ISLAMABAD: People in Pakistan who live under the threat of US drone strikes see a double standard at work in Washington.
Last week, President Barack Obama took the unusual step of acknowledging and apologising for a highly secret US drone strike that accidentally killed an American and an Italian aid worker held captive by Al Qaeda in Pakistan. The US government said their families would be compensated.
Know more: Obama apologises for hostage deaths in Pak-Afghan border strike
Drone strike survivors and family members of innocent Pakistani victims, lawyers and government officials asked why those victims don't also warrant an apology and compensation from the US. They wonder why it takes the deaths of Westerners to bring the controversial drone program back to public debate in the United States.
Kaleemur Rehman says his grandmother was killed and he and eight other family members were wounded in a US drone strike on Oct 24, 2012 in North Waziristan, once the headquarters of Pakistani and Al Qaeda-linked foreign militants.
|Kaleemur Rehman tells The Associated Press in Peshawar that his grandmother was killed and nine family members, him included, were wounded in a US drone strike in North Waziristan. — AP|
"My grandmother Mamana Bibi wasn't a militant," he said.
He says she was working in fields close to her home in her village near Miramshah, the main town in North Waziristan, when she was killed by a missile strike. A second missile struck just as her family rushed out to see what had happened.
The US is generally secretive about drone strikes, but Obama last week took full responsibility for the January CIA strikes and expressed regret for the deaths of hostages Warren Weinstein, an American, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian.
Read: Obama gave CIA 'secret waiver' for Pakistan drone strikes: report
He cast the deaths as a tragic consequence of the special difficulties inherent to the fight against terrorism. Naureen Shah, director of Amnesty International USA's Security and Human Rights program, welcomed Obama's rare public announcement Friday, but said: "Apology and redress should be available for all civilians killed in US drone strikes, not just US citizens and Europeans".
When asked about apologies or compensation for Pakistani civilians killed by drones, National Security Council spokesman Edward Price said that "in several years of operations, there have been very few cases of civilian casualties, each of which we deeply regret".
In a statement to The Associated Press, Price said "we believe it is incumbent on us to acknowledge" the deaths of US citizens in overseas counter-terrorism operations. The statement did not address acknowledging the deaths of Pakistani civilians or compensating their families though it said that "the death of innocent civilians, regardless of their citizenship, is something that the US government seeks to avoid if at all possible".
The number of people, terrorists or innocent civilians, killed in US drone strikes is difficult to tabulate because of the secrecy surrounding the operations.
Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam told AP: "There are different estimates which put the number around 1,500 dead and thousands injured or maimed."
"The exact figure of casualties is not known," she added.
Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that based on averages within the ranges provided by the New America Foundation, the Long War Journal and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been an estimated 522 US targeted attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since Sept 11, 2001, which have killed 3,852 people, of whom 476 were civilians.
Rehman, whose grandmother was killed 36 months ago, now lives in Peshawar and his uncle Rafiqur Rehman, a schoolteacher, lives with his family in a government-run refugee camp in Bannu after the army launched an offensive in North Waziristan in June.
The schoolteacher recalled the day when his mother was killed, saying that he was on his way back from a market when he saw people digging a grave.
|Rafiqur Rehman talks on a phone in Bannu. The educator recalled the day when his mother was killed in North Waziristan, saying he was on his way back from a market when he saw people digging a grave. — AP|
"It shocked me," he said. "Some kids playing close to my home shouted that America had killed my mother."
When he got to his house, he saw his mother lying on a bed. "Her body was torn into pieces," Rehman said.
He, together with daughter Nabila Rehman and lawyer Shahzad Akbar, traveled to Washington to testify before a congressional committee and urge the Obama administration to investigate Bibi's killing. They returned home unsatisfied, he said.
Read more: Pakistani family urges US to end drone strikes
Akbar, the lawyer, says he represents families of nearly 50 civilians killed in the US drone strikes, all of them awaiting apologies and compensation. He said the death of the hostages "shows that killing by drones is 'willy-nilly' without any idea of exactly who is being targeted".
Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistan army brigadier general, said he still sees drones as an effective tactic. He notes far more civilian casualties between 2005 and 2008, saying the targeting has been greatly improved thanks to better intelligence on the ground from covert American sources and Pakistani intelligence operatives.
But retired military officer Mahmood Shah says drone strikes are only adding to the ranks of militant forces.
"You kill one militant, but many more join up afterward. You're just multiplying the problem, not curbing it," he said.
Islamabad denies direct involvement in the drone campaign and voiced its "shock and sorrow" over the killing of Weinstein and Lo Porto. It also used the incident to diplomatically complain about the ongoing drone strikes.
"The death of Mr Weinstein and Mr Lo Porto in a drone strike demonstrates the risk and unintended consequences of the use of this technology that Pakistan has been highlighting for a long time,” the Foreign Ministry had said in a statement.