Drone Wars, P3: Who Will Tell the Emperor He Has No Clothes

A year ago October, around the same time I went to Pakistan to meet some Drone victims, visit the countryside where they live, two academic studies were released explicating concerns about the impact of Drone strikes on the civilian population in the Federally Administrated Tribal Area (FATA) of Pakistan along the Afghan border. One was published by a team from Cornell University and the other by a group from NYU and Stanford University. Both reports reflected a more serious situation than had previously been reported in the American press, and the latter report included testimony from local people who described a very disturbing situation which included numerous civilian casualties, clear violations of humanitarian law in the strike patterns and a climate of unrelenting fear and anxiety. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism(1) in the UK had been reporting some rather shocking statistics throughout the year, but no one in the United States had previously reported these issues. At the time, the U.S. Government continued to insist that there were few or no civilian casualties associated with these attacks, and no further action was taken until the following spring when a series of Congressional hearings brought the issue into the public eye,

This October, three Human Rights NGOs produced Reports on the civilian impact of the U.S. covert Drone Wars, and Ben Emmerson, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism, released an Interim Report on his investigation of the issue.  And, two films Wounds of Waziristan(2) and Unmanned, The Hidden Truth Behind the US Drone Program(3) were released as well, documenting the victims reports of the circumstances of several instances where US Drone strikes killed civilians in Pakistan. In fact, the quantity of information alone seems overwhelming. Beyond that, We are faced with a narrow if vividly presented moral issue that is difficult to grasp as it emerges from a complex and poorly defined morass of state priorities, secrets, internal and external conflicts and conflicts of interest. The title of the Special Rapporteur, for instance is long and complex, but what it means is that the focus of his investigation is narrow, constrained by the Law. The Law is constrained in turn by the interests of the state; I should say the United States. The words “While Countering Terrorism” gives sense to the use of the terms “Promotion and Protection” [of Human Rights and Freedoms] as opposed to “Guarantee or Assertion” [of Human Rights or Freedoms].

The studies describe simple citizens literally shredded as they rode the bus home from a days shopping or rested at the end of their days work.  Survivors describe gathering the pieces of their loved ones and community members, unable to recognize one from another.   Bits of personal possessions and clothing are the only means of identifying the victims.  In Yemen, a village is bombed twice in one day, resulting in more than 50 casualties, including forty two civilians, thirteen suspected (low level) militants and one man who could have been arrested at any time.   An anti-al Qaeda cleric is blown to bits along with a young guard who accompanied him and three low level militants he met with in hopes of converting them.    In Pakistan, a grandmother is blown away by a Hellfire missile while harvesting dinner in her garden and three children are wounded by the double tap second strike.   Two adolescent boys are vaporized in their car two days after one off them attended a conference in hopes of learning how to protect his community.    At the conference he met lawyers,  and  members of the international press; and apparently  a CIA snitch.   In March of 2011, 45 community leaders attending a Jirga or town council meeting were torn to pieces in a signature strike.

These few case studies explore  the experiences of a couple of hundred individuals in a dozen communities in some detail. But the details are important, not only because every individual life is of incalculable significance, as every life is at some level our own, but because in a social context, the cases described are a sample of a problem that is much broader and, in fact, exists in many more dimensions of society.   More than 600 strikes in Pakistan’s FATA alone, guarantee that many instances are never reported, or never clarified.   The US has stated that it considers men between 20 and 60 ‘militants’.   Sixteen year old Tariq Aziz and his eleven year old were classified as ‘unidentified militants’.   Double tap strikes kill and maim rescuers and mourners, and terrorize communities.   Opposition leaders to an insecure and widely unpopular government in Yemen, who could be readily arrested if there were valid charges against them, are  blasted in their cars or blown to bits along with their families in their villages.

The recommendations at the end of each report are, or claim to be, framed in relation to two bodies of international law, that is laws governing the relations between nations, not within nations. Humanitarian Law governs the actions of a country in the context of a War, while Human Rights Law holds in any other circumstance. However the question of whether International Law supersedes National Law and National priorities is, at least in some contexts for some participants, unresolved. For instance, whether the United States can rightfully claim to be ‘at war’ in Pakistan and Yemen is disputed.    In fact, most attacks in these documents fail to meet the requirements of Humanitarian Law.   The moral issues in these cases would appear to be quite clear. And yet, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Special Rapporteur all find themselves incapable asserting them.   Whether the existing legal framework is adequate to resolve these circumstances is disputed, not because it isn’t possible to understand these events in the context of the laws that exist, but because that conclusion calls into question the actions of a player whose actions are not to be questioned.

If you want to understand the individual cases, I urge you to watch the films. I highly recommend both of them. If then, you want to add more detail, read the case studies in the reports. Since both documentaries were filmed in Pakistan, and 2 out of 3 NGO reports were researched in Yemen, you may want to read case studies from at least one of the reports on Yemen. I suggest the Alkarama report, as they worked closely with a Yemeni NGO, but if you have an attachment to Human Rights Watch then read the cases there. I am going to write first about the recommendations, and the relationship between the recommendations and the presenter’s perception of International Law. Then I will look at the responses to these reports in the United States, as expressed by representatives of the government and the mainstream press.


US Drone strikes in Pakistan are focused on a very small region which has historically been deprived of public services and political empowerment within the country. It would be as if Drone strikes in the U.S. were limited to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. During the eighties, the US and Pakistani Intelligence worked together in this region to build and train militias to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. When the war ended, the Pakistani dictator conveniently disappeared and the US lost interest in the region. When the new war began in Afghanistan, there was a conflict of interest regarding whose priorities in the region were more significant. To sequester the problems caused by these policies, and because it is easy to do so, the government of Pakistan has placed these regions under military guard and made them inaccessible to other residents of the country. While this policy makes it easy to claim that there is no possibility to arrest those targeted, it also makes it very difficult for members of Pakistani civil society to develop any relationship with members of the society from which both the victims and the Taliban emerge. Not surprisingly, the Pakistani Government has a history of ignoring (if not supporting) these incursions behind a shield of public denial.

The restrictions on access to the FATA intensify the pressures and complexities of the situation the way a cover increases the entropy and pressure in a boiling pot. U.S. interests along the Afghan border are confused and often misdirected by a context that even the locals must navigate with caution. Currently, the civilian government of Pakistan has made it very clear that they do not want these drone strikes to continue, and that they consider the strikes a violation of their sovereignty. Last year the Pakistani Parliament voted unanimously to condemn US Drone strikes suggesting that necessary force be used to end them. They put in place a protocol that must be followed to grant permission for foreign military actions within Pakistan which would require Parliamentary consideration and approval, thereby making the consent of a small number of officials in government or the military insufficient to grant such rights. The High Court in Peshawar went further to find that the death and destruction caused by these strikes amount to War Crimes under the United Nations Treaty and the Geneva Protocols and violate a number of other International Conventions including the Convention on Genocide.(4)

Amnesty International published a report, Will I Be Next, Drone Strikes in Pakistan(5), on civilian casualties from Drone strikes in the FATA (Tribal Lands) of Pakistan which lie along the Afghan border. They document two  events, one of which was clearly a signature strike followed by a double-tap strike on rescuers where more than 40 civilians were killed, the other a more or less inexplicable strike on a grandmother and some children picking vegetables. They look at the context, in proximity to the Afghan border in an area where Taliban do travel through; at the US position that they are engaged in a ‘Global War’ and that the FATA isn’t “effectively governed” by Pakistan. AI finally takes the position that whether the consequences of US Drone Strikes fall under Humanitarian Law (the laws of WAR) or Human Rights Law, cannot be determined because the United States government will neither divulge enough information to justify their stance, not retreat from it. They believe that some of the strikes violate International Law regardless of which body of law they are considered under, but they don’t have enough facts to make even that determination with confidence.

The report makes a number of recommendations for the United states, mostly with regard to investigating before and after strikes, and disclosure. The recommend the US disclose whether these investigations have occurred, and if so, what information was obtained; disclose what standards are used in determining targets and what information is required to make the determination; disclose, disclose, disclose. They recommend the establishment of an investigative entity and acceptance of judicial review. It would seem they are asking the US to determine their relationship with International Law. Then they recommend that the US cease to invoke the “global war” doctrine and comply with international law. It seems here that they might be indicating that Human Rights Law would apply. but they go on to recommend that the US review the practice of signature strikes and cease strikes on rescuers, which would indicate that they are buying the ”global war” doctrine and just want a refined methodology so as to comply with Humanitarian Law. Lastly, they suggest that the US “Take measures to protect informants in Pakistan at risk of attack from armed groups Pakistani forces.” This would suggest that Pakistan is an enemy.


Post colonial instability manipulated by neighboring states and managed according to western political agendas, is a political fact of life in Yemen. Unlike in Pakistan, the current government of Yemen continues a pattern of more or less open support for US Drone strikes on the country. President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who came to power in a compromise negotiated by the United States after long time President Saleh resigned in response to protests and popular resistance during the so called ‘Arab Spring’, is even more open in his support of (widely resented) American Drone attacks than his predecessor.

There appears to be a general insurrection in Yemen, that has been going on for many years with different movements and agendas in different parts of the country. Many of these groups have joined or accepted support from AQAP. These various movements are embedded in civilian communities dispersed across the country, and infiltrate some portions of the military because they represent legitimate political streams. The government openly acknowledges support for these strikes which often as not target internal enemies of the state. Many of those targeted are respected members of their local communities though some have also spent time in Yemeni prisons. In many cases they could easily be identified and captured. Anwar Al-Awlaki, the American killed in 2011 is a case in point.

The Human Rights Watch report, Between a Drone and Al Qaeda,The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen(6) drew conclusions from investigations of eight different attacks which claimed the lives of more than a hundred civilians. After an initial Drone strike in Yemen in 2002 on a man associated with the AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula) attack on the USS Cole, they were not restarted until 2011 when Anwar Awlaki was killed. Since then there have been numerous Drone attacks on Yemen with many civilian casualties. The post Arab Spring president supports the Drones Strikes more openly than long time President, Ali Abdullah Saleh. HRW investigates six recent cases of which at least 4 involved Drone strikes and one, in which more than 40 civilians were killed, was a multiple bombardment that included a strike with a cruise missile armed with cluster munitions. In every case it is claimed that there were one or more militants targeted, and that some of the victims were ‘militants’, but this does not always appear to be true. The questions raised have to do with the fact that most, if not all of the targets were easily arrested, and that many of the strikes took place in areas where civilians congregated. These actions violate even Humanitarian Law, the laws of War, though HRW concludes that the US is not at war in Yemen.

HRW concludes that the strikes did not adhere to policies for targeted killings that US President Barack Obama disclosed in a speech in May 2013, and that

“These policies, which more closely reflect a law-enforcement model than a war model, provide that the United States will conduct strikes only against individuals who pose an “imminent threat to the American people”; when there is a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” and when the target is present . . .”

None of these guidelines appears to have been followed. The report states:

“If the United States targets individuals based on overly elastic interpretations of the imminent threat to life that they pose, these killings may amount to an extrajudicial execution, a violation of the right to life and basic due process.”

Their recommendations are that the US explain “the full legal basis” for these actions; that it clarify policy guidelines; that it ensure that “targeted killings in armed conflicts are in accordance with the laws of war.” The last is rather strange because HRW has already said that they don’t believe the engagement in Yemen meets the legal standard of a ‘war’. They suggest the US make and review pre and post attack assessments, and provide compensation to victims. It’s a little frightening that the former recommendation might be necessary.

Like Amnesty International, HRW is not ready to confront the US, but rather asks that the US government define a justification for these actions, use common sense in planning and show some compassion for victims. In Yemen, the fallacy of Amnesty’s recommendation that Drone operations be transferred from the CIA to the Pentagon is laid bare. Yemeni Drone strikes are controlled by JSOC, military Joint Special Operations Corp, which is already under the control of the Pentagon. However, there is neither transparency, nor evidence of effective planning nor a willingness to investigate controversial claims or provide compensation to victims.

Alkarama, a Swiss NGO produced yet another report on Drone strikes in Yemen called License to Kill: Why The American Drone War in Yemen Violates International Law (7) that reviews ten instances of Drone strikes in Yemen that overlap with the six instances investigated by Human Rights Watch. Alkarama conducted their investigation and wrote their report in collaboration with the Yemeni National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, or HOOD. They begin their report with some background information and history to contextualize their findings as most westerners are not familiar with the post colonial history of Yemen and the resulting divisions within the country. The Alkarama report asserts that

“Yemen – just like Pakistan – has become a testing ground for revolutionary new methods of warfare, not only technically, but also politically and legally”.

It infers that the US is supporting a puppet government in Yemen, which is highly politically factionalized by treating competitors as criminals. With regard to whether or not the United States actions in Yemen should be evaluated under Humanitarian Law or Human Rights Law, the report points out that if the US is fighting it’s own enemy in Yemen (which does not seem credible) then they would be accountable under Humanitarian Law. However, if they are attacking the enemies of the Yemeni government, then they must be accountable under Human Rights Law.

The Alkarama report concludes that the majority of targets are not leaders of Al Qaeda, and that the President Hadi’s support for American Drone attacks is in direct opposition to the stance adopted by the National Dialog Conference, a democratic body which is enacting a democratic process to write a constitution that will underlie the formation of a democratic government in Yemen in the near future. This does not augur well for the democratization process in Yemen. Alkarama’s recommendations are simple and clear. They recommend that the United States “end all extrajudicial killings”, “take legal measures against those responsible for acts that have caused violations of the right to life”, and provide “complete reparations to victims” of American Drone attacks. The recommend that the Yemeni Government “end all policy that undermines national sovereignty”, “undertake impartial and independent inquiries” and “criminalize the practice of extrajudicial killing”. Furthermore, they ask the United Nations to “Condemn the practice of extrajudicial executions committed by American armed forces through a resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council”.


The Interim Report presented at the United Nations by Ben Emmerson, Special Rapporteur for promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism(8) was presented to the United Nations General Assembly on September 18. Emmerson emphasizes that this is an interim report, and that his investigation is ongoing. Unlike the NGO teams, he interviews representatives of governments and participates in political discussions related to transparency of the US, UK and Israeli Drone programs with an eye to resolution of a common understanding of boundaries under International Law. In his report, Emmerson avoids the use of what I call ‘loaded’ terminology. He does not use the term ‘Drone’, but rather ‘remotely piloted aircraft’, and he does not use the term ‘targeted killing’ as he says that different parties interpret the term in different ways. Regardless of the reason, his choices reflect the preferences of the Drone industry and the governments who are perpetrating the Drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Gaza. He also cites statistics from Afghanistan which report that Drone strikes have resulted in less civilian casualties than piloted air strikes during the first half of 2013.

In an appearance on Democracy Now! On October 25, Emmerson said that it he strongly recommends that the US Drone Program be placed under the Pentagon rather than the CIA. As I noted above, experiences in Yemen would indicate that this is not going to be very helpful. In any case, the US government has not shown a significant commitment to do so. He clearly buys the idea that the United States has a great deal more information than they are sharing which, if known, would validate their actions. He said that there is a disagreement about the meaning of the applicable International Law. “The United states”, he said “has a credible position that some other countries agree with. It has adapted the Geneva conventions to asymmetric warfare.” The people of Yemen and Pakistan disagree. In this regard he said

Your viewers aren’t alive to the fact that the United States is AT WAR in Yemen and AT WAR in the FATA region of Pakistan because it considers itself to be engaged in what is called a non-international conflict, a war.

This startled me, and the more so because all three NGO reports present credible arguments that the US conflicts with Al Qaeda in these regions do not meet the legal standard of a “non-international conflict” under International Law, even the ones with weak recommendations.

Amy Goodman showed a clip during the segment, of White House spokesperson Marie Harf responding to the reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Harf says that these organizations overestimated the civilian casualties from the attacks they investigated, without offering any evidence. Harf went on to say that the government gathers ‘substantial‘ information before and after each attack which puts them in a better position to evaluate the situation as they have a “much more complete picture than any one nongovernmental organization would have on the ground”. While her statement emphasizes ‘before and after’, my attention is drawn to the phrase ‘on the ground’. The NGOs interviewed members of extended families and numerous representatives of communities. How is that less informative than the information provided by a secret informant who is being paid to provide information to parties neither willing nor able to observe events ‘on the ground’. In my mind, this statement discredits anything else she might say.

A Washington Post article the same day,Secret Memos Reveal Explicit Nature of U.S. Pakistan Agreement on Drones, by Bob Woodward and Greg Miller. It says “The files describe dozens of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region and include maps as well as before-and-after aerial photos of targeted compounds over a four-year stretch from late 2007 to late 2011 in which the campaign intensified dramatically.” Notice how this language resembles the language used by Marie Hanf. The example of ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos with the article shows 2 photos, one with a compound intact, another with it crushed. There is no evidence of who might be inside in either photo. Extended families live in compounds in the Pakistani FATA. They are not generally military installations. You can’t repeat this too often to Americans who have no experience with this kind of architecture and life style.

A segment aired on Russia Today October 22 has White House Spokesman Jay Carney saying “To the extent these reports claim that the US has acted contrary to international law, we would strongly disagree.” Well, of course they disagree! Their stance is that they are the law. In the same segment, Pakistani General Masood Talaf says “[D]oes Pakistan have any alternative of launching military operations to clear these areas? And if it doesn’t, then it gives a big leeway and advantage to the militants. So there are human rights aspects but there are also military and operational aspects that cannot be ignored.” This statement resonates in light of the recent Drone attack that killed Hakimullah Mehsud on the eve of peace negotiations arranged by the civilian government. Yes, they were thinking they had an alternative. But, thats all over now.

US government stance on Drones strikes isn’t monolithic. There is dissent within the ranks. Cameron Munter, US Ambassador to Pakistan, quit or was fired in late 2012, shortly before I went to visit. Acting Ambassador Richard Hoagland told us, during a meeting in Islamabad, that there were no civilian victims of US Drone strikes in the FATA. When pressed, he said there may have been a total number of 10 or less. Tara McKelvey published an interview with Cameron Munter in the Daily Beast shortly after his return.

What is the definition of someone who can be targeted?” she asked. “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40,” Munter replied. “My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s—well, a chump who went to a meeting.

On the other hand, he wants her to know he isn’t a wuss. At the time of the interview, local Journalist Noor Behram’s photos of children killed in FATA Drone strikes were being circulated, and the Stanford NYU Report detailing “Life Under Drones” had just been released. Still, he says: “We have people who bring us the bodies of little girls,” he says, stretching out his arms as if he were carrying a small corpse, “and say drones killed them. They’re making it up, or they’re willfully believing lies.” I wonder what he thinks about that now?

On October 22, the New York Times ran a response to the reports on Drone strikes by Declan Walsh and Ihsenullah Mehsud. They say

viewed from Miram Shah, the frontier Pakistani town that has become a virtual test laboratory for drone warfare, the campaign has not been the antiseptic salve portrayed in Washington.” and “In interviews over the past year, residents paint a portrait of extended terror and strain within a tribal society caught between vicious militants and the American drones hunting them.”

They go on to say that the strikes occur mostly in densely populated areas. With regard to Miram Shah, they say “It has become a fearful and paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with an additional 25 in adjoining districts — more than any other urban settlement in the world.” According to the only source I could find online with this information, the population of Miram Shah is about 3500 people. This perspective is what first caught my eye when I looked at the initial map published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism more than a year ago. The small area targeted by the strikes in Pakistan was stunning. I noted at the time that the area where the main cluster of strikes had occurred was about the size of the county I live in, about 30 miles in diameter. In her film, Wounds of Waziristan, Madiha Tahir says that all of the FATA will fit into half of New Jersey, her home state. Nearly six hundred Drone attacks, 800 – 1600 Hellfire missiles, have been hurled into this area. Yet we are told that only ‘militants’ are affected.

After all the information in these reports, an October 22 article in the Washington Post, Civilian drone deaths are far from rare, reports say, says

“ in virtually all cases, the groups said, it was impossible to know whether the targets had met Obama’s threshold of posing an imminent threat to the United States, because U.S. officials have kept that information a secret.”

Unconvinced by lengthy investigations that involved interviews dozens of survivors family members and other witnesses representing hundreds of victims; by hundreds of photos produced by  Waziri journalist Noor Behram, including more than 100 photos of small children killed in the attacks; unconvinced by 2 hours of video footage of interviews with survivors of these attacks; the NGOs, and the Washington Post still find it “impossible for us to know whether the targets had met Obama’s threshold of posing an imminent threat to the United States”. It is past time for the screen to fall and reveal the Wizard so that Dorothy and Toto can go home.   It’s past time for the Scare Crows to use their brains, the Tin Men to take heart and the Lions to have the courage to see the world as it is.   The Emperor has no clothes, and although the whole world sometimes seems determined to keep his secret, the facts are on the table.

—————- Sources —————

  1. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism
  2. Wounds of Waziristan, Madiha Tahi
  3. Unmanned, Americas Drone Wars, The Hidden Truth Behind US Drone Program , Robert Greenwald
  4. Decision of High Court of Peshawar  (in relation to a case brought on behalf of Noor Khan by Mirza Shahzad Akbar of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights in Pakistan)
  5. Will I Be Next, US Drone Strikes in Pakistan, Amnesty International
  6. Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda, Human Rights Watch
  7. License to Kill: Why the American Drone War on Yemen Violates International Law, Alkarama in collaboration with HOOD, The Yemeni National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms
  8. Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur for promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, September 18, 2013
  9. Interview with Ben Emmerson, Democracy Now, October 25
  10. Secret Memos Reveal Explicit Nature of U.S. Pakistan Agreement on Drones.Washington Post Oct 25 (check out the pictures)
  11. US strongly disagrees with drone strike reports that allege possible war crimes, Russia Today, Oct 22
  12. A Former Ambassador Speaks Out, Tara McKelvey Interview with Cameron Munter, Daily Beast, Nov,2012
  13. Civilian drone deaths Cited in Reports, New York Times, Oct 22
  14. Civilian Deaths in Drone are Far From Rare, Reports Say, Washington Post, Oct 22


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