New Internationalist

What exactly are drone strikes trying to achieve?

US drones [Related Image]
Soldiers launching unmanned drones are far removed from the horror they cause when they reach their destination. Official US Navy Imagery under a Creative Commons Licence

Collateral damage. Drone strikes. Civilian casualties. These are mere words, lifeless words. They do not, to the average person, conjure images of the horror of what those cold blooded words mean to the families involved. The parents, grandparents, children, who collect the mutilated, lifeless bodies, mostly bits of bodies, of their loved ones when the drones have been and gone. Yes, collateral damage means different things to different people. To the generals who order the strikes, they are surgically targeting terrorists. But for the children who see their father or mother collaterally ‘damaged’, it’s the end of their world as they know it.

Amnesty International have published a report on Pakistan entitled ‘ “Will I Be Next?” US drone strikes in Pakistan’. It is a powerful document putting a human face to the nameless, faceless victim. Amnesty has made a Pakistani woman, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi, wife of a retired school principal, the iconic face of the drone dead. Mamana Bibi was killed while picking bhendi (okra) from her garden for the family’s next meal. Her young granddaughters were a few feet away when she was blown up by a drone.  ‘I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body.’ Bibi’s eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela described what she saw: ‘The body had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and was in pieces. We collected many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.’

Amnesty conducted 60 interviews with families in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, considered a hotbed of militant activity and therefore heavily targeted to destroy terrorists.

The report doesn’t tell us anything new. But it contains sensitively collated stories of real people and what the dreaded drone means to the population cursed with its presence on a daily basis. It raises the moral question at a critically important moment as Nawaz Sharif meets Obama, giving US peace activists a new weapon to fight with. We can feel a sense of injustice, reading about the villagers who take sleeping pills and anti-depressants because they are so terrorized and afraid they could be next. This might be their last night.

It also questions the strategic wisdom of the US making itself the hated enemy. ‘The tragedy is that drone aircraft deployed by the US over Pakistan now instils the same kind of fear in the people of the tribal areas once associated only with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.’ Says Mustafa Qadri, author of the report.

‘There have been politicians like Imran Khan who said “If ever I became prime minister, my first act will be to ask the Pakistan air force to shoot down the drones”’, remarks Akbar Ahmed, Pakistan’s former high commissioner to Britain. ‘Just that act would have enormous implications for international relations. So feelings in Pakistan are very, very high around this subject of the drones. It’s become very symbolic now, something poisonous in the relationship between the US and Pakistan.’ And Pakistan is supposed to be an ally of the US.

Calling for drone strikes on civilians to be treated as war crimes is a gutsy move. The report does not merely target the US. It calls for action against all who collaborate or abet in the war crimes.

The report has been covered by The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Guardian, so it cannot be wished away.

A new generation of television addicts fed on brilliantly crafted serials like Covert Action and Homeland tend to be psychologically brainwashed. In spite of everything, the CIA agent remains the good girl, or guy, as the case may be. But villagers in remote, bombed out Waziristan or Afghanistan don’t buy this message. They see their innocent relatives destroyed mercilessly in the war against terror. So drones are strategically a stupid weapon.

We need a new strategy to fight against terror. We should have learnt from Vietnam that mighty weapons won’t win a war.    

*Secret US documents leaked on 24 October revealed that senior Pakistani government officials have known of and endorsed CIA drone strikes for years.

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  1. #1 Umakant 25 Oct 13

    Dear Mari
    Thanks a lot for your insightful commentary on the crimes that are being committed in the name of fight against terror in which civilian casualties have become a matter of great concern. This is also to bring to your kind information that two United Nations human rights experts have expressed concern about the potential illegal use of armed drones. In two separate reports to the UN General Assembly, the experts called upon States to be transparent in their use of drones as weapons, to investigate allegations of violations of the right to life through drone killings, and to respect all applicable international law standards.

    The UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, focuses his report on the use of armed drones in counter-terrorism operations and its civilian impact. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns, analyses in his report the use of lethal force through armed drones from the perspective of the right to life and international norms in this regard.

    Please click on the link given below to read the media release and the report

    With Regards and In Solidarity
    Umakant, Ph.D
    New Delhi

  2. #2 Aloke Surin 25 Oct 13

    It is indeed very sad that the innocent have always to suffer for the sins of terrorists, wherever they are and whatever cause they represent. It is also an incredible shame on the international community to stand by passively while the government of the USA continues to exercise all kinds of military options as it has been doing for the last 60 years or so. Korea,Vietnam,Central America,Iraq,Afghanistan and now Pakistan. Is the world today really safer because the USA has opted to act as the universal policeman?

  3. #3 bhglennie 27 Oct 13

    A drone aircraft is a remote-controlled Aircraft.
    Aircraft can not enter a countries air space without permission from that country, by International Law.
    To enter a countries airspace without permission is an Act of War, according to common International Law.
    To terrorize people by flying remote-controlled aircraft that kill people and destroy property is against International Law.

    A drone Aircraft is a remote-controlled Aircraft.
    The pilot sits at his computer in an air-conditioned office in the U.S. sipping his latte coffee and killing people and destroying property on the other side of the world based on intelligence information from an op sitting at his computer sipping his latte in an air-conditioned office elsewhere in the U.S.
    When their shift is over, they head home to spend some quality time with their kids playing ’ shoot 'em ’ games on their computer.

  4. #4 david cohen 30 Oct 13

    As a long time critic of the US drone policy of killings whose consequences are random and that kills people who have nothing to do with aiding or abetting terrorism, the Amnesty Report provides a necessary rallying cry. I share Mari Marcel Thekaekara's thinking as expressed in her quality blog on this subject.

    Nearly a year ago I stimulated the publication of a major piece on drone policy by the philosopher and democratic activist Michael Walzer. I wanted perspective so that in my country we can engage in effective and informed debate and action to change US policies.

    We need also to be reminded of the importance of language. We use antiseptic phrases like collateral damage when civilians or hospitals and schools are struck by drones. Drones kill just as guns and other weapons do. So lets recognize that people die from what drones do
    and community institutions that serve people are destroyed.

    To add to the importance of having a focused discussion I am providing a link to Michael Walzer's article published earlier in 2013.

    Even so one does not have to be an absolutist in opposition to drones to recognize the dangers in US policy. We drift, intentionally or not, from a focused approach suffused with precision that limits itself to well established terrorist targets and threats to an unfocused harmful killing of innocent people. That is wrong and must end.

    David Cohen
    Washington DC
    October 30, 2013

  5. #5 b_glennie 05 Dec 13

    Drones are remote-controlled aircraft. By calling them 'drones' the press dehumanizes them so people will forget that there is a Pilot firing the guns that kill people and destroy property.
    The pilot sits in an air-conditioned office in the U.S. sipping his latte coffee while using his computer to direct and fire his remote-controlled aircraft He uses intelligence from a guy sitting at his computer in an office near by.
    When his shift is over he goes home to spend quality time with his kids playing ’ Shoot 'em games ’ on their computer

  6. #7 rcbazaar 24 May 16

    Your posting provide an exclusive information, I appreciate this post. Thanks for sharing this

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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