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Death by drone

July 04, 2016

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FOLLOWING President Obama’s pledge in May 2013 to introduce more transparency and oversight in drone strikes, the White House has finally released figures pertaining to casualties caused by such attacks. Between Jan 20, 2009 and Dec 31, 2015, according to the report, there were 473 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya and Somalia which killed between 64 to 116 civilians while fatalities of combatants numbered between 2,372 to 2,581. These figures are certain to be vigorously contested by independent organisations tracking data from drone strikes. Reprieve, for one, has scathingly described the report as a “cooked book of numbers”. The figures are also at considerable variance from those collated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, according to which drones have killed between 492 and 1,100 civilians since 2002 in the aforementioned countries. Amnesty International, however, has welcomed the move to release the statistics as a step in the right direction.

While one can agree this is at least a much-needed starting point, in that it is a tacit admission of the number of occasions when ‘precision technology’ has gone horribly wrong, it falls far short of real transparency even within the constraints of confidentiality warranted by conflict situations. We remain in the dark as to what are the criteria whereby ‘civilians’ and ‘militants’ are distinguished from each other. There is clearly no uniform standard — this can be extrapolated from the fact that although the estimate of the minimum total deaths in drone strikes tabulated by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is very similar to that disclosed by the US, their respective estimates of civilians within that vary greatly. And the lack of detail such as names, circumstances, etc sustains a deeper problem — perhaps the very foundational one — which is the dehumanisation of the ‘enemy’. This was starkly illustrated after a drone strike on the Pak-Afghan border in January 2015 inadvertently killed Dr Warren Weinstein, an American citizen held hostage by militants since 2011. Obama’s expression of “profound regret” was the first time that a civilian fatality in a drone strike had elicited such a response from the US. The irony was unmistakable. It must also be said that the argument for more transparency — within reason — in times of war, remains valid even where the Pakistan Army is actively party to the conflict such as in Operation Zarb-i-Azb. Information that is unverifiable and tightly controlled by the military is perceived more as propaganda than fact.

Published in Dawn, July 4th, 2016