On September 24, the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at the Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at the NYU School of Law released a report shedding light on US drone practices in Pakistan. The 147 page report, titled “Living Under Drones”, examines in detail the effects of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on the population of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in northwestern Pakistan.
Based on 130 interviews with FATA residents, government officials, and civil society organizations, the report’s findings confirm the widespread assumption that the use of drones is counterproductive to the goals of US counterterrorism (USCT) in Pakistan.
Citing interviews with survivors, witnesses, and family members, the report provides evidence of civilian injuries and deaths in drone strikes. The report does not stop with an examination of the physical damage and death caused by drone strikes. Rather, it finds that “US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted- for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury.”
Drones hovering over northwestern Pakistan 24 hours a day, strike at vehicles, homes and public spaces without warning. This circumstance terrorizes and traumatizes the local population. Second strikes, the practice of hitting a target a second time, after the initial strike result in deaths among first responders and rescue personnel. As a result, doctors, rescuers, and inhabitants of the targeted areas are reluctant to venture to affected sites to help potential survivors.
The report provides evidence suggesting that instead of making the United States safer, ”US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks.” 74% of the Pakistani population now considers the United States to be an enemy.
A Pew Research Poll conducted in 2012 found that only 17% of Pakistanis favored the United States conducting “drone strikes against leaders of extremist groups, even if they are conducted in conjunction with the Pakistani government.” Of those familiar with the drone campaign, the study noted that 94% of Pakistanis believe the attacks kill too many innocent people and 74% say they are not “necessary to defend Pakistan from extremist organizations.” (p.16).
Lastly, the report suggests that the lack of transparency in US drone policies not only hinders democratic debate on this vital aspect of US foreign and national security policy, but may also establish an unfavorable precedent for other governments to pursue such policy approaches.
Interestingly, when comparing these findings with the current situation in Yemen, one will find many similarities. It is generally assumed that the use of drones has facilitated recruitment to Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), two organizations targeted by US drones. Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist for The Nation, found that USCT in Yemen is backfiring. In his piece for The Nation, Scahill cites a local journalists, as saying:
“I firmly believe that the [military] operations implemented by the US performed a great service for Al Qaeda, because those operations gave Al Qaeda unprecedented local sympathy,” says Jamal, the Yemeni journalist. The strikes “have recruited thousands.” Yemeni tribesmen, he says, share one common goal with Al Qaeda, “which is revenge against the Americans, because those who were killed are the sons of the tribesmen, and the tribesmen never, ever give up on revenge.” Even senior officials of the Saleh regime recognize the damage the strikes have caused. “People certainly resent these [US] interventions,” Qirbi, the foreign minister and a close Saleh ally, concedes.
Other aspects of Pakistan and Yemen are also strikingly similar. On page 15, the report describes Pakistan’s “divided role”. Just as was the case in Yemen, the Pakistani Government took responsibility for the early strikes, which had in fact been carried out by the United States. According to a US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks, the Pakistani Prime Minister is said to have said in 2008: “I don’t care if they [conduct strikes] as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” Similarly, Ali Abdullah Saleh assured General David Petraeus, former head of US central command, that he will “continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
In both countries, public awareness of the use of drones has increased, as has the opposition to the practice. That the United States is using drones in both Yemen and Pakistan is no longer a secret. While the report focuses on Pakistan, it contains valuable lessons that the US administration should take into account, when drafting its counter-terrorism policies in Yemen.
*Mareike Transfeld is editor of Muftah’s Yemen and Gulf pages section.