The Cost Of Obama’s Drone War


On the night of 23 January 2009, a group of friends, neighbours and family members gathered for tea and conversation at Waziri elder Mohammad Khalil’s house in the village of Zeraki in North Waziristan, Pakistan.

Khalil has been described as a "tribal notable" and while not a militant, reportedly possessed good relations with local Taliban fighters.

Women and children were present in a different part of the house, separated from the men, as is common in Waziri culture.

At around 5pm, the group heard the hissing sound of an incoming American missile.

It was fired from an unmanned drone overhead and piloted 11,000km away by someone seated in front of a computer, somewhere in the USA.

Seconds later, the missile struck the centre of the room, killing everyone except Khalil’s 14-year-old nephew Faheem Qureshi.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism believes that at least seven and possibly up to 11 civilians were killed out of between seven and 15 total dead in this attack. Faheem suffered a fractured skull, shrapnel wounds and was badly burnt all over the left side of his body. He lost an eye, the hearing in his left ear and now has only limited mobility. Once a top student, since the attack, he has had trouble concentrating at school and his large family, having lost their breadwinner and having had to pay for Faheem’s medical expenses, cannot afford to rebuild their house.

Three days earlier, Barack Obama had been inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States after campaigning to conclude the war in Iraq, close Guantanamo Bay, end torture and with the expectation that he would rein some of the more pernicious national security excesses of the Bush era.

The Zeraki attack was the Obama administration’s first drone strike in Pakistan. Since then another 293 strikes have been conducted. It is estimated that only around 50 strikes took place during Bush’s time in office.

The attack on Mohammad Khalil’s house is just one attack detailed in Living Under Drones, an exhaustive new report from Stanford and New York University that investigates the CIA drone program and its effects on those living on the ground in Pakistan. The report concludes the Obama administration’s narrative that drone strikes are surgical, precise and effective is patently false.

It estimates that just 2 per cent of those killed in drone strikes are actually high-level security targets and paints a terrifying picture of a landscape where death is omnipresent and drones buzz constantly overhead like mosquitoes.

Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve, an organisation that commissioned and helped author the report, said: "An entire region is being terrorised 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 … George Bush wanted to create a global ‘war on terror’ without borders, but it has taken Obama’s drone war to achieve his dream."

The report makes clear that there is now significant evidence of the use of "double-tap" strikes by US drones. This tactic involves the fire of several missiles in quick succession, which often has the result of killing first responders. Its use means that civilians are scared of coming to each other’s rescue and that emergency humanitarian assistance is inhibited.

The report quotes a father of four who lost one of his legs in a drone strike, he said: "We and other people are so scared of drone attacks now that when there is a drone strike, for two or three hours nobody goes close to [the location of the strike]. We don’t know who [the victims]are, whether they are young or old, because we try to be safe."

Tracking civilian deaths from drone strikes is difficult as the program is secretive, opaque and the statistics are inaccessible.

In June 2011, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser and former CIA czar John Brennan claimed that the US had not killed a single civilian in Pakistan since August 23, 2010. This was dismissed by drone supporter and The Long War Journal managing editor Bill Roggio as "absurd".

The Long War Journal, a project of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, claims that drone strikes in Pakistan have caused 138 civilian deaths since 2006, while the New American Foundation estimates 152-191 civilian deaths.

However, Living Under Drones quotes figures from London-based The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), statistics that it says are the most comprehensive and reliable available. TBIJ estimates between 474 and 884 civilian deaths out of between 2570 and 3337 total dead from drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. This includes 176 children. It also estimates that a further 1300 individuals were injured in drone strikes over the same period.

The New York Times recently revealed that the Obama administration considers all military age males killed in a strike zone to be combatants — leading to inflated "success" figures. Under the Geneva Conventions, the US has a responsibility to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.

For those who celebrated Obama’s presidency in 2008, this killing with impunity betrays the hope that America’s national security activities abroad would become more accountable in his administration.

The fact is that Obama has proved to be far more hawkish than his predecessor on national security.

As highlighted by The Guardian, he has dramatically expanded secret surveillance of American citizens by the National Security Agency, cracked down on whistleblowers (the treatment of Bradley Manning being one example), broken his promise to close Guantanamo, classified an unprecedented amount of government documents and continued prosecutions in secretive military courts rather than civilian tribunals.

The unrestricted use of unmanned drones to kill inside sovereign territory is a worrying development that could set a dangerous precedent for future warfare. Equally worrying is the lack of independent oversight or transparency in the drone process and the concentrated power of the executive. Obama is reported to oversee his own personal "kill list" and retain individual authority in ordering these targeted and potentially extrajudicial killings.

Pakistan barely tolerates these attacks and the CIA conducts them in the murky backwaters (pdf) of international law.  Civilian victims in Pakistan have no right to demand compensation from the US government as their compatriots in Afghanistan can.

The unmanned drones remove the last dregs of humanity from war and Obama has proved to be ruthless in sanctioning their use. Though the drones have killed many Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan, and weakened the capacity of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, Obama must weigh up a complex moral calculus in neutralising threats to America while protecting civilians and his country’s reputation abroad.

These difficult decisions, that he bases on the philosophical concept of "just war", made in Washington and executed from the skies of Northern Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia, are ones that Obama himself is deeply involved in.

According to the New Yorker, he pores over profiles of potential terrorists on his kill list that look like baseball cards.

On the basis of extensive interviews conducted in Pakistan, the authors of Living Under Drones suggest the drone program is actually counterproductive and "likely to increase terrorism". Collateral damage to civilians has helped to cultivate rampant anti-American sentiment and worsen already tenuous US-Pakistani relations.

The use of drones is unlikely to have a negative impact at election time — in fact, it will probably have the opposite effect.Some commentators have suggested  that the "kill list" was leaked intentionally by the White House to create the impression of a liberal government that is tough on national security.

The reality is that President Obama is not simply tough, he has overseen an expansion of national security that has seen him labelled "George Bush on steroids" in Foreign Policy magazine.

While the international community may continue to see Obama as a liberal progressive that speaks eloquently with moral candour, sings Al Green and presents the best option for a peaceful American president, it is important to remember that the Nobel Peace Laureate has not acted with much transparency, accountability nor due caution in his first term’s anti-terror campaign.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.