Drone Strikes in Pakistan Kill One Terrorist for Every 50 Deaths

Just weeks before the general election, a new study has drawn into question the “surgical” drone strikes Obama administration officials have touted as “precise and effective” weapons in the war on terror.

Released on Wednesday by researchers at Stanford and New York University law schools, the study recommends the U.S. conduct “a fundamental re-evaluation of current targeted killing practices,” which has led to 49 civilian deaths for every one known terrorist killed. In a region where the U.S. should be trying to win over supporters from al Qaeda and Taliban influence, drones are traumatizing and alienating Pakistanis.  

Despite the Obama administration’s public statements that the strikes have contributed to either “no” or “single digit” civilian casualties, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, drone strikes killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people in Pakistan, including 176 children.

The civilian carnage is just one aspect the report criticizes, citing “considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians.” The study, based upon nine months of intensive research including 130 interviews of victims and witnesses, suggests the “terrorizing” nature of the 24 hours a day presence of drones in northwest Pakistan.  

One interviewee described the constant surveillance of the drones as “a wave of terror,” adding that “children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified. . . . They scream in terror.” Another described the drones as “like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.”

Fear of drone attacks have kept Pakistanis from participating in daily activities like attending school and engaging in commerce, further calling into question the long-term consequences of drone strikes on the stability of the region. Mental health professionals fear that children traumatized by their presence may grow up with long-term ramifications of psychological trauma that may place the U.S. at future national security risk. One Pakistani mental health professional shared, “The biggest concern I have as a [mental health professional] is that when the children grow up, the kinds of images they will have with them, it is going to have a lot of consequences ... People who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, desire for revenge ..."

If drone strikes had proven effective in protecting U.S. national security interests, perhaps the civilian toll would draw less condemnation, but the New America Foundation recently reported that the number of “high level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is only 2%.

As President Obama prepares for the upcoming presidential debates and foreign policy questions to arise, his coveted drone policy will likely face the chopping block. The New York Times and Associated Press have both reported that President Obama acts as “the final decision maker” in drone strikes targeting individuals, placing the burden for answers squarely on the Commander-in-Chief.

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For complete text of the Stanford/NYU report titled “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” and multimedia about life in drone-affected Pakistan visit: http://livingunderdrones.org/

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Danielle Gram

Danielle is a graduate of Harvard College where she earned an AB in Religion and Sociology. After graduating in 2011, she traveled in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East as a Sheldon Fellow, exploring issues arising from conflict and crisis. Danielle is the cofounder of the international nonprofit, Kids for Peace (www.kidsforpeaceglobal.org). Her main PolicyMic interests include foreign affairs, domestic politics, and geopolitical strategy.

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