It would be an understatement to say that drones and UAVs are hot button issue right now. As an ongoing part of the “war on terror”, the use of remotely piloted vehicles to target terrorism suspects remain a popular one within the US, with 56% of respondents indicating that they supported it (as of Feb. 2013). However, when the matter of civilian casualties and collateral damage is introduced, the issue becomes a much stickier one.
What’s more, it is becoming increasingly evident that how the drone program is being presented is subject to spin and skewing. Much like the NSA’s domestic surveillance programs, it is in the Obama administration’s and the Pentagon’s best interest to present the issue in terms of “hunting terrorists” while categorically avoiding any mention of the real costs involved. And thanks to recent revelations, these efforts may prove to be more difficult in the future.
It was just over weeks ago, on July 22nd, that London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism released a leaked Pakistani report that detailed numerous civilian casualties by drone strikes in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). For years now, obtaining information about civilian casualties caused by US and NATO strikes in this region has been incredibly difficult – information which these documents have now provided.
The 12-page dossier was compiled for the the authorities in the tribal areas, the Bureau notes, and investigates 75 CIA drone strikes and five attacks by NATO in the region conducted between 2006 and 2009. According to the document, 746 people were killed in the strategic attacks. At least 147 of the victims were civilians, and 94 were children.
This directly contradicts inquired made by the United Nations, which began investigating the legality of the drone program and strikes last year. According to the U.N.’s special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights (Ben Emmerson) Pakistan then claimed at least 400 civilians had been killed in U.S. strikes in the country since 2006. Quite the discrepancy.
And while a majority of other tallies relied on media reports of drone strikes, the FATA list was compiled by government officials who were sent out to investigate damage firsthand in the wake of attacks. According to the Bureau, on several occasions officials registered different casualty rates than the media outlets reported.
The Bureau went on record to say that there were gaps in the information provided, like why none of the names of the casualties were provided, or why civilian casualties were not provided for 2009, the last year covered in the report. It is possible that logistical factors played a role, such as the lack of accurate census data in the FATA region, and that casualty figures for the year 2009 were difficult to obtain due to the acceleration of drone strikes during that year.
It is this last aspect which is likely to give many pause, since it was the decision of the outgoing Bush administration to intensify drone strikes during the last few months of his presidency, a decision which the Obama administration adopted and maintained. And the list provided only shows a gap between the official numbers and those obtained on the ground during the years of 2006 and 2009, when the strikes began.
What are we to make then of the years running from 2009 to 2013, where drone strikes in the western region of Pakistan became a much more common occurrence and the body count – civilian or otherwise – can only be expected to have escalated? This could another reason that figures were omitted from 2009, which is that the Pakistani government was concerned that they might spark outrage if they were to ever be made public.
However, that is all speculation at this point, and more time and investigation are certainly needed to determine what the cost in human terms has been. One thing is for sure though, the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia are likely to become increasingly controversial as more information emerges and an accurate picture of the death toll is presented.
For years now, the US government has denied that large civilian casualty counts exist, but it continues to withhold the numbers. But some claim those numbers will not shed any real light even if they are released, since it is still not clear how the US forces distinguish between civilians and “militants” or “combatants”.
In a major speech on national security in May 2013, Obama strongly defended the drone program but said the administration would codify the process it goes through before ordering attacks and would work with Congress to create more oversight. However, no promises were made about the number of deaths leading up to this declaration, whether or not those facts and figured would be made public, and strikes continue to take place which violate this new mandate.
As the saying goes, “the first casualty of war is the truth”. And without much effort, one can easily draw parallels between this latest phase in the “war on terror” to the vagaries of Iraq, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, where information was withheld, numbers debated and legalities issued in order to justify highly questionable acts.
And for those old enough to remember, the specter of Vietnam is also apparent here. Then, as now, the public is forced to rely on leaked information and confidential informants simply because the official stories being issued by their government are full of discrepancies, denials, and apparent fabrications. One would think we had learned something in the last five decades, but apparently not!