Down with Drone War Silence

The world recently celebrated Malala Day in honor of the young Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, an innocent victim of political violence perpetrated by the Taliban. She is rightfully honored as a hero for her willingness to speak up for her right to an education and against religious extremism.

However, while her bravery deserved the attention it received, it lies in stark contrast to the many other innocent victims of political violence in Pakistan. Indeed, the Drone War continues with hardly a mention in the U.S. media. It is not hard to imagine that if Malala lived in a different village, she could just as well have been killed by a Predator drone as by the Taliban—and we’d know nothing about her courage.

President Bush started the policy in 2004, and President Obama has taken it to a new level, with drone strikes virtually comprising his entire policy towards Pakistan. Some reports estimate that a drone strike has occurred every four days during Obama’s presidency. There was little mention of the policy during the presidential campaign, as both Obama and Mitt Romney agreed with the approach. However, given the rising intensity of anti-Americanism in Pakistan—and Pakistan’s considerable geopolitical importance—it is crucial to evaluate the Drone War without relying on standard U.S. talking points on Pakistan.  

It is true that religious extremism is an issue in Pakistan. Malala was clearly a victim of this problem. However, the situation on the ground is much more complicated than the press usually reports. The vast majority of Pakistanis oppose religious extremism, and there is substantial support for democracy. Famous cricket-player-turned-politician Imran Khan has captivated the country’s youth behind his push for political liberalism, not dissimilar from Obama during his initial presidential campaign. Despite these findings, Pakistan was the only foreign country in a recent BBC poll that preferred Romney over Obama. This is almost certainly not due to a love of religious minorities, offshore bank accounts, or rich white men. It is because of the Drone War.

The policy is widely unpopular worldwide as well; a recent poll found that majorities in 17 of 20 countries disapproved of the Drone War (the exceptions, unsurprisingly, being the United States, Britain, and India).

The Untold Story

There are at least three major points that the press commonly neglects when analyzing the drone war. The first is legality. Under the UN Charter, states cannot use force against another state or non-state actors abroad unless they act in self-defense or obtain that government’s consent. The Pakistani government has not sanctioned the drone strikes publicly, while the United States claims self-defense against Taliban and al-Qaeda militants. The latter point raises a question: if valid, are there any borders the Drone War couldn’t cross?

Additionally, international law requires that in armed conflict, civilians cannot be targeted, and incidental civilian harm must be proportional to the expected military gains. Of course, the strikes have frequently targeted non-combatants, including aid workers and mourners at funerals. Deliberately targeting non-combatants—and especially emergency workers—is a blatant war crime. Also, from what little we know, the strikes have killed mostly low-level militants. Is the large number of civilian casualties proportional to the gains of killing foot soldiers? These are serious legal concerns, yet press reports frequently mention little besides the number of “militants” killed.

Second, there are clear concerns about sovereignty, a particular source of consternation in Pakistan. On the face of it, the United States is invading Pakistani airspace and carrying out military operations within its borders. It is true that the Pakistani government has secretly shared intelligence with the United States for the strikes in the past while denouncing them publicly to save face. A Wikileaks cable revealed both military and government support for the strikes. But the press must demand answers about this arrangement, particularly if the Pakistani government is using the strikes to target its own domestic enemies.

Third, and most important, is the question of effectiveness. If the press does nothing else, it should analyze whether the Drone War is having the positive effect the Obama administration claims it does. According to the administration, almost no civilians have been harmed in the strikes, a claim that flies in the face of all other sources. This claim derives from the Obama administration’s perverse methodology, in which all “military-age males” in a strike zone are counted as combatants unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. More troubling still, there is little evidence that the administration even investigates the background of the people it targets and instead has attempted to discredit journalists and researchers trying to uncover the actual civilian suffering caused by the Drone War.

Although data on civilian casualties is contentious, what is clear is that civilians are being killed in the Drone War at a considerable rate, and that the administration’s estimates of civilians killed in the “single digits” are preposterous. The UN recently announced that it would investigate the Drone War next year in response to numerous civilian casualty reports.

In the short run, drone strikes will almost certainly curb militant violence. But the real question is whether this policy is helpful in the long run. The Washington Post has reported, for example, that outrage over civilian deaths has proven a potent recruiting tool for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This blowback effect demands much closer attention from other outlets.

Two damning reports were released this fall and garnered some U.S. media coverage, but nowhere near the attention they received abroad. The first, from researchers at the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University’s Law School, found that current practices make it nearly impossible to investigate injuries or fatalities from drone strikes. Additionally, signature strikes—those targeting unidentified individuals based on “suspicious behavior” as identified by American intelligence—don’t account for local context, power dynamics, or cultural practices. This could lead drone operators to wrongly interpret routine behavior as strike-worthy, resulting in civilian casualties.  The report also notes that the American public, Pakistani civilians, and sometimes even policymakers, are left in the dark about the rules and mechanisms used to protect civilians in the Drone War, as well as any investigations of civilian suffering. In reexamining the strikes in 2011 alone, they found between 72 and 155 civilian deaths from strikes, 2,300 percent more than previously calculated by the New America Foundation and 140 percent more than the Long War Journal.

The second report, from scholars at Stanford University and New York University, raises questions regarding the definition of a “militant” and the increase in signature strikes during the Obama administration – particularly the lack of accountability and transparency in the decision-making process. It brings to light the terror that civilians live with every day in northwest Pakistan. Children have been pulled from school because their parents fear missile strikes. Adults avoid weddings, funerals, business meetings, or any public gatherings for fear of those being mistaken for terrorist gatherings. Civilians who initially survive strikes have to wait long periods of time for aid workers to help them, because those workers are terrified of “double-tap” strikes in which a second strike is launched as workers try to drag bodies away from the rubble. People are suffering from severe stress and mental illnesses.

Pakistan’s domestic politics increasingly reflect widespread opposition to the Drone War[es1] . Imran Khan has risen in popularity partly due to his strong opposition to the campaign. Khan led a march of thousands last month in protest of the strikes and was recently detained and harassed by American immigration officials, seemingly in an effort to intimidate him. Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar noted that the Drone War is a key driver of anti-American sentiment in Pakistan. Concomitantly, militant groups also benefit from Pakistani anger at the Drone War.

Even the optimistic New America Foundation found that only 2 percent of those killed in drone strikes were high-level militants. Is this kind of impact worth killing civilians and sowing anti-American sentiment? Considering the lack of informative debate on the subject, it is not hard to see why 83 percent of Americans support the Drone War. There simply isn’t adequate analysis of the issue. We need questions about how many civilians have actually been killed or injured, increased coverage on the conditions in which people in the affected areas live, good data on the number of militants killed, and investigations of whether the Drone War is driving more Pakistanis away from America despite sympathetic views on economics, democracy, and religious extremism.

The Drone War has certainly killed many militants and spared American lives, but it may be causing more harm than good. Until the media ends its self-imposed blackout on the subject, the American people will never get to weigh the costs and benefits themselves.


This brings us back to Malala. While her story deserves every bit of media coverage it has received, devoting that much time to her and almost none to the thousands of innocent victims of violence in the Drone War seems to violate the very nature of her activism. Malala is, above all else, an advocate for education, and many Pakistani children are no longer able to go to school due to fears of missile strikes. She fights religious extremists with her voice, not drones. What would her parents have done if such a brave and remarkable young girl was taken away from them in a drone strike, like hundreds of other children? Might they turn against America, possibly aligning themselves with militant groups to gain revenge of some sort?

Why haven’t we heard anything about Mohammad Rehman Khan’s father, three brothers, and nephew, or Warshameen Jaan Hajj’s wife, or Haji Abdul Jabar’s son, all of whom were killed in drone attacks? These families—left to pick up the pieces of their broken lives—harbor great anger at President Obama. A hole in the ground, stained in blood, where a family once lived peacefully—is this to be the calling card of America’s counterterrorism campaign in Pakistan?

If the Drone War is indeed causing more harm than good, the results could be disastrous for America and Pakistan alike. It would make all the goodwill and praise for Malala ring quite hollow. Though I expect she’ll have something to say about it.

Author: Fouad Pervez

Fouad Pervez is a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, where he writes on U.S. foreign policy and security issues in South Asia. He is currently pursuing his PhD in International Relations. He is a writer and policy analyst, and occasionally blogs on There is No Spoon. He can be reached at fouad0 at gmail dot com.