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According to some of the best available data, the United States has, since 2004, killed anywhere between 2,500 and 3,300 people in Pakistan using drone strikes. Of those killed, around 500 to 900 are suspected of having been civilians, including 176 children.
And now, a just-released report compiled by Stanford and NYU students reveals how our country’s drone campaign, which has been expanded fivefold under Obama, is responsible for mass-suffering and civilian death in the northwest region of Pakistan.
The evidence offered in this new report, along with what we knew before, makes it clear that the US needs to significantly reform its use of drones in the region, if not completely abolish it.
The report exposes that, far from being the “surgically precise and effective tool[s]” most Americans believe them to be, drones are actually incredibly violent and messy. It points out that, “while civilian casualties are rarely acknowledged by the US government, there is significant evidence that US drone strikes have injured and killed civilians.”
The United States, in its Pakistani drone campaign (along with parallel campaigns elsewhere) has targeted a range of public establishments, from village squares to schools, in the pursuit of eliminating accused terrorists. This wide scope of targeted structures has, understandably, created a sense of fear and helplessness within the communities living under drones. As one villager interviewed in the report explains, “Everyone is scared all the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We’re always scared.”
The terror experienced by these Pakistani citizens, a terror documented through the many interviews and polls within the report, is far from surprising. All one must do to understand it, in fact, is look at just who and what our government has attacked using drone missiles in the past.
Time and again, the US has claimed to have successfully eliminated multiple military targets in a strike, only to have it later revealed that there were heavy civilian casualties and few, if any, real militant deaths. Three such instances of this pattern are documented in detail by the Stanford-NYU report, and they serve to show just how unreliable the “official” accounts of drone attacks can be, while also highlighting the attacks’ innately devastating nature.
Add to this the fact that the Obama administration now officially records any military-age males killed in drone strikes as “militants”, and it’s not hard to see why these Pakistanis are so afraid for their lives.
The Obama administration has also approved the use of “signature strikes”, drone attacks that target individuals whose identities are unknown yet who seem to exhibit behavior in line with that of an active militant. The broad power this grants our government—to kill people we haven’t even identified living thousands of miles away—is frightening in its own right. Couple that power, though, with our track record for mistakenly killing civilians in the place of actual militants, and the terror felt by each person forced to live under our drones is made even more tangible.
Apart from engaging in signature strikes, the US has also seems to be willing to attack both the rescuers and mourners of drone victims. This practice is, on its face, morally grotesque, as it literally means we are targeting people who seek only to save others' lives or honor their deaths, those first-responders at the strike zone and those family and friends gathered at the funeral. Yet our government continues to commit these “follow-up” strikes in the hopes that they will kill further suspected terrorists, no matter the cost.
Such clearly unjust and destructive drone practices don’t just fill the affected Pakistani populations with terror, either. They also fill them with rage, and in doing so help foster the very anti-American sentiment that our foreign enemies thrive off of. In the report, an affected mental health professional notes “the impact [the drone program] has on personality development,” stating that “people who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, desire for revenge.”
So now, amongst all the collateral deaths and destroyed properties, we find that the policy we have instated to fight terrorism may very well be fueling it.
Consider that for a moment.
Not only does it turn out that our drones terrorize entire Pakistani villages, but they might not even achieve their intended goal of combating terrorism. We simply cannot continue a policy that so indiscriminately and insensitively kills innocent civilians, especially when its efficacy is so called into question.
In fact, because of its bloody record, our drone campaign has now come to embody the very terror it originally sought to vanquish.
Targeting emergency first-responders, or those gathered at funerals, or those attending village meetings, or those who’s identities we don’t know, or even those who are simply in the area and over eighteen—these are not the policies of a nation defending its freedom; these are the policies of a nation terrorizing another’s populace.
America now has the responsibility to either change or end its drone program. That’s it.
If we continue on like this we are embracing the very terrorism we claim to despise, and in doing so are abandoning the very values we claim to defend.
Tyler VanValkenburg ’16, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Canaday Hall.
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