The Secret Strikes

BISGAARD-CHURCH The Waziristan region of Pakistan, at the northwest border with Afghanistan, is currently one of the world’s least accessible locations for foreign journalists.  The area, a Taliban stronghold where the powerful Haqqani network as well as al Qaeda members are rumored to reside, is home to the most intense air strike campaign currently waged by the United States. It is a campaign fought not with humans flying planes, but with unmanned aerial vehicles, more commonly known as drones.  With so much action, it has frustratingly little on-the-ground reporting.

MCKELVEY It’s our job as journalists to cover the war, but in this particular instance, we can’t.

BISGAARD-CHURCH That was Tara McKelvey, a journalist and author who covers security issues, explaining the difficulty of reporting on drone warfare.  The U.S. military currently carries out drone strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, while the CIA wages covert, publicly unrecognized attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.  Due to the CIA’s secrecy, there are constant questions and a lack of information surrounding the controversy of drone strikes.  Some groups have tried to quantify the attacks, though.  The New America Foundation — a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute — estimates that 20% of the casualties caused by drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 were non-militants.  This statistic has been disputed, however — the overall void in information makes a full analysis of the situation all the harder.

Journalist Irfan Husain – who reports for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest daily newspaper – explains why:

Well it’s a big issue because journalists, Americans and Pakistanis, aren’t allowed into the tribal areas where the strikes are taking place. So a lot of information is secondhand. But there are some people who have conducted studies in the area […] The findings are quite conflicting.

McKelvey says reporters get much of their information from the White House.

MCKELVEY And they’re very discriminating in what information they provide. They tend to be very stingy about information when things go wrong, and they tend to be very generous about information when things go right.  So you saw with the Osama bin Laden raid, TONS of information came out. The many strikes that took place before that, whether drone strikes or targeted warfare types of acts, don’t get reported and Administration officials don’t talk about them.

BISGAARD-CHURCH The New America Foundation’s findings are based on statistics compiled from past media reports.  To make the situation more complex, many of these reports are written based on reports by Pakistani journalists.  McKelvey explains.

MCKELVEY Waziristan — that’s the place where most of these strikes are taking place and it’s off limits to journalists and if you’re a Western journalist, there’s no way to get in.  If you’re a Pakistani journalist, there’s different avenues that you can use.  Sometimes they’ll have people who live in Waziristan, they’ll talk to them on the phone.  Sometimes Pakistani journalists will go in.But it’s really dangerous. Some of them even get killed.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Though McKelvey feels good about the information received from the Pakistani media, others have questioned the validity of their statistics.  One dissenter is Farhat Taj — a PhD Research Fellow at the University of Oslow and author of the book “Taliban and Anti-Taliban” to be released next month. Taj goes so far as to challenge all the statistics on the issue, both American and Pakistani, including the New America Foundation’s report.

TAJ I literally challenge them, you come and you give me the proof. They are making their assumptions based upon unverified relations. They do not have access, direct access to the area, they have no possibility of talking to the people

BISGAARD-CHURCH Taj explains that after an attack, the militants block the site from even the local villagers, remove the dead bodies or body parts, and then issue a statement that they were all civilians. She continues:

TAJ I am afraid actually that we will never know how many died. And what we know, all of us who have been in contact with the people from the area and somehow have takenor have access to them and have taken them in confidence, they would know that civilian casualties are very small.

BISGAARD-CHURCH In September 2010, The New America Foundation released a public opinion study saying that 75% of all people in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan — made of 7 tribal agencies in the northwest — oppose the U.S. drone strikes.  Taj also disagrees with these findings.

Taj is a Pakistani from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border herself, which has given her access to the locals.  She has managed to conduct in-depth interviews with the people of Waziristan and has published numerous papers on the topic.

Taj spoke with hundreds of people in Waziristan, finding a prevalent sentiment opposite of what the New America Foundation and many in the U.S. are saying of these tribal areas. It is important to note that Taj interviewed only people of Waziristan — a part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas but the region with the highest number of drone strikes due to the highest concentration of militants residing there — which may explain some of the differences in her research when compared to the New America Foundation’s report.

Husain agrees that proximity matters.

HUSAIN The point to remember is the further away people are from the area where the drone attacks are entering, the more upset the get. So Pakistanis living in the cities, they get very worked up about what they see as a breach to their sovereignty, but people who are living there are quite relieved to see these predators being tackled by somebody, so there’s quite a widespread opinion about the drone attacks.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Taj says the people of Waziristan feel abandoned by the Pakistani army and oppressed and overwhelmed by the militants.

TAJ They welcomed the attacks because they are precisely killing those people that killed people in the tribal area and they just do not have anyone to help them get rid of the militants. I heard people saying this is an “airborne justice delivery system.”

BISGAARD-CHURCH Taj adds that the people of Waziristan compare the drone attacks to the military operations carried out by the Pakistani army, and have concluded that the drones are more effective.  They argue the Pakistani army avoids targeting the areas known to hold the Taliban and al Qaeda, and that their operations create many more civilian deaths than the drone operations.  She says the people are frightened of these attacks and run for shelter when they see the army’s planes, but when they hear noise from the U.S. drones flying overhead, they act normally and discuss who will be killed next.

Research conducted by Taj directly opposes the idea that many in the U.S. are saying: that by using drones, the U.S. only causes more anger towards itself, either as people believe the U.S. to be compromising Pakistan’s sovereignty, or as civilians are killed as collateral damage.

Taj also says that the majority of the people in Waziristan she met would prefer to see the Pakistani army aid more in the U.S.-led strikes, but repeated that the people do not believe them capable of doing so.  She explains that the oppression by the militants, with no other allies, then, inspires support for the drones.

Taj shared some anecdotes to express just how supportive the tribal people are.  In one, she told how the people have likened the drones to saviors.

TAJ And another term used:  “Ababeel” is a term from the Koran and the story is that before Islam many centuries ago there was a king who wanted to attack Qabba, the holiest place in Mecca, and God sent some small birds with small stones in their mouths and the birds dropped the small stones over the army and the entire army was eliminated, so they say the drones are “ababeels.”

BISGAARD-CHURCH Taj is adamant that the Pakistani media’s reporting of the casualties from the drone attacks is all propaganda, meant to incite people against U.S. involvement.

Her research indicates there are less civilian casualties than the media reports; the New American Foundation contends there are more than we think; and a recent article in the Guardian, in which a native of Waziristan has entered and photographed many of the sites immediately after a strike, argues the same.  How can we know the truth?
Because the CIA will not recognize the attacks in Pakistan and the region is so inaccessible for reporting, controversy may continue over the statistics.  McKelvey points to one issue resulting from the muddled information:

MCKELVEY In order to determine whether these strikes are legal or legitimate, you need to know how many civilians are killed and what is the accuracy of the strikes and the people who are killed, are they indeed militants.  Are they indeed a threat to the United States?  And all that information has remained secret.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Amos Guiora, a Law professor at the University of Utah — who specializes in Criminal Procedure, International Law, and Counterterrorism — echos McKelvey’s concerns.  Guiora, who was also involved in the targeted killing policy in Israel in the 1990s, speaks to great lengths of the issues of legality and legitimacy in forming both the military and the CIA’s drone strike strategies.  He insists on what he calls a “criteria-based decision-making process,” believing that the military and CIA need to answer several questions in formulating an operational plan:

GUIORA You also always have to ask yourself four important international law questions, you have to ask yourself whether the threat posed by the individual is so sufficient and so significant that it justifies the drone policy in the first place. You have to look at proportionality. You have to ask yourself from a military perspective if it’s necessary to do this.  You have to look at the collateral damage.  And you absolutely must ask yourself if there are alternatives to neutralizing — is he attainable/can he be arrested? […] In order to define the person as so it has to be determined he […] poses a threat, not down the road but a present threat […] and, then you have to do the second part of the analysis: when is he a legitimate target?

BISGAARD-CHURCH Guiora adds that many targets today were threats in the past, but it is necessary to check that they remain as such.  He speaks further to the weighing of advantages and disadvantages that the military and the CIA must use when planning a strike.

Let’s say, for instance, that you have information that someone is going to go blow himself up in a pizza parlor and the only way to prevent him from doing so is to kill him. Then I would say that killing him is lawful in the context of self defense and it’s a clear benefit. Maybe that down the road, arguably/hypothetically, let’s say his cousin will have been so outraged by the attack that he carries out a subsequent suicide bombing. I would say that killing the initial person was absolutely justified and with an absolute benefit with the understanding that there will always be costs. On the other hand let’s say the person targeted was planning an attack but not a suicide bombing — something not as significant, not as potent, not as tragedy-filled — then I would suggest that killing that person in the cost benefit analysis would be more of a cost than a benefit.

BISGAARD-CHURCH Guiora continued saying that the issue is of course grey, and that drone strike policymakers must accept that there may always be potential consequences of a targeted killing.  He offers an important reminder as to why the attacks must continually be as foolproof as possible:

GUIORA You can never forget for a moment that an attack that kills innocent people does two things.  First of all it’s a tragedy. In addition to that — and it’s been documented in a number of different places — the killing of innocent people does nothing more and nothing less to present extraordinary opportunities for terrorists to fuel the flames in terms of justify their counterattack against those that attacked them, and that’s why collateral damage is not only just tragedy but also potentially has huge ramifications.

This concept of collateral damage is already showing ramifications.  Reprieve, a British legal advocacy group with global branches, is seeking an arrest warrant for former CIA lawyer John Rizzo, who authorized the CIA’s hit lists.  The drone debate will certainly continue.

For War News Radio, with additional reporting from Stuart Russell, I’m Elliana Bisgaard-Church.