World of drones

Published: February 10, 2013
The writer is a columnist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

The writer is a columnist based between Karachi and London. She was formerly a staff writer at the New Statesman

Drones are a divisive issue in Pakistan. Since 2004, the US has launched hundreds of unmanned drone strikes on Pakistan’s tribal areas as part of a covert war against militants in the area. The drone war has become a symbol of American violation of Pakistani sovereignty. In many circles, it is difficult to have a conversation about homegrown atrocities without the conversation ending with “what about all the people killed in drone strikes? Where is the fuss about that?” On the other hand, a sizeable minority of the public believe that they are a necessary evil. An editorial in this newspaper in October 2012, criticising Imran Khan’s peace march, set out this view: “No one doubts that drone attacks kill civilians but at the same time, there is no question that the Taliban kill more civilians than the US.”

The issue is never far from the political agenda. However, it has been particularly highlighted over the last week by changes in America. John Brennan, US President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and nominee for director of the CIA, is an avid supporter of the US drone programme, which covers Yemen and Somalia as well as Pakistan. His Senate confirmation hearing in Washington on February 7 was interrupted by anti-drone protesters. Brennan used the interruption as part of his defence of drones, claiming that protesters simply didn’t understand how much care the US takes over the strikes. It was in keeping with the tone of the event. The chair of the committee, Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein, repeated the White House line that the number of civilian casualties caused by US drone strikes each year has “typically been in the single digits”.

There is no doubt that this is a drastic underestimation, to say the least. But what is the real fallout? In the shadowy world of covert warfare — not to mention the difficulty of monitoring a terrain such as Waziristan — definitive numbers are hard to come by. Several organisations have made serious attempts to collate figures. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has an on-going project looking at the numbers of people killed. It estimates that since 2004, there have been 330 US drone strikes (278 of them under Obama) in Pakistan, that have so far killed at least 2,500 people. At least 482 civilians are credibly reported among the dead. The Washington-based New America Foundation also keeps a tally, which shows that civilian killings have been in double-digits every year since 2004, except for 2012. While the deaths of top Taliban commanders are held up as justification for the programme, a joint study by Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law last year found that these ‘high-level’ targets account for just two per cent of the total casualties.

Those are the numbers. There is also the human cost. Clive Stafford Smith, the head of legal charity Reprieve which has been active in protesting against drone warfare, told me that there has been a substantial increase in prescriptions of anti-depressants in Waziristan. The constant fear of death, the 24 hour buzzing of ‘bees’ overhead, is having a serious effect on the mental health of the 800,000 residents of the province. The Stanford/NYU report said that the presence of drones “terrorises men, women and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.” As a result, many avoid gathering in groups out of fear they may attract the attention of drone operators sitting in Nevada and pressing buttons. These group gatherings include jirgas, dispute resolutions, funerals and weddings. Many children have dropped out of school, injured or traumatised by strikes. The report called for an urgent reconsideration of the policy, but with its immense popularity among the US public (who prefer drones to ground assaults), and support among the highest echelons of the Obama administration, this does not look likely.

It is indisputable that there is a negative knock-on effect. Anecdotal evidence of drone strikes pushing civilians towards terrorism abounds. Several counter-terrorism activists working in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that I have spoken to strongly believe that the policy alienates the local population and encourages already disenfranchised boys to give themselves over to militancy. A kidnap victim I interviewed last year, who was held in Waziristan for several months, told me that he believes drones fuel anger and alienation in these marginalised areas. Certainly, anti-Americanism among the wider population is increasing. The Pew Global Survey found that 74 per cent of Pakistanis viewed Americans as the enemy in 2012, as opposed to 64 per cent in 2009.

Yet while awareness of drones may be on the up, there are tentative signs that the situation could be improving. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, civilian deaths in Pakistan fell from a peak of 119 in 2009 to 68 in 2011 and seven in 2012. The New America Foundation’s records for last year find a similar figure of five civilian deaths, and its numbers suggest that the number of non-militants dying in attacks has reduced since 2006. If the US government and people like John Brennan were to be believed, this is the result of increasing accuracy of drone strikes. This may be partially true, but Omar Shakir, joint author of the Stanford/NYU report, suggests caution. He says that the scarcity of reliable information means that the apparently reduced number of civilian casualties in Waziristan could just be evidence of drone activity switching from Pakistan to other regions, such as Yemen.

Drones are not going to go away and they are not going to stop being controversial. Last week, Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s ambassador to the US, said that the programme was illegal and violated Pakistan’s sovereignty. She also denied that the Pakistani government is complicit: “There is no policy of quiet complacency, no wink and nod.” Questions over the human rights implications, cooperation from the state and alternatives for fighting terrorism, are all set to be key issues for public debate over the election period. And as the issue is debated, those operators in Nevada will keep pressing the buttons that wreak devastation thousands of miles away. Of that much, we can be sure.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 11th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • Faqir Ipi
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:18PM

    I (as a Pashtun from nearby Waziristan) am in a dilemma. If I stand by Mr Obama/Bush and his agents like Mush, Zardari, Gilani, Kiayni, Karzai etc. Then I become a believer in his promises — that this world will see the realization of the American dream of global neo colonial empire , I could either be killed by a suicide bomber or kidnapped by so called Al-Qaeda militants.

    If I choose to side with Mr Osama, I will be killed in a drone attack or picked up by local or foreign security agents who have been tasked with transporting people like me to Guantanamo Bay or the Kandahar base, where the values of decency and morality that man developed over the past few centuries have been sacrificed.

    Therefore, I choose not to choose, no matter what the consequence. I defy this vulgar choice that today’s world politics, designed for wars and famine, leaves me with. Because it’s just blood and bones alongside bullets and ballistic missiles. I don’t want it.


  • Faqir Ipi
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:18PM

    “The drones are illegal, they are an “invention of a ‘law of 9/11′”, a “licence to kill” that, if copied by other countries, could lead to “chaos”. “Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place in running programmes that kill people in other countries,”

    Philip G. Alston
    John Norton Pomeroy Professor at New York University School of Law
    Co-chair Center for Human Rights and Global Justice
    UN Special Rapporteur (Extrajudicial/Summary/Arbitrary executions)


  • Faqir Ipi
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:21PM

    “It is not al-Qaeda that inspires affiliates and radicalizes homegrown terrorists. It is America’s violent policies in the Muslim world. Other government officials have acknowledged that Muslim radicals seek revenge for those policies in the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia, but Napolitano perpetuates the myth that anti-American activity is unprovoked. The American people deserve to hear the truth. “

    This isn’t rocket science. You bomb someone; they get mad and try to get even. Terrorism is the price paid for maintaining an empire. But the imperial masters apparently think it’s worth the price. They never suffer; on the contrary, they prosper when they can use the violence to justify further expansion of their power.

    U.S. government regularly fires missiles into Pakistan and Yemen from aerial drones, killing innocent people. The desire for revenge is a natural consequence.

    by Sheldon Richman, September 28, 2010

    In the U.S. government’s code book, “the enemy” is anyone who opposes a U.S. military presence in his country and he should be droned to death.


  • Maula Jut
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:23PM

    Pakistan’s policy seems to be to keep stirring the pot of protest over drone attacks, without letting it boil over. Washington can live with that. But there are imponderables. Will the US rely more on the drones in Afghanistan after the ISAF pulls out? If US statistics about killing so many Al Qaeda types in Waziristan are to be believed, will the frequency of attacks in Pak tribal areas come down? What happens if there is a change of government in Pakistan? I hope the author will work on these issues as well.


  • a_writer
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:23PM

    There are two puzzling issues in regards to the drone program

    1) it is well known that Taliban and AQ are good at propaganda against the west and US in particular. If there are indeed innocent people dead after a drone strike, why is it that Taliban or AQ never let that information get publicized? It should be easy to get the name of the innocent victims/families from the locals and send it to major news papers.

    2) The above comment applies to all those in Pakistan Govt., army and ISI who are against the drone attack – why is it that no one has taken the trouble to identify the names of the innocents killed in drone strikes and broadcast it to the entire world.

    Is it because of obvious reasons?

    Believe me, if you can publish a credible list, the western press will pick it up and publicize it in no time.


  • Faqir Ipi
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:23PM

    Pashtuns, made up of real people (not just data points on market research firm survey maps of Miss Farhat Taj Oslo based ghost writer in favor of Drones) are convinced, based largely on a pile of dead bodies that have yet to be counted, named, indicted, or convicted, that America is not a true friend of the Pashtun and Muslims.

    Anti-American sentiment in our part of world is not stemming from hate at all. It is stemming from love of one’s land. We feel humiliated by the opacity and unaccountability of drone attacks, feel America’s war in Af-Pak has put us in the crosshairs of a global conflict, feel that America’s assistance is like blood money – these are the issues that populate the anti-Americanisms.


  • Faqir Ipi
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:36PM

    Zardari and Hoti are no match to hypocrites like Mush/Zia/Yahya/Auyb, but still, they are trying their best to be like them.

    Regardless of the crimes against humanity, mania and the horrible human right violation of that Obama/Bush/Blair regime, what is so strange and utterly unacceptable in this day and age is the return of the colonial mentality and killing by drones.


  • Faqir Ipi
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:37PM

    2 million dollars and some more of blood money, added to the prospect of American visas, is not something to scoff at in our parts.

    Callous and cynical as it may sound, Pashtuns from Southern Part of KPk (DI Khan, Bannu, Lucky Marvat, Waziristan, Kohat) are killed, wantonly and cruelly, all the time and they get nothing. The victims of drone strikes in FATA certainly get nothing.


  • Feb 10, 2013 - 10:45PM

    How can the issue of drones be divisive – I stopped reading after that sentence.
    I cannot fathom the use of foreign power to kill my fellow citizens – I would expect my army and security forces to fight terror – not outsource it and retire to plush houses in Islamabad.


  • Parvez
    Feb 10, 2013 - 10:50PM

    This is very much a rehash of what has already been written on the subject, but you very sensibly have remained neutral in giving a fatwa on this.


  • numbersnumbers
    Feb 10, 2013 - 11:33PM

    And yet all the drone strikes would end IF ONLY Pakistan would extend the SOVEREIGNTY of the state into the FATA region, eliminating the Safe Havens used by the “Good Taliban”!
    Why is that so hard for THE SIXTH LARGEST ARMY IN THE WORLD???
    Once again, the some 3000 killed (arguably 80% plus militants/terrorists) in drone strikes are somehow a case for rampant anti-Americanism, but the some 30,000 plus Pakistanis killed (almost all civilians) by the TTP/terrorists results in constant fumbling by the political parties, mostly all being afraid to use the words “terrorist” and “TTP” in the same sentence!


  • Arindom
    Feb 11, 2013 - 2:15AM

    Drone-a-day, keeps-terrorist-away!


  • Arjun
    Feb 11, 2013 - 2:44AM

    This isn’t that hard..
    Pakistanis are fond of exploring the root cause of everything….why not ask yourself what’s the root cause of the drone attacks? stop sheltering and supporting the “good” taliban in the tribal areas and the drone attacks will stop.


  • cautious
    Feb 11, 2013 - 6:04AM

    @a_writer Better yet — ask yourselves why nobody ever can come up with a picture of these innocent Pakistani’s who are the victims of these drone attacks. In a World where many have cell phones with camera’s and access to the internet is readily available – no one ever bothers to take a picture and place it on the net.


  • Sam
    Feb 11, 2013 - 7:03AM

    Drone or B52 carpet bombing of ‘Non-State Actors’. Take a pick!


  • Mirza
    Feb 11, 2013 - 9:30AM

    You write ” so far killed at least 2,500 people. At least 482 civilians are credibly reported among the dead.”
    In this nine years time how many civilians have been killed in Karachi alone? How many civilians in Baluchistan have been killed and disappeared? Why is there outrage only on the deaths of terrorists and not the massacres and ethnic cleansing of Shia and minorities? All the fuss is about the drone attacks and only soft corner and offer to surrender to TTP and terrorists? Let us stop sheltering terrorists and keep providing ground intelligence to the US for drone attacks and Pakistan would be a better place.


  • Feb 11, 2013 - 11:24AM

    In today’s Big Brother, it seems any killing or torture is justifiable:


  • Saeed
    Feb 11, 2013 - 12:47PM

    And now even retired Genral McChrystal has added his voice to the anti drone campaign. IK has been proven correct while the two stalwarts vacillate, too busy making money to take a concrete position on this and other issues.


  • Palvasha von Hassell
    Feb 11, 2013 - 1:35PM

    Quite apart from not wanting to be killed in a drone attack, I wouldn’t want to live in a place that is being subjected to them. Perhaps the author should try living in such a place for some time.The voiceless people of the affected regions have been outrageously victimized with impunity since 2004. It’s high time a stop was put to this.


  • Cool Dude
    Feb 11, 2013 - 5:32PM

    Really? They are only increasing them, my friend. Facts can never be bypassed.


  • Feb 11, 2013 - 6:29PM

    The funny about all this is this: There are 3 actors in this Drama. 1) Americans who fire Drones. 2) Pakistanis. 3) Pakistani Military who are supposed to protect the Pakistanis and exercise air supremacy over the skies, with missiles, jets and what not..

    Pakistan NEVER seem to ask any questions to the actual entity which is not doing their job – The Military of Pakistan!

    If this one actor does it job well, then there IS NO DRONE ISSUE!!!

    If it can shoot down Supersonic Indian jets, then it can surely shoot down non-stealthy, slow moving unmanned drones.

    Iran has done it recently. Pakistani Military is supposed to be much advanced than Iran’s.

    The mentality is what ever happens, Pakistani Military goes scot free and never held accountable. No matter how incompetent they are, or if they kidnap and kill their own citizens and if they are a law onto themselves, they are still heroes for ordinary Pakistanis.


  • MSS
    Feb 11, 2013 - 7:23PM

    482 civilians out of 2500 is less than 20 percent of the total. It means the rest 2000 were Taliban or other terrorists of which some may or may not be their commanders. In a war like situation, this is pretty good going as far as eliminating the terrorism is concerned. I know, there should be zero civilians killed, even one innocent’s death is a death too many. However, no body is absolutely sure about the combatants and non combatants. Using the author’s figures as a guide, I am inclined to say the US has done a very good job and that perhaps is the reason why the Pakistani establishment is inclined to accept the drone strikes without too much protest. For comparison look at the violence in Karachi, 5000 civilians dreading just two years.


  • Faqir Ipi
    Feb 11, 2013 - 7:30PM

    US administration’s strategy of weakening the Taliban and driving them to the negotiating table was flawed and dangerous. Flawed, because the “surge” did not accomplish the purpose, and dangerous because Taliban emerged unbowed and undefeated, notwithstanding all that the Americans had to throw at them, their negotiating position is hardened.

    If force had to be used it should be overwhelming, or else it was “better to jaw, jaw than war, war.”
    If the enemy is Al-Qaeda, of which there are fewer traces in Af-Pak and more in Yemen, it was nevertheless absurd to deploy F-16s, helicopter-gunships and tanks as part of a 100,000-strong force against them.

    The deployment was excessive for Al-Qaeda and too small to conquer Afghanistan.

    Dayton was possible not merely because of US desire for peace or Holbrooke negotiating skills but the awesome display of destructive air power by the US. Milosevic was terrified that if the allied bombing continued, Serbia would indeed have been “bombed into the Stone Age.”

    The Taliban, on the other hand, had never emerged from the Stone Age, hence neither bombing nor military action seemed as calamitous.

    Russians said that the only way of conclusively winning a war in Afghanistan was to poison water wells, destroy crops and kill off the population. The Soviets had tried to do that before they ran out of time and the USSR collapsed, although by then they had managed to kill a million Afghans and drive five million into exile.

    As genocide is not an option Holbrooke, according to Cowper-Bowles, his British counterpart, had arrived at the “80/20 mix” as the preferred strategy in dealing with the Taliban—that is, 80 per cent political and 20 per cent military. In contrast, the Petraeus-driven US strategy had no mix; it was pure and 100 per cent military.

    “You would always lose half of what you gain by employing violence, what you have gained by negotiation and argument you have gained forever.”


  • Faqir Ipi
    Feb 11, 2013 - 7:38PM

    @ Brute Force

    There is another dimension to the drone narrative and some more truth to the tale.

    Its not Muslims or Pakistanis or Pashtuns who are target rather few people and few areas.

    Waziristan is under drone attacks because Waziristan is the ANUS of Pakistan.

    Drones Attack on Waziristan will only stop once US also Hit E/F Sectors in Islamabad, Westridge Pindi, Hayatabad /University Town in Peshawar, Greater Mardan/Charsada, Gulberg/DHA in Lahore and Clifton/KDA in Karachi. These are posh and ruling elite areas in various cities in Pakistan.

    Every crisis have a cost. Some pay the cost and for some it is an opportunity.

    We living here in Waziristan, Tank and Bannu are paying the cost in terms our blood for US Drone Attacks.

    While our agents and contractors on US/West pay roll are paid in US Blood Dollars. These either rule us or live in West.

    Even if they come to my land when not ruling us, they will be working in some Western NGO, or MNC or IMF or World Bank while living in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi all colonial era Metropolis cities.

    Secondary Roles in Western Empire are already defined for these Macaulay’s children. The Macaulay’s children refer to people born of Desi ancestry who adopt western culture as a lifestyle, or display attitudes influenced by West or colonizers.

    They will treat here their own desi brothers just like slaves.

    Punching Note :-

    OBL life and death are mysteries.

    OBL was supposed to be in Abbot Abbad for several years, did you see the reaction over that incident. Americans never ever dared to bomb it with drone, because they exactly know they limits of their puppets whether Politicians, Generals, or Bureaucrats. Recommend

  • Milind
    Feb 12, 2013 - 1:08PM

    Why are folks from Yemen not protesting over the drones??? Why are Pakistanis (especially some Pakistani leaders) touchy about this issue…

    IK has all the time to protest against the drones.. All he needs to do is ask the Pakistani military to shoot them down as BruteForce above pointed out… However the military is conspicuous by its silence.

    Appears someone did not get their cut…


  • Rex Minor
    Feb 16, 2013 - 12:10AM

    The author has not included in the cost of the destruction which the returning signels cause in the USA via the ultra sound signals which the operator sends to the drone flying over the waziri territory. This is the price the nature recovers from the yanks. God alone is the creator of the unverse and controls it. The mietiors are the next in Nature’s arsenal.

    The basic law of the physics dictates that we are moving from the past order to the future disorder. The present does no longer exist but we know the future and can easily slip into but have ot yet the knwledge to return if we wish.

    This is the dilemma the mankind faces. To be or not to be.

    Rex Minor


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