were all below school age.
Although the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s field researchers have verified the details of this strike, the US continues to deny civilians are being killed in Pakistan strikes, while one in seven of all US strikes may have resulted in child fatalities.
Children have been killed throughout the seven years of CIA strikes. The Bureau has identified credible reports of 168 children killed in CIA drone attacks in the tribal areas. (For this research, the UN’s definition of a child as being someone aged between 0 and 17 years old has been adopted. The majority of children killed have been younger than 17, according to the Bureau’s reports.)
Unicef, the United Nations children’s agency, said in response to the findings: “Even one child death from drone missiles or suicide bombings is one child death too many.”
‘One in three’
The highest number of child deaths occurred during the Bush presidency, with 112 children reportedly killed. More than a third of all Bush drone strikes appear to have resulted in the deaths of children.
On only one occasion during Bush’s time in office did a single child die in a strike. Multiple deaths occurred every other time. On July 28 2008, for example, CIA drones struck a seminary in South Waziristan, killing al Qaeda’s chemical weapons expert Abu Khabab al Masri along with his team. Publicly the attack was hailed a success.
But the Agency’s strike also killed three young boys and a woman. Despite the secrecy surrounding the drones campaign, details emerged in May of this year that not only was the US aware of this ‘collateral damage’, but that the then-CIA chief Michael Hayden personally apologised to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani for the error.
President Obama, as commander-in-chief, has ultimately been responsible for many child deaths in Pakistan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has identified 56 children reported killed in drone strikes during his presidency – although child deaths have dropped significantly in recent months.
On February 14 2009, the eight-year-old son of Maezol Khan reportedly lost his life. More than 25 alleged militants were killed in a massive strike on a nearby house. But flying shrapnel killed the young boy as he slept next door. His grandfather later asked: “How can the US invade our homes while we are sleeping, and target our children?”
But one 2009 incident in which children died gives a chilling insight into the tactics of those the CIA are hunting. On August 11 of that year drones attacked an alleged Pakistan Taliban compound, killing up to 25 people. At the time there were reports of women and children killed.
Two years later, young survivor Arshad Khan, now in Pakistani police custody, told reporters that the compound was a training camp for teenage suicide bombers. He named four young victims. Arshad says he was recruited without realising he was to be a suicide bomber.
Commenting on children killed by drone strikes, Unicef’s south Asia regional spokesperson Sarah Crowe told the Bureau: “Even one child death from drone missiles or suicide bombings is one child death too many. Children have no place in war and all parties should do their utmost to protect children from violent attacks at all times.”
There are indications that the Obama administration is making efforts to reduce the number of children being killed. Following the incident in September last year that killed Din Mohammad’s children, and another strike just weeks earlier in which a further three children died, there has been a steep fall in the number of child fatalities reported by media.
That is partially in line with claims by some US intelligence officials that drone targeting strategies have been altered to reduce civilian casualties. Although the Bureau has demonstrated that CIA claims of ‘zero casualties’ are false, there are far fewer reports of child casualties since August last year.
Along with two undefined reports of ‘children killed’, a 17-year-old student was killed in November last year. And on April 22 this year, two drones destroyed a house and guesthouse in Spinwan, North Waziristan. A 12-year-old boy, Atif, was killed in that strike, according to researchers working with the Bureau in Waziristan.
Mirza Shahzad Akbar, an Islamabad-based lawyer representing a number of families caught up in drone strikes said: “All these children are a big recruitment agent for militants in the area. When you can show people that children are being killed in the drone strikes, all those who are so far non-aligned, that gets them onto the other side. That is what most worries me as a Pakistani.”
A US counter-terrorism official, commenting generally on the Bureau’s findings, denied that civilians were now being killed and said: “Nobody is arguing perfection over the life of the programme, but this remains the most precise system we’ve ever had in our arsenal.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 12th, 2011.