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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
News
Williams says: 'The reason I got jobs was because they would blow the budget on the big guys - but they only had to pay me the price of a cup of tea'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
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

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Associate - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Law Costs - London City

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...

Austen Lloyd: In-House Solicitor / Company Secretary - London

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee