Protests grow as civilian toll of Obama’s drone war on terrorism is laid bare

Outcry from innocent victims’ families as figures show almost a third of strikes fail to hit targets

Islamabad

Their stories flow like water.

One lost a son and brother, killed by a missile that tore from the sky as they sat talking with others; one man’s father was among those who died when a missile hit a tribal gathering. Another man, a wage labourer, was in the local bazaar when he heard his father was also among the dozens killed in the same incident.

These individuals and their stories represent the collateral damage of America’s drone missile programme in Pakistan, a covert CIA operation that has been conducted largely out of sight and beyond scrutiny.

Earlier this year, in his first public comment on the programme, President Barack Obama claimed the operations involved “precision strikes” against anti-American targets. “A lot of these strikes have been in [Pakistan’s tribal areas],” he said. “For the most part, they’ve been very precise precision strikes against al-Qa’ida and their affiliates, and we’re very careful in terms of how it’s been applied.”

But increasingly, campaigners are pointing out the civilian cost of the operations, which are deeply unpopular and a source of widespread anti-Americanism despite the suspicion that Pakistan’s military co-operates. They say that, while the US insists only “suspected militants” are targeted, there is mounting evidence ordinary people are among the victims. “There has to be some transparency, some rules and regulations,” said Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who heads the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, an Islamabad-based NGO. “I don’t believe the US is going to give up its drones worldwide…but the CIA is acting on its own, without any accountability. For an educated Pakistani such as myself, who speaks out against extremism, it’s very hard when you see the example set by the developed world.”

Last weekend, Mr Akbar’s organisation brought 300 people from North Waziristan to Islamabad to protest. Between 70-80 were related to victims, the others were tribal elders. Many held photographs of those they had lost.

Among them was Kareem Khan, a 50-year-old from Machikhel, North Waziristan, who works as a journalist with an “Arab TV channel”. His 18-year-old son and brother were killed when a drone missile struck a community gathering on New Year’s Eve 2009. “They were both government employees – my brother was an English teacher at a government school and had done his Masters in English,” said Mr Khan. “And my son, who had completed his high schooling from Islamabad, he was a guard at a girls’ school. They were both martyred.”

Mr Khan became increasingly distressed and added: “A human is human. If one loses someone close, one weeps. Our hearts are still of flesh. When someone loses their son or brother or another relative they become depressed. My wife too, is very sad.”

One of the most notorious strikes took place on 17 March last year at Datta Khel, North Waziristan, when a missile hit a meeting, or jirga, called to resolve a dispute between chromite-mining contractors. Up to 50 people died. The US claimed a large number of militants attended the meeting but researchers have found several dozen civilians were also killed. Noor Khan, 26, who attended the demonstration, said his father, a council leader, Malik Daud Khan Mada Khel, was among the civilians who perished.

“It was a tragedy, not just [for] me but the whole family, because he was our community leader and he dealt with our problems in a peaceful way,” said the man’s son. “He was a tribal leader, so he was widely respected because he solved their problems.”

Imran Khan Wazir, a day labourer, said his father, Malik Ismail, was also killed at the jirga. He said he was in the market in Miran Shah, the main town in North Waziristan, when he learned the news. “It’s been a huge loss. I’m the only brother, and now I have the responsibility of looking after the family,” he said. “America – stop these attacks. These are wicked acts. Many innocents are dying. Our jirga was innocent.”

There is no agreed figure for how many people have been killed by the strikes or what percentage of them may have been genuine militants. The New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, says over the years 2004-2012 between 1,741 to 2,712 people were killed, of which an estimated 1,448 to 2,241 were militants.

The Bureau For Investigative Journalism believes that between 2,383 and 3,109 people have been killed, of whom 464 to 815 were civilians, which would mean the percentage of militants killed was 70 to 80 percent. The Associated Press this week said its own investigation of 10 drone strikes had found that of 194 people killed, about 70 per cent were militants.

Mr Akbar said one of the problems in assessing who had been killed was that many tallies were based on media reports which relied for information upon either US or Pakistani intelligence officials, or else so-called political agents, administrative officials in the tribal areas. “What do they mean when they say someone ‘acted in a manner consistent with al-Qa’ida militants’,” said Mr Akbar. “Do they mean they had a beard, do they mean they had a gun? Because almost everyone in the tribal areas is carrying a gun, but it doesn’t mean they are a militant.”

Inside the US, the debate continues as to whether the drone programme is legal. In a speech last week at the Yale Law School, Jeh Charles Johnson, legal advisor to the Pentagon, said operations against groups such as al-Qa’ida were covered by the Authorization for the Use of Military Force legislation passed by the US Congress a week after the attacks of 9/11. He went on to defend “targeted killing” by saying: “In an armed conflict, lethal force against known, individual members of the enemy is a long-standing and long-legal practice.”

Not everyone agrees. Writing in the Jurist, Gabor Rona, international legal director for Human Rights First, said such rules may have worked for conflicts between states, when those involved could be identified. “In armed conflicts against non-state armed groups who do not wear uniforms and are often difficult to distinguish from the civilian population, targeting determinations rightfully require a higher threshold of imminent harm,” he wrote.

The US routinely refuses to comment on the drone programme. A US official at the embassy in Islamabad said: “We do not comment on matters of intelligence.”

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
News
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Learning, SQL, Brokerage)

£30000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst (Machine Lea...

UNIX Application Support Analyst- Support, UNIX, London

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: UNIX Application Support Analyst-...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention