By Joshua Hersh
A new study conducted by law professors at Stanford and New York University contends that the U.S. use of drones to target suspected militants in Pakistan has had a “damaging and counterproductive effect” on the country and has killed far more civilians than previously acknowledged.
The study, which was released on Tuesday, relies on some 130 interviews with civilians living in the regions of northern Pakistan where targeted drone strikes have been most frequent. Working with the activist group Reprieve, the team of professors have added to the growing body of literature that argues, contrary to Obama administration claims, that numerous civilians have been killed, and many more traumatized, by the drone strike program.
“Drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning,” the report said. “Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.”
Relying on data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the study’s authors say that between 2,562 and 3,325 people have been killed in U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since June 2004, and between 474 and 881 of them were civilians.
The heart of the Stanford and NYU report, which is titled “Living Under Drones,” is a close and gripping look at three individual strikes in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, including detailed interviews with 69 survivors, the study authors say.
Some of the interviews appear in a related film that was produced by the Brave New Foundation, which helped support the study, and that captured Pakistani citizens speaking about their own experiences with daily life under drone warfare.
In one incident, from June of last year, a drone operator fired between two and six missiles at a suspect car traveling across Waziristan, the study authors say. Five people were killed, all of whom were immediately declared to be “militants” by anonymous Pakistani government officials. Based on their own interviews, and the reports of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has closely reported on drone strikes in Pakistan, the authors argue that the five killed were actually civilians, including a retired taxi driver and a teenaged student.
Pointing to a recent survey that found that nearly three-fourths of Pakistanis now consider the U.S. an “enemy,” the authors go on to argue that drone strikes may also be reducing the population’s willingness to collaborate against terrorists.
After years of denying the existence of the drone program or avoiding answering questions about it, President Barack Obama has begun to gingerly address the subject in interviews, mainly in order to promote the rigor with which he approaches the decision to deploy drones.
But many outside experts have called into question the Obama administration’s claims about the program and its effects, especially the notion, often repeated by administration officials, that no civilian deaths have been conclusively linked to U.S. drone strikes.
The Obama administration has also indicated that it considers any “military-aged males” who are killed in the vicinity of a drone-strike target to be likely militants, until proven otherwise.
In a recent essay in Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who has closely examined the U.S. use of drones, argued that a claim by John Brennan, Obama’s counterterrorism czar, that “the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from U.S. counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq,” was simply not believable.
“There were many public reports — from Pakistani and Yemeni reporters and anonymous administration officials — of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes,” Zenko wrote. “Either Brennan did not receive the same reports of civilian casualties as other administration officials did (an implausible notion), he lacks Internet access to read these anonymous comments (equally implausible because Brennan closely responds to critics of targeted killings in his following media appearances), or he was lying.”
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