By S. M. Hali

Pakistan has been presenting arguments demonstrating the fallout of drone attacks on its territory but its pleas have fallen on deaf ears; meanwhile the collateral damage continues with each attack. A new research and investigation report by leading US institutions rejects the US State Department’s view regarding the use of drones in Pakistan and concludes that the strikes are counterproductive and damaging; kill innocent civilians, constantly terrorizing the people of tribal areas, depriving children of education and even targeting rescuers.

The study titled: ‘Living under Drones’, released earlier this week, the product of extensive nine months’ research, conducted by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School (Stanford Clinic) and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law (NYU Clinic), seeking a review of the drone policy, concludes that: “The number of high-level militants killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%. Furthermore, evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks.”

So far the US had been claiming that the CIA operated drones in Pakistan are a “surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling ‘targeted killings’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.” The aforementioned report flatly negates this claim and declares that the US government rarely acknowledges civilian casualties while there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians. The scholars, who have conducted this exercise, break new ground by illuminating the “considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.”

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The report comprises three parts: Part 1 examines strikes against rescuers and funerals. Part 2 examines drone surveillance, the effect that the presence of drones in the sky has on the mental health of Pakistanis and how drones breed distrust in Pakistani communities. And Part 3 examines how drone strikes bring economic hardship and poverty to families and communities in Pakistan.

The practice of targeting a strike site “multiple times in relatively quick succession”—a practice known as “double tap”—has received some attention but, up until now, the terrible impact of this practice on Pakistani communities has not really been explored beyond the fact that it kills rescuers, who are trying to provide emergency medical assistance and that is likely a war crime. The researchers talked to Pakistanis, who were well-aware of the practice of “follow-up strikes” and explained these strikes have “discouraged average civilians from coming to one another’s rescue.” They quote the relatives of the victims as stating that they are so scared of drone attacks now that when there is a drone strike, for two or three hours nobody goes to the location of the strike, for fear of their own safety.

The researchers have demanded of the US Government to explain under what law it carries out drone attacks. They seek an independent investigation into the drone killings, respect for human rights and international laws with respect to the use of force. The scholars responsible for carrying out the study also ask journalists and media outlets to cease the common practice of referring simply to militant deaths, without further explanation. Their report warns that the CIA’s drone campaign “terrorizes men, women and children” in North-West Pakistan “twenty-four hours a day,” adding that it is “damaging and counterproductive,” and neither the US policy-makers nor the American public can “continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm” it causes.

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Through extensive interviews with the local population–-including victims of strikes—humanitarian workers and medical professionals, the report demonstrates for the first time the devastating impact drones have had on the society of Waziristan as a whole.

People interviewed informed researchers the drone war was impacting the ability of communities to engage in burial traditions or funerals. As the report notes, “Religion plays an important role in community life in Muslim-majority North Waziristan. Religion calls for a certain level of respect for the deceased. It is believed that a community has a duty to bury the dead “as soon as possible after death, to wash and cover the deceased and to hold a communal funeral service, an event that involves recitations of prayer for the deceased and often serves as a collective coping mechanism.” Funerals or services help reduce “psychological distress” in a community, but life under drones makes Pakistanis afraid of engaging in religious tradition. 

Despite US claims to the contrary, data from independent studies show that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children. These strikes also injured an additional 1,228-1,362 individuals. Only in one case, a March 2011 strike on a meeting of tribal elders killed some 40 individuals.

The report added that the drone strikes had also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani relations. One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.

The report added, “Current US targeted killings and drone strike practices undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal protections and may set dangerous precedents. This report casts doubt on the legality of strikes on individuals or groups not linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011, and who do not pose imminent threats to the US.”

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In the light of these concerns, the report recommends that the US conduct a fundamental re-evaluation of current targeted killings practices, taking into account all available evidence, the concerns of various stakeholders, and the short and long-term costs and benefits. A significant rethinking of current US targeted killings and drone strike policies is long overdue. US policy-makers, and the American public, cannot continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm and counterproductive impacts of US targeted killings and drone strikes in Pakistan, the report maintains. It is high time the US reconsidered the use of drone attacks in Pakistan, which are causing more harm than good.