If there is a list of tyrants in the world, to me, Obama will be put on that list by his drone program.
— Faheem Quareshi, a victim of Obama’s first drone strike.
Qureshi was just 14 when his life was marked by Obama’s first drone strike on 23 January 2009 in Waziristan (Pakistan). Qureshi’s house was damaged, his two uncles and a cousin died, and he himself lost sight in his left eye. Qureshi’s dreams of pursuing a career in chemistry were crushed, as he had to become his family’s breadwinner.
The strike missed its Taliban target.
After having witnessed this and many other similar events, Qureshi became a vocal critic of Obama and the drone program.
In 2013, a U.S. drone targeted a wedding convoy in Radda in Yemen. It was wrongly thought that the vehicles carried al-Qaeda members. Instead, the strike killed 14 and injured 22 — all innocent civilians.
Local people maintain that over 50 civilians have been killed in their village alone.
Abdulaziz al-Huraydan was a 10-year-old killed in a strike that targeted his brother, Saleh, an Al-Qaeda member. Abdulaziz happened to be in the same car as his brother when the strike occurred.
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a 16-year-old U.S. citizen. He travelled to his family home in Shabwa to visit his father he hadn’t seen in years just to find out that he was killed in a drone strike. A couple of days later, Abdulrahman shared his father’s fate.
The war on terror has claimed too many innocent lives to list them all; and in fact we usually know very little about the dead. The U.S. drone program is shrouded in secrecy, and data gathering by independent organizations is dangerous.
Even the CIA doesn’t know the real number of the killed civilians, let alone their identities. The much-criticised policy of signature strikes allows the U.S. to target people based on their “behavioural patterns” without knowing their identity. This means that if someone behaves like a terrorist, the CIA may kill them. The margin for error is enormous.
Families and friends of the killed civilians don’t receive as much as an admission of guilt on the part of the U.S. government, let alone any financial help. The victims are lumped together as “collateral damage” and their numbers are purposefully understated: the official policy treats every dead person as a militant unless proven otherwise. Drone strikes not only kill the innocent — they also wound communities and plunge families into poverty.
Are Drones “Surgically Precise”?
John Brennan extolled the drone program for its “surgical precision — the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumour called an al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.”
This metaphor is captivating but unfortunately inadequate. Let’s look at the facts.
The U.S. has been trying to kill Ayman Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, for 11 years. This venture claimed the lives of 76 children and 29 adults. Ayman Zawahiri is still alive.
The quest to kill Qari Hussain, a deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban, resulted in the death of 128 innocent people, 13 of whom were children.
According to the human-rights group Reprieve, the targeting of known militants is imprecise; drone strikes that were supposed to kill 41 targets resulted in the death of about 1,147.
“Drone strikes have been sold to the American public on the claim that they’re ‘precise’. But they are only as precise as the intelligence that feeds them. There is nothing precise about intelligence that results in the deaths of 28 unknown people, including women and children, for every ‘bad guy’ the US goes after.”
Drone strikes miss their targets more frequently than what the public is led to believe. Out of 24 targets in Pakistan, only six died in drone strikes. Yet, these endeavours claimed the lives of 874 people, 142 of whom were children.
Naming the Dead
Naming the Dead is a project run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose purpose is to identify the victims of CIA strikes in Pakistan and increase the transparency of the drone program. According to their estimates, at least 2,400 people have been killed in the region as a result of drone strikes. Most of the dead are believed to be militants but the number includes also at least 416 civilians.
Out of the 2,400 killed, only a handful have been identified. The Bureau reports that less than 4% of the CIA strikes in Pakistan killed al-Qaeda members known by name. In total, only 704 out of 2,379 dead have been identified, and only 295 were militants. A third of those designated as militants were low-profile targets. Only 84 of the killed were members of al-Qaeda.
The results are shocking. Less than 13% of the people who died in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are known militants — and many of them not even priority targets. The rest are civilians and people presumed to be militants on the basis of “behavioural patterns.”
If we don’t know the identity of the vast majority of those killed in drone strikes, can we really claim that the drone program is “surgically precise”?
The Drone Program Is Flawed
The U.S. government justifies drone strikes in other countries by evoking the right to self-defence in the event of an imminent threat. However, loopholes in the legislation allow the U.S. to carry out drone strikes without any concrete evidence that threat is imminent.
The drone program has numerous faults according to Heather Linebaugh, who worked on it.
Transparency it’s the biggest issue. The public doesn’t know the procedures for choosing targets, the real number of victims, and the identity of the targets. If the number of civilian deaths is officially released, it is grossly understated.
Linebaugh reveals that the video provided by drones are low quality, so analysts have trouble telling the difference between a gun and a shovel. Things get significantly worse in bad weather.
The most controversial tactic remains the policy of signature strikes. The criteria for killing someone on the basis of their “behavioural patterns” aren’t specific — for instance, being a “military-aged male” in a combat situation may be enough.
© 2018 Virginia Matteo