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Living (and Dying) Under Drones


Last week, the Obama Administration argued in front of the First Circuit Court of Appeals that there is no official evidence we are waging drone warfare in northern Pakistan. The ACLU has sued under the Freedom of Information Act for details of the widely reported drone strikes and in response, the CIA simply stated that it could neither confirm or deny that they were happening at all. The government has of course released lots of information about the strikes, but always in the form of leaks, anonymous and self serving. According to the leakers, the strikes are a miracle of precision, waged with a concern for the protection of innocent bystanders that would have done credit to Mahatma Gandhi.

To a considerable extent the media has taken this story as given, dwelling instead on the political consequences of the strikes on our relationship with Pakistan, or other subsidiary issues. The actual effects of an escalating eight year bombardment of Hellfire missiles on a society living in mud houses on an average per capita income of $250 has attracted less scrutiny.

Living Under Drones, an exhaustively researched and documented study by the New York University Law School Global Justice Clinic and Stanford Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic released today, does much to explain the government’s reluctance to come clean.

The report makes it clear that there have indeed been many undeniably innocent civilian casualties — presenting an upper figure of almost 900 killed, many of them children. On March 17, 2011, for example, village elders and other local notables, including several officials appointed by the Pakistani government, were meeting in the bus depot at the town of Datta Khel in North Waziristan when a missile, presaged only by a brief hissing noise, slammed in their midst, killing at least 40 people, of whom four may have been low level members of the Taliban. An October 6, 2006 strike on a religious school in Bajaur killed over 80 people, including 69 children.

The authors note that not only do we not know the precise figure, even close neighbors of a targeted compound may not know. In this extremely conservative society, the number, let alone the names, of females living in a compound may be unknown to outsiders. Given that the missiles explode at temperatures high enough to utterly dismember or even vaporise bodies, it is often literally impossible to count the dead.

Far more disturbing even than the casualty figures is the portrait presented in the report of an entire society traumatized by the strikes. Interviews with over a hundred inhabitants of the kill zone — not easily conducted, given the Pakistan government’s policy of barring access to all outsiders — reveal many exhibiting classic symptoms of PTSD. The pervasive fear among Waziris that anyone can be a target at any time gives the lie to notions that only confirmed terrorists are targeted — if that were so, innocents would know they are safe and move freely accordingly. Instead they are all condemned to live in what a rare American observer, former hostage journalist David Rhode, described as “hell on earth.” Overall, thanks to U.S. drones, Waziris have been reduced to as bleak a social existence as even the most fanatical Taliban could desire.

Children and adults wake screaming in the night, others are reduced to a state of debilitating listlessness. Group meetings to settle disputes — Jirgas — have traditionally served as a social lubricant in Waziristan. No longer, since people know that any gathering beyond two people might draw the attention of the targeteers. The dead, even when there enough recognizable body parts to collect, must be buried without benefit of a proper funeral. Drivers necessary to transport people and goods are reluctant to take to the roads. Since schools have been targets in the past, few children are being educated. Wedding parties and other social gatherings have become too dangerous to celebrate. The death of so many adult male breadwinners has reduced many families to total destitution.

Furthermore, a widespread belief that the missiles home in on “chips”planted by informants in US pay, who therefore have the power to settle a domestic dispute, has led to mutual mistrust throughout the community. Those wounded in a strike can linger for hours for rescue thanks to the cruel “Double Tap” tactic of launching a second strike at first responders. At least one professional humanitarian relief organization now waits at least six hours before approaching a stricken site.

It seems unconscionable that our government should deny us access to any and all official information regarding this war being waged on our name. Not that such attitudes are new. In the early 1970s, Richard Nixon authorized the bombing of Cambodia and decreed that it be kept utterly secret. Back then, this was considered a serious matter, and so the secret bombing ultimately generated Article Five in the initial articles of impeachment drawn up against Nixon.

Obama might want to think about that.

Andrew Cockburn is the author of Duel: the Strangest Story of the Afghan War, available in Kindle format.. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press, now also available in Kindle edition. He can be reached at

Andrew Cockburn is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine.  An Irishman, he has covered national security topics in this country for many years.  In addition to publishing numerous books, he co-produced the 1997 feature film The Peacemaker and the 2009 documentary on the financial crisis American Casino.  His latest book is Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins (Henry Holt).

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