Is the Drone War “Total” War?

Image Credit: KAZ Vorpal

Image Credit: KAZ Vorpal

We tend to think of the use of drones as a limited form of warfare. It makes sense — after all, we are not faced with daily images of destruction and climbing American death tolls as we experienced during the worst periods of the Iraq war.  But that lack of images is a consequence of a mere lack of visibility.  Drone warfare is not “limited” in any meaningful sense for the people it targets.  We bomb weddings.  We bomb funerals.  We bomb the people that come to the aid of those we bomb.  We bomb people as they collect their dead.  These facts paint a picture of a war not limited, but in fact total — in the sense that we seem willing to do anything, even committing what the United Nations has deemed “war crimes,” in order to kill our targets.

Thankfully, the drone war in Pakistan seems to have fallen off dramatically since 2012.  However, to this day we are waging a very active drone campaign in Yemen.   And we need to face the ugly details.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Our cognizance of the Drone War over the past couple years has been focused on extra-judicial killings of American citizens abroad. This was epitomized by Senator Rand Paul’s filibuster over John Brennan’s nomination to the CIA. This concern is not without reason, as the New York Times reported in 2013:

The missile strike on Sept. 30, 2011, that killed Mr. Awlaki — a terrorist leader whose death lawyers in the Obama administration believed to be justifiable — also killed Mr. Khan [a propagandist], though officials had judged he was not a significant enough threat to warrant being specifically targeted. The next month, another drone strike mistakenly killed Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who had set off into the Yemeni desert in search of his father. Within just two weeks, the American government had killed three of its own citizens in Yemen. Only one had been killed on purpose.

It is natural for U.S. citizens to be so concerned about extra-judicial killings of fellow U.S. citizens. It raises deep Constitutional questions and smacks of wild, runaway executive power. But these questions are not the most horrifying aspect of our drone policy, and we are severely overdue for a hard look at the war acts in which we are all complicit.

The LA Times shed some all-too-rare visibility on the effects of U.S. drone policy in a 2013 report:

Miya Jan was filling potholes on the rutted trail that leads to his village in rugged eastern Afghanistan when he heard the whine of a drone aircraft overhead.
The sunburned 28-year-old farmer looked up and saw a gray, narrow-winged drone circling the village. A few minutes later, he said, it fired a missile that landed with a tremendous thud across a stony ridge line.

Jan ran to the explosion site and recognized the burning frame of his cousin’s blue pickup truck. Inside, he said, he saw blackened shapes — people whose torsos had been sheared off. He recognized the smoking remains of his brother, his brother’s wife and their 18-month-old son. Jan and other villagers say 14 people were killed in the attack; U.S. and Afghan officials place the toll at 11.

“There were pieces of my family all over the road,” said Jan, recalling the deadly Sept. 7 late afternoon incident in an interview last week. “I picked up those pieces from the road and from the truck and wrapped them in a sheet to bury them.

“Do the American people want to spend their money this way, on drones that kill our women and children?” he asked.”

Stories such as this are deeply horrifying. But are they common? How common would civilian tragedy need to be to bring the morality of drone policy into question?

Data and Definitions

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism provides some data on Drone War casualties, stating that
“In Yemen on average one civilian is killed in every other strike whereas in Pakistan, on average more than one civilian is killed in each strike.” The Bureau’s data paints a dark picture of drone policy:

– Over three-fifths (61%) of all drone strikes in Pakistan targeted domestic buildings, with at least 132 houses destroyed, in more than 380 strikes.
– At least 222 civilians are estimated to be among the 1,500 or more people killed in attacks on such buildings. In the past 18 months, reports of civilian casualties in attacks on any targets have almost completely vanished, but historically almost one civilian was killed, on average, in attacks on houses.
– The CIA has consistently attacked houses throughout the 10-year campaign in Pakistan.
– The time of an attack affects how many people – and how many civilians – are likely to die. Houses are twice as likely to be attacked at night compared with in the afternoon. Strikes that took place in the evening, when families likely to be at home and gathered together, were particularly deadly.

The data suggests that horrific experiences suffered by people like Miya Jan are common.

In light of this, it is no wonder that in 2012 Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar claimed that “drones” were the biggest motivator for anti-Americanism in Pakistan. The country’s UN ambassador declared the same, stating, “We find the use of drones to be totally counterproductive in terms of succeeding in the war against terror. It leads to greater levels of terror rather than reducing them.”

The LA Times story shows that this effect is real:

Abdul Ghafar, 19, who said he lost his mother, brother, sister-in-law and nephew in the drone attack, says he is hungry for vengeance. “If I could attack them, I would,” he said of U.S. forces.

Meanwhile U.S. officials have argued that the criteria for drone strikes is sufficiently restrictive of civilian casualties to justify the strikes. The New America Foundation seems to lend support to this notion with their analysis, stating “The civilian and “unknown” casualty rate from drone strikes has fallen steadily over the life of the program.”

However, critics state that this is largely due to the U.S. government’s redefinition of what constitutes as a “militant” in 2012. Glenn Greenwald summarized this stance in his analysis of a New York Times piece concerning the 2012 redefinition (emphasis his own):

The article explains that Obama’s rhetorical emphasis on avoiding civilian deaths “did not significantly change” the drone program, because Obama himself simply expanded the definition of a “militant” to ensure that it includes virtually everyone killed by his drone strikes. Just read this remarkable passage:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

“It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

War crimes, and us

Recall Miya Jan’s story. His brother, his brother’s wife, and their infant child had just been killed. He sees pieces of of his family’s bodies strewn through the road. In shock and grief, he tries to do something, gathering their body parts together.

One could safely assume that if a drone strike had just been ordered on that area, the U.S. government has considered it to be “an area of known terrorist activity.” Given the post-2012 “guilt by association” definition for the word “militant,” was Miya Jan himself a target in his moment of despair — was he a potential target as he gathered the strewn pieces of his dead loved ones?

We couldn’t be that evil, could we?

It seems that we are.

They’re called “Double-Tap” Strikes. A drone hits a target. Then, as rescuers come to help the wounded, and as mourners come to recover the dead — the drone strikes again.

In 2012, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism compiled a list of confirmed Double-Tap Strikes:

The results provide independent verification of the tactics reported. Of the 18 attacks on rescuers and mourners reported at the time by credible media, twelve cases have been independently confirmed by our researchers. In each case civilians are reported killed, and where possible we have named them.

Strike Date Location Bureau’s Summary Findings
16/5/09 Khesoor North Waziristan Attack confirmed. Nine civilian rescuers reported killed – six named as Sabir,IkramMohibZahidMashal and Syed Noor, all from the Utmanzai Wazir tribe. Four Taliban rescuers also died.
18/6/09 Wana, South Waziristan Attack confirmed. Four civilian rescuers reported killed, named as Jehanzeb,LiaqatDaraz and Sabil. Three Taliban rescuers also died.
23/6/09 Miram Shah, North Waziristan Attack confirmed. Supportive evidence. Between 18 and 45 civilians reported killed among up to 83 fatalities in strike on funeral.
17/12/09 Degan, North Waziristan Attack confirmed. Eyewitness testimony. Six civilian rescuers reported killed, five named as BashirullahAmir KhanShairullah,Abidullah and Fazle Rabbi, all of the Dawar tribe.
18/12/09 Degan, North Waziristan Attack confirmed. Five civilian funeral prayer-goers reported killed, four named as Syed NoorShakirullahBanaras andFayyaz.
6/1/10 Datta Khel North Waziristan Attack confirmed. Five civilian rescuers reported killed, four named as Khalid, Matiullah, Kashif, Zaman and Waqar, all of the Utmanzai Wazir tribe. No Taliban rescuers were reported killed.
2/2/10 Pai Khel North Waziristan Attack confirmed. Five civilian rescuers killed, named as Noor JananFarhad,SamadSalam and Baseer. Four Taliban rescuers also died.
10/3/10 Datta Khel Attack confirmed. Four civilian rescuers killed, named as GulzarShamimMajanand Sarwar. Two Taliban rescuers reported to have died.
16/4/10 Toor Khel North Waziristan No confirmation. According to researchers no rescuers were killed.
15/9/10 Danda Darpakhel, North Waziristan Attack confirmed. Eyewitness testimony. Five civilian rescuers of the Dawar tribe reported killed, named as YahyaSamin,NiamatullahShahzad and Ilyas. Three Taliban rescuers also reported killed.
20/9/10 Darazinda North Waziristan No confirmation – researchers could find no evidence of rescuers killed.
22/9/10 Azam Warsak, South Waziristan Unconfirmed.
13/10/10 Datta Khel Attack confirmed. Three civilian rescuers killed – named as BashirWajid and Laiq– along with five Taliban rescuers.
28/12/10 Ghulam Khan, North Waziristan Attack confirmed. Two civilian rescuers reported killed, named as Jamil andMustafa. No Taliban rescuers were reported among the dead.
28/12/10 Ghulam Khan Eyewitness testimony. Not an attack on rescuers or civilians, according to researchers. Only militants died.
1/1/11 Mandi Khel North Waziristan No rescuers killed, according to researchers.
11/3/11 Khesoor Attack confirmed. Five civilian rescuers reported killed, named as Noor Gul,JaffarFarazMusa and Kamal. Five Taliban rescuers also reported killed.
20/6/11 Khardand, Kurram Agency Although all of those killed were reportedly civilians, no rescuers were targeted in the attack.
12/7/11 Dray Nashtar, North Waziristan Although not reported at the time by media, researchers claim that four civilian rescuers – named as ShabbirKalam,Waqas and Bashir died in the attack.

The UN has taken notice. Two years ago the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns, claimed that certain U.S. drone activities could be considered war crimes. As the Guardian reports: “If it is true, he said, that ‘there have been secondary drone strikes on rescuers who are helping (the injured) after an initial drone attack, those further attacks are a war crime’.

I am glad that there was no Double-Tap strike waiting for Miya Jan that day as he collected the scattered remains of his family. But the fact that the U.S. has carried out such an action even once — not to mention the 12 cases reported by the BIJ — makes me feel deeply ashamed.

I’m not calling for anyone’s head. I just want us to be aware. The distance between us and these strikes has made them too easy to ignore. We have no daily experience of war. But our CIA is engaged in total war, and it is committing war crimes for which we all share responsibility. I want no longer to carry on, as Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson put it, “complicit in murder.”