Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What is President Obama's drone war in Pakistan doing?

An important new study, based on 130 interviews (including with Pakistani victims and witnesses of drone attacks), says:

In public statements, the US states that there have been “no” or “single digit” civilian casualties.” It is difficult to obtain data on strike casualties because of US efforts to shield the drone program from democratic accountability, compounded by the obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan. The best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. TBIJ reports that these strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals. Where media accounts do report civilian casualties, rarely is any information provided about the victims or the communities they leave behind.
But the problem goes far beyond "civilian casualties":
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes 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. These fears have affected behavior. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves. . . .
The report points out that the government considers any Pakistani man who's killed in a drone strike to be a "militant," and the media seems to blindly go along with this:
Journalists and media outlets should cease the common practice of referring simply to “militant” deaths, without further explanation. All reporting of government accounts of “militant” deaths should include acknowledgment that the US government counts all adult males killed by strikes as “militants,” absent exonerating evidence. Media accounts relying on anonymous government sources should also highlight the fact of their single-source information and of the past record of false government reports. . . .
What's President Obama's role in all this?
When President Bush left office in January 2009, the US had carried out at least 45 drone strikes according to the New America Foundation, or 52 according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), inside Pakistan. Since then, President Obama has reportedly carried out more than five times that number: 292 strikes in just over three and a half years. This dramatic escalation in the US use of drones to carry out targeted killings has brought with it escalating tensions between the US and Pakistan, as well as continued questions about the efficacy and accuracy of such strikes.

A key feature of the Obama administration’s use of drones has been a reported expansion in the use of “signature” strikes. Between 2002 and 2007, the Bush administration reportedly focused targeted killings on “personality” strikes targeting named, allegedly high-value leaders of armed, non-state groups like Salim Sinan al Harethi and Nek Mohammad. Under Obama, the program expanded to include far more “profile” or so-called “signature” strikes based on a “pattern of life” analysis. According to US authorities, these strikes target “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.” Just what those “defining characteristics” are has never been made public. In 2012, the New York Times paraphrased a view shared by several officials that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.” The Times also reported that some in the Obama administration joke that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” they think it is a terrorist training camp. . . .

[T]he President acts as the final decision maker, at least with respect to the decision to carry out “personality strikes” targeting named individuals. . . .

The administration claims to have a thorough vetting process by which names are chosen. It is unclear what, if any, process is in place for [these] decisions.

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