It's time we faced up to the failures of drone warfare

A devastating report into the use of drones by the US Army should make us all question whether these aircraft should be America's weapon of choice.


With this month’s media focus on “muslim rage”, and much Western froth about the "Islamic world", an opportunity for more sober reflection on relations between the West and Muslim countries went largely unnoticed.

A newly-published study on the impact of America’s intensive use of drones in Pakistan offered an advance on the tabloid tone of much commentary in the wake of the embassy protests. But it was swamped in the news cycle.

The report details the brutal effects of drone warfare on civilians in what is now considered the heartland of Taliban-style Islamism, around the frontier provinces close to the Afghan border. Named “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan”, the joint-study by Stanford and New York University describes how the continual presence of drones “terrorizes men, women, and children” by “striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning.”

Living Under Drones quotes civilian fatality estimates from what it considers the best available public records: “474-881...civilians, including 176 children” since the program began. This contrasts sharply with past public statements by the US, claiming that there were zero, or merely “single digit” civilian casualties from the raids.

In April this year, John Brennan, Obama’s top counter-terrorism adviser stated: “in order to ensure that our counter-terrorism operations involving the use of lethal force are legal, ethical and wise, President Obama has demanded that we hold ourselves to the highest possible standards and processes.” 

The notion that drone operations in Pakistan are “legal, ethical and wise” is certainly not borne out by the findings of the report.

Nor is the idea that lethal drone strikes are “surgically” effective, as they have been made out to be. The report cites an example from Afghanistan, where two American soldiers were killed by drones after they were mistaken for Taliban fighters. Rolling Stone reported this year that a man named Baitullah Mehsud, a high-level target for the US was finally killed in Pakistan on the fifth attempt. Terrible human collateral was wrought on the previous four attempts. The article described how one of “the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping. Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to credible press reports.”

The NYU-Stanford report also touches on a truly disturbing issue: the alleged targeting of rescuers and funerals, the former a tactic that - as the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald virtually alone has addressed- had been cited by the US’ Homeland Security Unit in the past as a hallmark of terrorist practices. Inquiries by the indispensable Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) had previously uncovered cases of this in a major joint investigation with the Sunday Times in February this year. The Bureau wrote of “deliberate attacks” on funerals - which the US condemned when Al Qaeda did it in Yemen- something that would almost certainly amount to a war crime under international law if proven.


These are alarming findings. And it cannot be said that the study was not thorough. It drew its damning conclusions after “nine months of intensive research”, having conducted “over 130 detailed interviews”. The report adds that witnesses "provided first-hand accounts of drone strikes, and provided testimony about a range of issues, including the missile strikes themselves, the strike sites, the victims' bodies, or a family member or members killed or injured in the strike".

By all indicators, then, this is a serious study by serious academics from two of the most prestigious law schools in the world - so why didn’t it get more coverage?

A mundane explanation might suffice: publically raking over the moral failures of “our side” has never been popular to mainstream media consumers or editors. Piously condemning the atrocities of others has always had greater appeal.

What appears clear, however, is that the current approach is counter-productive. The report quotes New America Foundation estimates that only 2% of those killed in drone attacks are high-level targets. Among the other 98% killed, it seems, are hundreds of civilians and well over a hundred children, augmented by a traumatised, bitterly resentful and increasingly radicalised local population.

The report concludes that “publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best” and may be a major recruitment and propaganda tool for local Islamists who feed off resentment toward the US. This is hardly a resounding endorsement given the apparently dreadful human cost inflicted upon communities in west Pakistan. Can such slender gains be worth the large-scale loss of innocent life?


It seems impossible to justify in any kind of ethically-minded cost-benefit analysis. What’s more, there is a strong case to be made this kind of drone use is criminal under international and US law. President Obama - who wound down operations in Iraq and Afghanistan but intensified the drone assault - should heed the sensible recommendations made in the report in order to increase accountability and limit the possibility of loss of innocent life.

Additionally, he should follow the advice of UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, and open the US to an independent investigation of its use of drone strikes.

Of course, knowing the power structures in the world we live in, that’s unlikely to happen. The US, like Britain and many other western nations, is simply too powerful to be persuaded to be held to the standards it typically expects of others.

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