Two important new reports and a New York Times story written about a Pakistani town called Miram Shah have shed new light on civilian deaths from American drones in Pakistan and Yemen.
The first report, from Amnesty International, is called “Will I Be Next?” (The full report, seventy-four pages long, can be read here.) Investigators with Amnesty International spent nearly a year on the report, conducting sixty interviews with victims and survivors, eyewitnesses and others affected in North Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan. Though not comprehensive, the Amnesty International report is based on “detailed field research into nine of the 45 reported strikes that occurred in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency between January 2012 and August 2013.”
Despite enormous difficulties, including only limited cooperation from Pakistani authorities, Amnesty was able to document specific instances in which Pakistani civilians were killed and injured in drone attacks, including one in which eighteen male laborers, including a young boy, died in a “macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror.” Citing US assurances that few civilians have been killed, Amnesty added:
Critics claim that drone strikes are much less discriminating, have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, some of which may amount to extrajudicial executions or war crimes, and foster animosity that increases recruitment into the very groups the USA seeks to eliminate.
And it said:
According to NGO and Pakistan government sources the USA has launched some 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013. Amnesty International is not in a position to endorse these figures, but according to these sources, between 400 and 900 civilians have been killed in these attacks and at least 600 people seriously injured.
The Human Rights Watch report is called “Between A Drone and Al Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen.” (You can read the full ninety-seven-page report here and a summary here.) The report “examines six US targeted killings in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013.” It says:
During six weeks in Yemen in 2012-2013, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed more than 90 people about the strikes including witnesses, relatives of those killed, lawyers, human rights defenders, and government officials. Human Rights Watch reviewed evidence including ordnance and videos from attack sites. Security concerns prevented visits to four of the attack areas.
Among its conclusions:
The six strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians. They include a US drone-assisted attack in September 2012 in Sarar, central Yemen, that unlawfully struck a passenger van, killing 12 civilians.
Like Amnesty International, which released its report jointly with HRW, the report provides some broad data on the scope of the targeted killing program since 9/11:
Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US government has carried out hundreds of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. In Yemen, the US is estimated to have conducted 81 targeted killing operations, one in 2002 and the rest since 2009. Research groups report that at least 473 people have been killed in these strikes, the majority of them combatants but many of them civilians.
The New York Times, too, reporting from Miram Shah, describes the terror and panic that often grips residents of the targeted areas:
But viewed from Miram Shah, the frontier Pakistani town that has become a virtual test laboratory for drone warfare, the campaign has not been the antiseptic salve portrayed in Washington. In interviews over the past year, residents paint a portrait of extended terror and strain within a tribal society caught between vicious militants and the American drones hunting them.
“Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared,” reports the Times, adding:
Unusually for the overall American drone campaign, the strikes in the area mostly occur in densely populated neighborhoods. The drones have hit a bakery, a disused girls’ school and a money changers’ market, residents say. One strike occurred in Matches Colony, a neighborhood named after an abandoned match factory that is now frequented by Uzbek militants.
In recent years, a number of organizations and research groups have grappled with the difficulty of estimating the collateral damage caused by the American drone policy of targeted killings. One compilation is provided by the Center for Civilians in Conflict. Its director, Sarah Holewinski, told a Senate committee last May:
Despite recent attempts by the Obama Administration to be more transparent about these drone operations, significant questions remain, including: What civilian protection protocols are in place? How are drone operators trained on distinction? How is a civilian defined? How is civilian harm assessed post-strike? So far, the answer to all of these questions has been “just trust us.” This is not an appropriate policy for a nation that prides itself on transparency and the just use of force.
Other resources on drone attacks can be found at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has tried to compile statistics on civilians killed.
The Obama administration, to its credit, has reduced the number of drone attacks each year since 2010, but the deadly attacks continue in secrecy, without legal justification and without moral authority in the eyes of much of the world. The Washington Post, in its report on the Amnesty International and HRW studies, quoted a White House spokesperson to the effect that President Obama has sought to avoid civilian casualties when ordering strikes. But, said the Post, citing the two groups:
In virtually all cases, the groups said, it was impossible to know whether the targets had met Obama’s threshold of posing an imminent threat to the United States, because U.S. officials have kept that information a secret.
Greg Mitchell looks into government claims that NSA spying prevented dozens of attacks.