This is not an argument against the legality of drone strikes, although there is a strong case to be made for a serious re-evaluation of the drone program. Instead I want to write about the very real human effects strikes have in my home country of Pakistan, though they’re also deployed in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen.
It’s been an interesting experience hearing public discourse on drones in America, and having discussions on the topic myself with various Yalies, many of whom are proponents, The detached nature of the dialogue here is so at odds with the impassioned rhetoric employed back home, where drones cannot escape any part of the conversation about the imperialist, war-mongering, Islamophobic America the vast majority of Pakistanis have rooted in their minds. It’s difficult to shift to the very removed way Pakistani lives are talked about and to hear vast underestimations of the radicalizing effects of drone use, when I have personally witnessed. This is an area where American and Pakistani interests should align completely—terrorism is not just a priority for American Security, it has been one of the most devastating aspects of everyday Pakistani life, a constant background noise in news headlines and faraway explosions. The gap in narratives despite common interests in some ways represents the larger problem with US foreign policy today, where instead of capitalizing on a common enemy, America makes itself into one. Drones are emblematic of this. Though not inherently immoral, the way they are being used should raise both practical and moral alarms for the American populace.
The secrecy of drone programs, used for surveillance in one form or another since Vietnam, means there is very little reliable data on targets and casualties. It was only through the recent monitoring by media organizations and human rights groups that estimates began to come out. According to their numbers, about five to twenty five percent of casualties have been civilian. If that category strikes you as overly broad, it should. It is a reflection of the information gap caused by this administration’s lack of transparency. Put into numbers, those percentages translate to at least about 400 civilian casualties in Pakistan alone, and a further 200 non-combatants, according to a UN report, which also states those numbers “owing to underreporting and obstacles to effective investigation…are likely to be an underestimate”. This is, not surprisingly, much higher than the number reported by the White House. During these strikes, all military aged males in a strike zone were regarded as combatants. The New York Times has quoted a senior official in the State Department as saying that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks”, they think it is a terrorist training camp.
The drone strikes in Pakistan occur in Waziristan, part of a region known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is an area ruled not under the constitution, but the Frontier Crimes Regulation Act, a legacy of colonial rule. The people of FATA did not even get the right to vote until the mid-1990s. The Pakistani government certainly doesn’t give the impression that it cares much for their welfare. “They only visit us after the fact, to see if the body is in pieces or intact,” says Karim Khan, a man from South Waziristan who spoke to Pakistani-American journalist Madiha Tahir for her documentary “Wounds of Waziristan”. In other words, it is exactly the sort of atmosphere in which insurgent and militant groups thrive: the lack of infrastructure leaves a vacuum that they can fill—and they rule with a brutal hand. Now, with the American drone program, they have a new weapon on which they can capitalize, one that dangerously shifts the perceptions of who the real enemy is. Tahir explains this in the introduction to her online documentary. “Because drones are at a certain remove, there is a sense of uncertainty, a sense that you can’t control this. Whether it’s true or not, people feel that with militants there is some degree of control. You can negotiate.” Many have acknowledged the radicalizing effect drone warfare has on the Pakistani population, already predisposed through a combination of lack of education and media propaganda towards a strong anti-American bias. But before even exploring that phenomenon, one should consider the chilling psychological effect in strike zones themselves.
The disconnect with the way drones are talked about (the word “precision-based” is often tossed around) shields people from the reality of everyday life in Waziristan, where people have to live with the constant buzzing of seven or eight drones per day, never knowing when one will strike. “They fly daily. They fly very low at night. It’s very stressful. A lot of people lose their minds. They go to Peshawar for treatment,” one student, who lost his baby niece and sister-in-law in an attack, tells Tahir. When a strike happens, it devastates the entire community. The rubble must be cleared by hand, as must the pieces of the bodies, which are rarely if ever left intact. Most of the time, the rebuilding process, if it occurs, is slow due to limited resources, leaving a stark reminder of the attack. “Double-tap” measures can also be employed: a second attack closely follows the first, targeting rescuers in the immediate aftermath. Such measures were used when a 68-year-old woman, in the company of only her grandchildren, was killed by a Hellfire missile gathering vegetables on a family farm. As mentioned above, many people cannot escape mental illness as they constantly live under threat, the hum of drones, or have witnessed a loved one blown, literally, to bits.
Practically speaking, the drones are damaging to the counterterrorism efforts. Take one attack in March 2011, when missiles fired from a U.S. drone hit a bus depot in Datta Khel, Waziristan, killing an estimated forty-two people. This particular attack was an example of a “signature strike”, where instead of known suspects, the CIA targets people based on their displaying patterns of behaviour consistent with terrorist “signatures”. In this particular case, the “signature” behavior was a meeting. It was run by a “jirga”, an important institution for resolving disputes in tribal communities. Tribal elders, who were meeting to resolve a conflict over a chromite mine, had informed the Pakistani army about the meeting ten days earlier. It was a public event everyone in the surrounding area was aware, except, apparently, American intelligence. Almost all the tribal elders of the area were killed. Not only does this undermine Obama’s reassurances that attacks are based on “imminent threats” and certain intelligence, the feeling is the very fabric of the tribal areas is being targeted, the jirga being a fundamental, venerated and revered institution. And what’s more, these attacks only empower non-state actors and equip them with a powerful recruiting tool.
It is hard to overstate the effect drones have had on the Pakistani psyche, even beyond Waziristan. Retired General Stanley McChrystal cautioned, “the resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes… is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.” McChrystal summed up Pakistani perception quite well when he said they feed into a “perception of American arrogance that says, ‘Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.’” However untrue that may be, its existence allows terrorists to win the PR battle, contrary to all moral and logical sense. Around eighty-five percent of those killed by al Qaeda attacks have been Muslims, the biggest revulsion to potential followers. This is about the same percentage of the time civilians have been avoided by drones under the Obama administration, but that is not how al Qaeda propaganda videos have framed it. The sad truth is, at the moment there is no counter-narrative apparent for the Pakistani people, nor has the Obama administration helped to give it one.
It is folly to ignore the incredibly damaging effect this has on counter-terrorism efforts in Pakistan and around the world. At the time the drone war began in Yemen, AQAP (al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) counted about 300 men as members. Today, they claim over 1,000. The Times Square bomber, Faisal al-Shehzad, named revenge against the US for the innocent deaths caused by drones in his native Pakistan as a motive. Countless attacks within Pakistan occur because terrorists see the Pakistani government as complicit in drone strikes. According to a poll by the Pew Foundation, in the last year of the Bush administration, the US was regarded favorably by 19 percent of the Pakistan people. By 2012, as drone strikes were at their peak, it had fallen to 12 percent. “The political message [of drone strikes] emphasizes the disparity in power between the parties and reinforces popular support for the terrorists, who are seen as David fighting Goliath,” Harvard law professors Gabriella Blum and Philip Heymann write in their book Laws, Outlaws and Terrorists: Lessons from the War on Terror. “Moreover, by resorting to military force rather than to law enforcement, targeted killings might strengthen the sense of legitimacy of terrorist operations, which are sometimes viewed as the only viable option for the weak to fight against a powerful empire.” Drones may seem like a relatively “easy” solution to a difficult problem, but the reality on the ground is they don’t do much to get at the source of the issue and therefore, aren’t as effective against the larger battleground, so to speak, of militancy. Commitment to ending global terrorism requires a different approach, sure, but more importantly, a different and deeper understanding of the political, cultural, religious and psychological nuances governing the situation in areas such as Pakistan.
Often, proponents of drones argue that the drawbacks to drones are also drawbacks to conventional warfare, and therefore the arguments for radicalization cannot be applied uniquely to drones. That is why it is important to understand the effects that distinguish drones from conventional warfare. The suddenness of the attacks, the psychological effects, the state of victims’ bodies and the heightened perceptions of American arrogance are weighty consequences of drone warfare and must be taken seriously. Most crucially, drones remove the very important, and oft-underestimated, human check on warfare. A lack of body bags coming home, fewer boots on the ground, and fewer American lives lost (while good things) result in decreased cost of war results in reduced political and military constraints on drone warfare. Secrecy keeps it from public concern, again removing important political constraints. According to a UN report: “the proliferation of drones may lower social barriers in society against the deployment of lethal force and result in attempts to weaken the relevant legal standards.” Indeed, if Waziristan is on the fringes of even Pakistani society, neglected by even the Pakistani government, why should they expect any more care from their American counterparts?
The pervasive anti-American sentiment in Pakistan is extremely dangerous and one of the gravest pitfalls of Pakistani discourse, as it distracts from the real enemy. While military campaigns are important, changing the anti-American narrative would be the biggest threat to terrorist ideology in Pakistan. It’s hard to see an end to a military campaign against an ideology—you can’t exactly gun down ideas. Resentment cannot be shot away. A numbers game can perhaps be won, but at this point, the “war on terror” is simply engendering more terror.