Missile-armed drones are playing a greater role than ever in US counterterrorism operations, as Obama winds down land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington's focus expands to militant havens in countries such as Pakistan. -File Photo

ISLAMABAD: Prominent international human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith was impressed by the 16-year-old boy who wanted to draw attention to civilian deaths caused by US drone strikes in Pakistan.

Tariq Aziz had volunteered to take pictures of people killed by the remotely piloted aircraft to help Stafford Smith highlight what he calls illegal killings.

Three days later, on Oct. 31, he and his 12-year-old cousin were themselves killed by a drone missile strike in the North Waziristan region on the Afghan border, Stafford Smith said.

For the veteran lawyer, the deaths highlighted major flaws in the CIA-run drone campaign, which US officials say is invaluable in the war on militants.

“What they did to Tariq was absolutely disgusting,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Stafford Smith made his name defending death row inmates in the United States and prisoners at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He considers the drones as “scandalous” as the secret US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

Eighty Pakistani tribesmen, including Aziz, recently met Stafford Smith and other Western lawyers for the first time, in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, to complain about the drones.

The United States has sharply stepped up the number of drone attacks in Pakistan's unruly ethnic Pashtun areas in the northwest, along the border with Afghanistan.

In 2009, when President Barack Obama took office, there were 53 strikes, compared with 42 over the previous four years. In 2010, that number jumped to 118, followed by 68 this year, according to the New America Foundation.

The think tank's statistics raise doubts about the success of the drones. It estimates as many as 471 civilians were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004-2011, a 20 percent non-militant fatality rate.

US officials point to the deaths of senior al Qaeda and Taliban figures as proof the drones are highly effective, and no American troops are needed on the ground.

Missile-armed drones are playing a greater role than ever in US counterterrorism operations, as Obama winds down land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Washington's focus expands to militant havens in countries such as Pakistan.

Stafford Smith says the strategy will cause more civilian deaths and create additional enemies for the United States.

“When you have warfare with no political costs at all, it becomes much too easy to resort to violence,” he said, adding his goal was to raise international awareness about the suffering caused by drone strikes.

“What we are seeing in Waziristan is a process that is alienating the population just as napalm in Vietnam did and it's achieving very little benefit.”

Stafford Smith drew parallels between Guantanamo and the drone campaign in Pakistan, arguing both detentions and strikes were often based on dubious intelligence. He suspects the death of Aziz was a prime example of that.

“We as America offer large bounties to different informants and these informants would sell their own mothers,” said Stafford Smith, 52, a dual US-British citizen who is the director of Reprieve, an organisation that advocates for prisoners' rights.

“We don't have proof but this (Aziz's death) was the result of some Pakistani informants who want to show their paymasters they are doing their jobs. So they make up a story and a poor kid dies.”

Drone “pilots” based in the United States move joy sticks around as they watch live video feeds of militants, who are killed with the push of a button.

“We keep talking our way into a system of warfare that was in our science fiction nightmare 30 years ago and we really need to have an open debate on it,” said Stafford Smith.

He faces an uphill battle. US policy makers are encouraged by drone operations like the one that killed US-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen in September.

But Stafford Smith believes “justice” will prevail.

“In the early days of Guantanamo Bay people said 'no one will pay attention'. It was difficult,” he said.

“I have no doubt the American people and everyone else will recognise what's going on here and put an end to it.”

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