U.S. Drones: recent events emphasize divergent views

On Saturday, Nov. 2, drone strikes made headlines worldwide for the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. A New York Times article ...

On Saturday, Nov. 2, drone strikes made headlines worldwide for the killing of Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud. A New York Times article called the strike “a signal achievement for the covert C.I.A. program at a time when drones themselves have come under criticism from human rights groups and other critics in Pakistan and the United States over the issue of civilian casualties.”
Just a few days earlier on Oct. 29, a Pakistani family affected by drone strikes testified in a congressional hearing in Washington D.C., the first such testimony by individuals who had experienced the U.S. military’s drone strike program.
Speaking through a translator, 13-year-old Zubair ur-Rehman said, "I no longer like blue skies. In fact, I prefer gray skies. When sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear.” A year earlier, his 68-year-old grandmother was killed in a drone strike, and his 9-year-old sister, also present at the hearing, was injured.
While 40 House members attended the recent congressional hearing surrounding mistakes with the Affordable Care Act’s website — nine more than the 31 members of the U.S. House Energy Subcommittee on Health — there were only five elected officials present from the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa.
Still, the presence of the Rehman family in congress was a historic event.
Just over a week ago, on Oct. 23, President Obama met with recently-elected Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for the first time. While the subsequent press release made no mention of drone use in Pakistan, it did underscore how the relationship between the two nations was “based on the principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Sharif later said in a statement that he emphasized in their meeting the need to end such strikes.
“[Drone strikes have] become a major irritant in our bilateral relationship," he said. "[They are] a continual violation of our territorial integrity."
Their meeting came a day after Amnesty International released a new report condemning the U.S. drone program.
“In effect, the Obama administration has sought to evade accountability by promising that its policies have already improved,” said Naureen Shah of Amnesty International. “This ‘trust us’ approach to the law, so evident in the recent NSA surveillance scandal, is also manifesting itself here, with the added gravity of life and death.”
While many of the strikes have taken place in Pakistan, the United States has also used drone attacks in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
Michael Harsch, a faculty fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi who studies international intervention in unstable countries such as Afghanistan, emphasized the importance of distinguishing extrajudicial killings, those not sanctioned by host country, from other contested elements of the drone debate, such as surveillance. For him, drones, like other weapons in warfare, are not necessarily problematic in themselves.
Because of the nature of drones, the battlefield is no longer clearly or rigidly defined.
“One concern is that it undermines some traditions of international humanitarian law, particularly the distinction between civilians and combatants, and also the distinction between what is a warzone and a peace zone,” Harsch said.
The number of civilian deaths vary widely, usually depending on whether the figure is reported by a combative government or a nongovernmental organization. Pakistan’s military recently released a report saying 67 civilians have been killed by U.S. drone strikes since 2008, a figure that has been matched by the CIA, as reported by the New York Times.
This is far lower than other reports, such as that of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which finds that number to be over 300. According to a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, there have been at least 400 civilian deaths since the start of the drones program in 2004.
This discrepancy in figures may be due to finances. A report from Moscow-based international news source RT pointed out that the U.S. recently approved a $1.6 billion military and economic aid package for Pakistan in advance of Sharif’s visit to D.C.
Regardless of the actual number of civilians killed by drone strikes, it is clear that deaths have taken place.
“We really don’t have any official figures about the number of missions and the intended or accidental victims of these missions, nor is there any official information about the targeting process, so there’s really no democratic accountability,” said Harsch.
While working under U.S. Democratic Rep. Diana Degette last semester in D.C., NYUAD junior Austin Wilson attended a briefing on drones where he was able to hear several generals from the Department of Defense give their take on the U.S.’ program. He said that many anti-drone reports overlook the precision of the strikes.
“When a strike is launched, they have to be pretty damn sure that the target is actually a target,” he said. “There are innocent civilians that are killed and that’s just a fact of life.”
Although Wilson said that much of the information about the U.S. drones program is not transparent, he emphasized the importance of acknowledging why the U.S. would not reveal the details of their military operations.
“The bottom line is that the United States is at war with al-Qaeda and with the United States,” he added. “Unlike other wars, the reality of these globalized wars is that the entire world is effectively the battlefield … war has obviously changed a lot since 1940.”
For NYUAD senior Sohail Rana, however, the U.S. drones program strikes a more personal note. Born in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the most affected of Pakistan’s four provinces targeted by drone strikes, Rana and his family moved away during his childhood to the neighboring province of Punjab, where there were better educational opportunities.
Many years later, when visiting his relatives back near his home, he saw a drone in the sky.
“It was kind of a small plane, smaller than a normal plane,” he said. “My area never experienced drone attacks, but maybe it was flying from a nearby base.”
A recent Pew poll indicated that 64 percent of people in Pakistan view the U.S. as an enemy. Rana suggested that this view could stem not only from the U.S. drones program, but from historic causes.
“A lot of people in Pakistan think this is not their war, this is [a U.S.] war,” he said. “They think all of this started with [the Cold War conflict between the U.S. and the USSR], when the U.S. [trained] the mujahideen.”
Because of this, Rana said, the United States is believed to be making matters worse, killing Pakistani citizens on Pakistani soil.
Wilson maintained, however, that the national sovereignty of Pakistan, or any country, is contingent on its ability to maintain national and global security.
“We now know that Osama bin Laden was living in a villa in Pakistan for a long time,” he said. “It’s unfortunate, but the United States and its allies have a responsibility to protect its citizens … If a nation like Pakistan is either unwilling or unable to prevent a threat to … the United States or its allies, [then intervention is justified].”
Yet Rana believes that as long as the U.S. drones program continues, a resolution to the conflict in his country is unlikely.
“It needs to stop,” he said. “Drone attacks create more hatred; hatred builds on more recruits. If the U.S. really wants to solve problems in those areas, they should be building schools and hospitals.”
Alistair Blacklock is editor-in-chief. Email him at 
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