Names needed for tombstones

June 06, 2012


Photo by Hussain Afzal/

In the past week alone three drone strikes in Pakistan have reportedly killed 27 individuals. The US authorities claim that a senior al Qaeda leader was the target who has subsequently died in the drone strikes. The names of the others who have died this week or thousands more who have perished in drone strikes in the past have largely remained unknown.

While the government of Pakistan has reportedly protested to a ‘senior’ US diplomat (not even to the Ambassador) in Islamabad against the drone strikes, it has done precious little to determine names and identities of those who became victims of extrajudicial killings  by the US on Pakistani soil. Also, the federal and provincial government in KPK has not helped the families of hundreds of civilians killed in drone strikes in pursuing a judicial recourse at international forums of justice and human rights.

The New America Foundation maintains an up-to-date tally of US drone strikes in Pakistan.Their data reveal that since 2004, an estimated 2,836 individuals have died in drone strikes in Pakistan. Drone strikes caused the most deaths in 2010 when an estimated 1,000 individuals perished. The Foundation estimates that of the 2,836 dead, almost 2,365 were militants, while the rest were civilians. Even if the Foundation’s numbers are taken at face value, almost 471 civilians have reportedly died as a result of American strikes in Pakistan.

Source: New America Foundation

In an earlier piece, I mentioned research by the London-Based Bureau of Investigative Journalism that revealed hundreds of civilian deaths had resulted from the drone strikes. Earlier this week, the Bureau revealed that CIA has resumed attacking rescuers and funeral processions of those killed in earlier drone strikes. The Bureau reported: “On Monday US drones attacked rescuers in Waziristan in western Pakistan minutes after an initial strike, killing 16 people in total according to the BBC… And on Sunday, a CIA drone strike targeted people gathered for funeral prayers of militant victims killed in an earlier attack. The intended Taliban targets appear to have survived, although up to ten people died. A mosque was also struck last week – possibly accidentally – killing at least three civilian worshippers.”


While the CIA has been blamed for planning and executing the drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, the New York Times recently reported that the planning central for drone assassinations has been the Oval Office in the Obama White House. The Times reported that President Obama used his Tuesday meetings with advisors to select names of those to be killed in drone strikes from a secret ‘kill list’. The Times observed that President Obama was “the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war.”

From being the Nobel Peace Prize winner to becoming America’s assassin-in-chief, President Obama’s descent into ghetto warfare has been quick and steep. It is indeed sad and disappointing to see President Obama build his tough guy credentials by assassinating his opponents and murdering civilians in Pakistan. If one were to do the same without occupying a political office, one would be nothing more than a Mafioso taking out enemies any which way possible.

While the American economy struggles to create jobs, President Obama has become increasingly vulnerable as he faces a formidable challenge from the Republican nominee Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential elections. Since he has lost control of the American economy, it is increasingly probable that the Obama administration may try to lift the President’s stature in the eyes of the electorate on the corpses of Pakistanis. The President may be limited in delivering jobs to Americans, but he remains unlimited in delivering death and destruction to the people of Pakistan.


While it remains primarily the responsibility of the government of Pakistan and its institutions, such as the armed forces, to protect the life and property of citizens against foreign threats, one can, however, no longer assume that the state apparatus has the capacity (and some may argue) or the willingness to safeguard the fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan. What is more disturbing is the fact that Pakistan's establishment has abandoned even the civilian victims of American drone strikes. One does not even know the names of the thousands who have died in drone strikes.

It is important to note that the US maintains detailed records of every soldier lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. The New York Times earlier this week published the names of the three most recent US casualties of the 1,979 Service men who have died in Afghanistan and related operations. The British do the same. In fact, the British newspaper Guardian maintains an online database of dead and wounded British soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan should do the same.

While the government of Pakistan may be content with launching mute protests with the American Embassy in Islamabad, much more due diligence is required, which the state is unwilling and incapable of performing. I therefore propose that instead of relying on the  government, members of the civil society should launch a collaborative effort involving media (preferably PFUJ), NGOs (FAFEN and HRCP), and the Journalism and Mass Communication Department at Peshawar University to develop an online database (similar to the one maintained by Guardian) of the victims of drone strikes. We need to know victims’ names, ages, date and place of death, affiliations, if any, with the militants, etc. This is a prerequisite for getting justice later for the victims sometime in the future.

The latest practice by the CIA of attacking the funerals of those who have died in earlier drone strikes leaves the unnamed dead without graves or proper burials. This is an explicit attempt to eliminate any chance of determining later the real victims of US drone strikes in Pakistan, which is likely to preempt or hamper any chance of seeking justice at international forums.

It is up to the people of KPK in particular, and Pakistan in general, to maintain accurate records of those who have lost loved ones, limbs, and/or property in drone strikes sanctioned by President Obama and his predecessor. If the plight of victims of drone strikes in future is recognised by international institutions of human rights and justice, the names and dates on the tombstones will become the most important piece of evidence in the indictment against those accused of committing war crimes against the people of Pakistan.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.