Obama’s escalating drone war

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A new investigative report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and published in conjunction with the London Sunday Times, has discovered that a legally dubious Central intelligence Agency drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who were acting as rescuers to drone strike victims, and others who were attending funerals.

There has been little coverage of the numbers of civilians killed in the United States because the operations were carried out by the always secretive CIA. And U.S. officials are often skeptical of claims made by journalists who have numbers at the ready, because information from reporters in Pakistan is often sketchy and contradictory — and typically dangerous to obtain.

The investigative report relied on detailed research involving interviews with eyewitnesses to drone attacks, including wounded Pakistanis and family members of those who were killed.

Research indicates that since President Obama took office in 2009, there have been 260 strikes by unmanned drones in Pakistan, a substantial increase over drone strikes by the Bush administration.

The report’s authors note that “between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.” They also claim at least fifty civilians were killed when “they had gone to help victims,” and more than twenty died as the result of “deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.”

Between May 2009 and June 2011, news media reported on at least fifteen drone attacks on rescuers. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found credible evidence that civilians were killed in ten of those fifteen attacks.

One such incident occurred in North Waziristan in May 2009, when Taliban militants had gathered in the village of Khaisor and were preparing to attack U.S. forces across the Afghan-Pakistani border. They were struck by a missile from a U.S. drone before the Taliban attack could begin, killing about a dozen people and causing civilians to rush out and retrieve the dead and wounded.

Two more missiles, also launched by drones, then struck as the rescuers were retrieving the dead and wounded, killing many more.

At least 29 people were killed in the two attacks. Even though they were militarily successful, locals say six civilian villagers died that day.

Another incident occurred in June 2009 when the CIA killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud, a mid-ranking Pakistan Taliban commander. His death was meant as bait in order to bring out Baitullah Mehsud, then Taliban’s notorious leader in Pakistan. The CIA planned to launch an attack while he attended Wali Mehsud’s funeral.

About 5,000 people attended that funeral, including Taliban fighters and civilians. U.S. drones attacked, killing 83 people including as many as 45 civilians. The dead reportedly included ten children and four tribal leaders.

Baitullah Mehsud escaped the attack unharmed, but was killed six weeks later by the CIA.

One of the most devastating incidents, according to the report, came in March 2011 after Pakistan released CIA contractor Raymond Davis. On the following day a drone strike killed 42 people in North Waziristan, an attack which Pakistani officials saw as retaliation. The commander of the Pakistani forces in that area said, “I was sitting there where our friends say they were targeting terrorists and I know they were innocent people.”

Many legal experts find the lack of transparency regarding these drone troubling. The increasing use of drones to strike targets is also affecting Libya, Yemen and Somalia. Some international legal experts have called the strikes “state-sanctioned extra-judicial executions.”

The Obama administration argues to the contrary.

John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, was quoted during a Harvard Law School conference saying that “the United States does not view our authority to use military force against Al Qaeda as being restricted solely to ‘hot’ battlefields like Afghanistan.”

“That does not mean we can use military force whenever we want, wherever we want,” Brennan cautioned. “International legal principles, including respect for a state’s sovereignty and the laws of war, impose important constraints on our ability to act unilaterally … in foreign territories.”

Despite legal justification, U.S.-Pakistani relations have become strained even though Pakistan has tacitly agreed to the U.S. using drones to strike targets within its borders. Relations also deteriorated after a November border clash in which a U.S. air assault killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

A Pakistani parliamentary committee is conducting what has been called a “‘a full review of the terms of cooperation’ with the United States and the U.S.-led international coalition in Afghanistan,” and government officials in Pakistan may soon seek a new arrangement with their American counterparts before more drone strikes are carried out.


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