Study: ‘Counterproductive’ Drone War ‘Terrorizes’ Civilians in Pakistan

The drone war has given rise to "anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities"

new report by researchers at the Stanford and NYU schools of law has found that the drone program is “terrorizing” the people of Pakistan and that it is having “counterproductive” effects.

The report’s conclusions are based on nine months of intensive research – including two on-site investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims and their relatives, eye-witness and expert accounts, and a deep review of media reporting.

The US drone war in Pakistan not only kills and injures civilians, the report finds, but it traumatizes the population and has led people to keep their children home from school and to avoid any large grouping of people, however innocent. It also says the drone war has helped recruitment efforts of extremist groups like al-Qaeda.

The report also finds that there is strong evidence that drone strikes have targeted rescuers running towards bombed sites in follow-up attacks, something Christof Heyns, UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has said would constitute war crimes.

“Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning,” the study reports. “Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior.”

“The strikes have certainly killed alleged combatants and disrupted armed actor networks. However, serious concerns about the efficacy and counter-productive nature of drone strikes have been raised. The number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low—estimated at just 2%,” says the report.

The report cites investigations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as the most comprehensive aggregate data on the drones. Their numbers conclude that drones in Pakistan have killed 2,562-3,325 people, of whom 474-881 were civilians, including 176 children.

“Evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks. As the New York Times has reported, ‘drones have replaced Guantánamo as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.’ Drone strikes have also soured many Pakistanis on cooperation with the US and undermined US-Pakistani rel­ations. One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.”

The BBC offers this bullet-point summary of the main findings in the report:

  • children are being taken out of school out of fear of a drone-strike or to compensate for income lost from a dead or wounded relative
  • there is “significant evidence” of the practice of “double-tap” strikes in which rescuers arriving at the scene are targeted in follow-up attacks
  • drones flying overhead have led to “substantial levels of fear and stress… in the civilian communities”
  • as well as injury or death, the attacks cause property damage, severe economic hardship and emotional trauma for the injured and their families
  • people are afraid to attend gatherings such as funerals for fear of attack

The report warns that there are serious legal issues with the Obama administration’s execution of the drone war, and urges more transparency and reform.

“A significant rethinking of current US targeted killing and drone strike policies is long overdue. US policy-makers, and the American public, cannot continue to ignore evidence of the civilian harm and counter-productive impacts of US targeted killings and drone strikes in Pakistan,” the report said.

Author: John Glaser

John Glaser writes for