The CIA’s programme of “targeted” drone killings in Pakistan’s tribal heartlands is politically counterproductive, kills large numbers of civilians and undermines respect for international law, according to a report by US academics.
The study by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools, based on interviews with victims, witnesses and experts, blames the US president, Barack Obama, for the escalation of “signature strikes” in which groups are selected merely through remote “pattern of life” analysis.
Families are afraid to attend weddings or funerals, it says, in case US ground operators guiding drones misinterpret them as gatherings of Taliban or al-Qaida militants.
“The dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false,” the report, entitled Living Under Drones, states.
The authors admit it is difficult to obtain accurate data on casualties “because of US efforts to shield the drone programme from democratic accountability, compounded by obstacles to independent investigation of strikes in North Waziristan”.
The “best available information”, they say, is that between 2,562 and 3,325 people have been killed in Pakistan between June 2004 and mid-September this year – of whom between 474 and 881 were civilians, including 176 children. The figures have been assembled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which estimated that a further 1,300 individuals were injured in drone strikes over that period.
The report was commissioned by and written with the help of the London-based Reprieve organisation, which is supporting action in the British courts by Noor Khan, a Pakistani whose father was killed by a US drone strike in March 2011. His legal challenge alleges the UK is complicit in US drone strikes because GCHQ, the eavesdropping agency, shares intelligence with the CIA on targets for drone strikes.
“US drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in north-west Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning,” the American law schools report says.
“Their presence 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.
“These fears have affected behaviour. 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.”
The study goes on to say: “Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best … The number of ‘high-level’ militants killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just 2% [of deaths]. Evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks … One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.”