Despite claims that drone strikes in Pakistan have been effective and efficient, new reports are set to come out later this week that link the drone campaign with high civilian casualty rates, raising questions regarding the United State’s transparency in the ongoing drone war.
The reports, to be released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, claim that at least 19 civilian deaths have resulted from just two of the strikes launched in North Waziristan since last January. These reports come after President Obama himself made public statements praising drone strikes as “legal” and “just.” The reports were initially sparked by a report by Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights, calling for the United States to launch an impartial investigation into the use of drone strikes in the Middle East.
The drone strike debate will once again be in the spotlight this week, as the President is set to meet with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif today. The issue will also be discussed later this week on the floor of the UN, when officials will present another study addressing America’s lack of transparency in the drone war.
The North Waziristan area discussed in the AI and HRW reports has allegedly become a focal point in America’s drone war in Pakistan. Locals claim to be in a constant state of terror and persistently hear the drones buzzing overhead.
The U.S. has, in fact, publicized a reason for the drones’ presence. The province is a well-known al-Qaeda and Taliban hideout, and combatants can be seen roaming the streets armed with AK-47s and other weapons.
However, their leaders have proven to be much harder to locate. Drones make this task easier because they have the ability to track and observe targets from a much greater distance than a foot soldier. This has led to drone strikes that have targeted densely populated neighborhoods and other areas with high civilian concentrations.
While tracking terrorist leaders is a necessary step to fighting the global war on terror, it is also critical that we consider the larger repercussions of these drone strikes. These strikes are needlessly killing civilians, and have essentially created a humanitarian crisis in the region. They have been occurring for months, with minimal reported success in locating Taliban/al-Qaeda leaders; how does the U.S. weigh whether it is worthwhile to continue to generate such unrest and fear amongst the civilians in a region to target a few top leaders, particularly when it does not seem to have been successful thus far?
The reports also claim that drone strikes have been problematic for civilian populations in other countries. For example, the HRW report highlights a strike in Yemen that led to the deaths of three children and a pregnant woman. Another drone strike in Yemen allegedly killed 18 laborers working in a field. Again, while these drone strikes prove that the U.S. has the power and capabilities to carry them out, it seems that the negative effects and turmoil that these strikes are creating in the regions that they target outweighs the positive. While the war on terror is undoubtedly one of the U.S.’s most important missions at the moment, particularly in the eyes of its citizens, it is difficult to justify efforts as destructive and volatile as these drone strikes without even a modicum of success to report to the American public.
The primary concern here is that it is unclear whether the strikes meet the Obama administration’s threshold for targets that pose an imminent threat to American forces. Lethal force, such as a drone strike, may be lawfully used when there is an imminent threat to national security.
Transparency has been an ongoing issue with regard to drone strikes, and the government is perpetuating that issue by refusing to release information on the strikes highlighted in the reports. This leads the public to wonder; who are these targets, and do they truly pose a threat to the U.S. and our country’s national security?
It is important to note that other sources advocate for drone strikes, and argue that they are still an effective way to combat the kinds of enemy forces present in Pakistan and Yemen.
As unfortunate as it is, civilian casualties are a harsh reality of war. That much is true when discussing ground warfare or drone strikes. When faced with the choice of sending ground troops into hostile and unfamiliar territories or using drones to eliminate the enemy while risking civilian casualties, it is at least understandable that the government would choose the latter. Essentially, they are performing a high-stakes balancing test, and placing the lives of American soldiers over those of the region’s civilians- a decision that is difficult to fault the government for.
In fact, some claim that other weapons systems and tactics would have led to even higher casualty rates. The UN report even concedes that its estimate of 400 civilian casualties from drone strikes is lower than many early estimates.
While the government’s military strategy is understandable, and likely preferable to numerous other options for combatting the threats in the region, the primary issue is the lack of transparency in the drone war.
Civilian deaths, even those written off as a “cost of war,” must be acknowledged; the public deserves to know that this was a last resort, and the circumstances surrounding these strikes. The U.S. is dealing with an unprecedented threat in a highly hostile arena, and it is using tactics that, while controversial, have been highly effective against terrorist targets. There will be civilian casualties in any type of warfare. Increased government transparency surrounding the ongoing drone war would reveal whether the U.S. is taking the necessary steps to safeguard our country from foreign terrorist threats while minimizing collateral damage.
Chris Whitten, Research Fellow
Center for Policy and Research