Rejecting the dominant narrative that insulates most Americans from the reality of the US drone program in Pakistan—a narrative that says drones are a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer from "global terrorism" with minimal downsides—a new report by researchers at the Stanford and NYU schools of law says that the program itself is "terrorizing" and that its overall impact is "counterproductive" when it comes to addressing international law, security, and human rights.
The newly released report, Living Under Drones, follows nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—and presents evidence of the damaging and terrorizing effects of current US drone strike policy. The study provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts the ongoing program is having on the civilians living under drones in Pakistan and seeks to foster a public debate about how to challenge the program and change its current course.
Clive Stafford Smith, director of the UK-based human rights group Reprieve (also a sponsor of the report's research) said: "An entire region is being terrorized by the constant threat of death from the skies. Their way of life is collapsing: kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings, or anything that involves gathering in groups."
And added: "George Bush wanted to create a global 'war on terror' without borders, but it has taken Obama's drone war to achieve his dream."
"Real people are suffering real harm" but are largely ignored in government or news media discussions of drone attacks, said James Cavallaro of Stanford, one of the study's authors.
The report looks at four areas of main concern and calls for a public debate in both the US and international community to address them.
First, while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians. The report admits the difficulty of finding exact numbers, but says the "best currently available public aggregate data on drone strikes are provided by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), an independent journalist organization. TBIJ reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, available data indicate that drone strikes killed 2,562-3,325 people in Pakistan, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children."
In addition, the report continues, "the US drone strikes cause considerable and under-accounted-for harm" in the daily lives of ordinary civilians that go beyond death and physical injury.
"Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. 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. These fears have affected behavior."
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Some parents in Pakistan now choose to keep their children home, and the report says many children injured or traumatized by strikes have dropped out of school completely. Waziris told the researchers "that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves."
Compounding the insidiousness of the program is the lack of real evidence that the drones actually make the US "safer".
"The strikes have certainly killed alleged combatants and disrupted armed actor networks. However, serious concerns about the efficacy and counter-productive nature of drone strikes have been raised. The number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%," says the report.
"Evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks. As the New York Times has reported, 'drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.' Drone strikes have also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani relations. One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy."
The report also casts doubt on the legality of strikes on individuals or groups not linked to the terrorist attacks of September 11th and who could not possibly pose "imminent threats" to the US.
And finally, addressing the Obama administration's continued secrecy surrounding its global drone and targeted killing program, the report offered a rebuke and warned that if left unchecked, US policies in these areas would only further establish dangerous precedents for other countries to follow.
"A significant rethinking of current US targeted killing and drone strike policies is long overdue. US policy-makers, and the American public, cannot continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm and counter-productive impacts of US targeted killings and drone strikes in Pakistan," the report said.
Read the full report here: