CIA’s Drones Warfare And The Human Story

If one looks at the total number of drone strikes resulting in casualties inside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) from 2004 until 2014, they are lesser in comparison to civilian and military causalities combined in Pakistan in the past six years.  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism: total strikes conducted (until Jun 2014) were 389, total number of people killed in FATA were 2,339-3,789 out of which 168-202 were children and 416-957 were civilians. So, in the larger scheme of things, spanning over ten years approximately 4000 people have lost their lives. In Pakistan from 2008-2013 (not including the current loss of life in the ongoing Zarb-e-Azb operation), the total number of military casualties in the tribal areas is 15,681 and for civilian causalities it is 5,152. Therefore any criticism on drone warfare and body count needs to be properly contextualized.

But consider this: a child born in 2004 to a civilian or militant (father) who died in a drone strike would now be ten years old. According to the custom of the land, they would have started religious education at the age of five, or even earlier in some cases, and by the time he is ten years old, he likely already hates America without even knowing where America is on the map of the world, the drones, Pakistan Army and everyone associated with supporting the Americans. For that child, the only source of information is perhaps one nearby madrasah, operating out of one room in some nearby house, where this one cleric has one mission: to brainwash that child, deprive him of multiple sources of information, and proselytize that child to the best of his abilities. Convincing that child of the ‘devilish American ways’ is not difficult. There is ample ammunition available to poison that young mind and rouse vindictiveness.

Now multiply that one child by approximately thousands of such children born over the period of ten years joined by those who are now teenagers, ready to take revenge for the deaths of their fathers, uncles, brothers, mothers, sisters and elders who have died in a total of 389 strikes over 10 years. Most of these children will never have the chance to come to America or interact with regular Americans and understand the rationale for America’s war on terrorism or have a chance to understand American values of democracy and freedom. While the numbers might give us comfort at a superficial level, the ‘loss’ suffered by the survivors of those drone strikes should scare us for it carries within it the promise of retribution coupled with a fearless ideology of self-annihilation as a means to an end. The Taliban recruit these children and train them to attack American and Pakistani civilian and military targets for it is a cheap expendable life at the end of it all.

In his commencement address at West Point in May 2014, President Obama stated:

in taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties, for our actions should meet a simple test: We must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.”

It is unfortunate, however, that drones have not been operating in a traditional ‘battlefield’ and they most certainly have created more enemies, who are currently between the ages of 10-20, than the ones successfully eliminated. It is time for the American public to ask some critical questions: Are the drones eliminating terrorism or fostering it? Do the Americans know who is being targeted and being killed by their government and the negative consequences of it in the long term? Is the drone warfare serving American national interest and making Americans more secure?

The Stimson Center’s Rachel Stohl convened a ten-member task force, co-chaired by Gen. John P. Abizaid (former CENTCOM Commander) and Rosa Brooks (former Counselor to the Undersecretary of Defense) to critically examine U.S. drone policy. The Stimson Task Force Report on US Drone Policy dispels certain misconceptions about the Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs), the U.S. conduct of drone warfare outside traditional battlefields and provides specific policy recommendations for greater transparency and accountability. While there are eight specific recommendations detailed in the report, for an international audience, three are of great relevance. It is encouraging to note that the task force has recommended that:

  • The Obama administration should undertake a cost-benefit analysis “of the role of lethal drones in targeted counterterrorism strikes”
  • Transparency should be improved and the administration should explain “the legal basis for US conduct of targeted killings; the approximate number, location and organizational affiliations of those killed by drone strikes; the identities of civilians killed as well as the number of strikes carried out by the military versus the CIA”
  • America should work to “foster the development of appropriate international norms for the use of lethal force outside traditional battlefields.”

These recommendations proposed in Stimson’s Task Force Report on U.S. Drone Policy and another report by Council on Foreign Relations: Limiting Armed Drone Proliferation send out a positive signal to the critics of U.S. drone policy and warfare in Pakistan and other countries. It is also a positive reflection on the U.S. think-tank community that it wants more transparency and accountability from their government on its drone policy, is asking all the right questions, and is concerned about the United States setting a dangerous precedent for drone use by other countries, which will be detrimental to long term U.S. national security interests. It also makes it easier for international academics and policy analysts to cite these studies by influential U.S. think tanks to placate rising anti-U.S. sentiments within their countries and to suggest that there is an increasing awareness in U.S. policy circles of the cost-benefit analysis of drone strikes in non-traditional battlefields as well as their effectiveness and limits in achieving U.S. counterterrorism objectives.

In an indirect way, these reports also might help reduce the perception of American arrogance about the use of drones, to which retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who championed the use of drones in Afghanistan, also referred to:  “Well we can fly where we want, we can shoot where we want, because we can.” It is important to question both the effectiveness and legality of U.S. drone policy and these reports are an important first step in the right direction.

Rabia Akhtar is a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center – this piece also appears on Stimson’s website.


Image: Noorullah Shirzada-AFP, Getty

Posted in , Drones, Military, Pakistan, Policy, Technology, Terrorism, US

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research, University of Lahore. She holds a PhD in Security Studies from Kansas State University. Her research focused on U.S. non-proliferation policy towards Pakistan and foreign policy analysis of executive-legislative interactions in U.S. foreign policy making and related issues in congressional oversight of U.S. foreign policy towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton. She is a Fulbright Scholar (2010-2015). Her co-authored research monograph on “Nuclear Learning in South Asia” was published in Jan 2015 by the Regional Center of Strategic Studies (RCSS), Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Read more

One thought on “CIA’s Drones Warfare And The Human Story

  1. Rabia:
    Excellent post, powerfully argued.
    Almost all US drone strikes seem to be against mid-level commanders, or lower echelon types. Are the negative consequences you suggest — which I believe are quite likely — worth the gain? I have strong doubts. In my view, drone strikes make sense only rarely, and only against leadership targets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *