The Civilian Victims of the CIA's Drone War
A new study gives us the truest picture yet – in contrast to the CIA's own account – of drones' grim toll of 'collateral damage'
I would not deny that the pilotless plane, flying bomb, or whatever its correct name may be, is an exceptionally unpleasant thing, because, unlike most other projectiles, it gives you time to think. What is your first reaction when you hear that droning, zooming noise? Inevitably, it is a hope that the noise won't stop. You want to hear the bomb pass safely overhead and die away into the distance …
George Orwell wrote of V2 attacks on London in 1944. Yet, there are many more in Britain who identify with that voice, speaking 67 years ago, than with events that are a regular reality in Pakistan today.
This week, a new report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism gives us the best picture yet of the impact of the CIA's drone war in Pakistan. The CIA claims that there has been not one "non-combatant" killed in the past year. This claim always seemed to be biased advocacy rather than honest fact. Indeed, the Guardian recently published some of the pictures we have obtained of the aftermath of drone strikes. There were photos of a child called Naeem Ullah killed in Datta Khel and two kids in Piranho, both within the time-frame of the CIA's dubious declaration.
The BIJ reporting begins to fill in the actual numbers. It's a bleak view: more people killed than previously thought, including an estimated 160 children overall. This study should help to create a greater sense of reality around what is going on in these remote regions of Pakistan. This is precisely what has been lacking in the one-sided reporting of the issue – and it doesn't take an intelligence analyst to realize that vague and one-sided is just the way the CIA wants to keep it.
The BIJ's study is everything that the CIA version of events is not: transparent, drawn from as many credible sources as possible and essentially open. It is clear about where its material comes from and what the margin of error may be. You should look, and you should engage, not just with the bare numbers, but also some of the stories: the attack on would-be rescuers by drones that had lingered, circling over the site of a previous strike, and opened fire – on the cruel assumption that any Good Samaritan must be a Taliban Samaritan; or the teenager who lost both legs when his family home was hit.
Sadaullah was 15 when the missiles, aimed at a militant leader who was never there, struck a family gathering, killing his wheelchair-bound uncle and two cousins. When he woke up in hospital, he was missing both legs and an eye. "The injured who survive with their severed limbs, they often tell me, 'you cannot really call me lucky'," says his lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar. "This is not London or Islamabad. There are no facilities for the disabled in Waziristan; such people can have zero opportunities ahead of them in life."
The primary question the CIA should answer is how it comes to be conducting an undeclared and illegal war in Pakistan, which is nominally a US ally. But beyond this, every time we read news of the latest drone strike in Pakistan, we need an honest assessment of the civilian casualties – and of whether we feel comfortable with an unaccountable spy agency carrying out killings on a military scale (the CIA's strikes now outweigh the firepower used in the opening round of the Kosovo war).
We also need to think about what it is like for ordinary people to live under George Orwell's circling threat, wondering whether it is going to strike, or to die away into the distance. And to note what lengths the CIA will go to silence human rights lawyers such as Akbar, who are trying to break the cycle of violence by bringing victims' cases against the CIA through the courts.
Or we could think in terms of enlightened self-interest: what do these strikes do to people's views of the US and its allies? Sixty-seven years after Orwell warily wondered whether he would be the next victim, how many angry relatives of a Waziristan child are plotting an attack on London or Washington, DC?
The BIJ study begins to bring the CIA's covert war out of the shadows. Since we may all become collateral damage, we should be grateful to them.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2011