Killer Robots Above


A new study from human rights researchers at NYU and Stanford explores the effects of the US drone warfare on Pakistani civilians. Joshua Hersh explains:

The study, which was released on Tuesday, relies on some 130 interviews with civilians living in the regions of northern Pakistan where targeted drone strikes have been most frequent. Working with the activist group Reprieve, the team of professors have added to the growing body of literature that argues, contrary to Obama administration claims, that numerous civilians have been killed, and many more traumatized, by the drone strike program.

"Drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning," the report said. "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."

Relying on data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the study's authors say that between 2,562 and 3,325 people have been killed in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since June 2004, and between 474 and 881 of them were civilians.

Basically, one out of every four victims is a civilian. With family. And friends. I understand how hard it is to target with "surgical" accuracy and I don't doubt that we do our best. But those numbers, in so far as we can judge them, go over the "just war" line for me. Pre-emptive warfare with one in four fatalities as civilians does not fit in my book. I can see the logic. We have strafed the ranks of al Qaeda more effectively than ever before. And we're getting out soon enough, mercifully. And while I urged a quicker withdrawal and against the Obama surge, I saw the logic behind the counter-terror strategy. But we may live with its consequences for a while. And they may be worse than we think.

Friedersdorf goes through the harrowing first-person accounts. We tend to think of a drone attack as a one-off event; we don't understand that they are a permanent aerial siege for everyone within range. This study helped me understand that aspect of the drone war better, and why its costs – as well as its benefits – are real:

Safdar Dawar, who leads an organization of tribal journalists, gave a superb description of what life is like for every innocent person in North Waziristan: "If I am walking in the market, I have this fear that maybe the person walking next to me is going to be a target of the drone. If I'm shopping, I'm really careful and scared. If I'm standing on the road and there is a car parked next to me, I never know if that is going to be the target. Maybe they will target the car in front of me or behind me. Even in mosques, if we're praying, we're worried that maybe one person who is standing with us praying is wanted. So, wherever we are, we have this fear of drones."

Jerome Taylor zooms in on another element of the report:

[A]n increasingly common tactic now being used in America's covert drone wars [is] the "double-tap" strike. More and more, while the overall frequency of strikes has fallen since a Nato attack in 2011 killed 24 Pakistani soldiers and strained US-Pakistan relations, initial strikes are now followed up by further missiles in a tactic which lawyers and campaigners say is killing an even greater number of civilians. The tactic has cast such a shadow of fear over strike zones that rescuers often wait for hours before daring to visit the scene of an attack.

Greenwald calls the study "vitally important" and says it once again exposes the myths of the drone warfare program:

As I've argued before, the worst of these myths is the journalistic mimicry of the term "militants" to describe drone victims even when those outlets have no idea who was killed or whether that term is accurate (indeed, the term itself is almost as ill-defined as "terrorist"). This media practice became particularly inexcusable after the New York Times revealed in May that "Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants."

Read through previous Dish coverage on the morality of drone warfare here.

(Photo: A US 'Predator' drone passes overhead at a forward operating base near Kandahar on January 1, 2009. By Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images.)