How surgically ‘Precise' are drone strikes?

KARACHI: In Pakistan, 874 people have been killed in the US’ hunt for only 24 terrorists, according to data analysed by human rights group Reprieve, raising troubling questions about the common description of the drone programme as “surgically precise” and carried out with “laser-like focus”. Reprieve’s Jennifer Gibson, who heads the study says, “Drone strikes have been sold to the American public on the claim that they’re ‘precise’. But they are only as precise as the intelligence that feeds them. There is nothing precise about intelligence that results in the deaths of 28 unknown people, including women and children, for every ‘bad guy’ the US goes after.”

The Express Tribune reports that data gathered by Reprieve shows that the CIA killed a whopping 221 people, including 103 children in Pakistan in the hunt for just four men- three of whom are still alive and a fourth, who died from natural causes. These men are reportedly on US President Barack Obama’s secret ‘Kill List’ - a covert US programme that selects individual targets for assassination and requires no public presentation of evidence or judicial oversight.

The report says, from 2004-2013, children suffered disproportionately in Pakistan. 142 children were killed while pursuing 14 high value targets. Only six of these children died in strikes that successfully hit their target. “Said another way, the US had only a 21% accuracy rate in killing their intended target when children were present. On average, almost 9 children lost their lives in attempts to kill each of these 14 men,” the report pointed out.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s former president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, who is widely believed to have authorised the controversial drone programme during his time in office, on Tuesday, 25 November clarified he only gave the green light for ‘one’ US drone strike.

“I only gave permission once after we were short on time and were shown evidence against a prominent militant group,” the former military ruler said in an interview to BBC Urdu.

Despite, claiming that he only gave the green signal once, Musharraf said, nine drone strikes were carried out during his tenure. Musharraf has largely been held responsible for allowing the US drone campaign in the country’s semi-autonomous tribal regions, an accusation he has often denied.

The report by human rights group Reprieve reveals however, that in Yemen and Pakistan, the Obama administration may have killed as many as 1,147 people during attempts to kill 41– accounting for a quarter of all possible drone strike casualties in both countries.

Each was targeted and/or reported killed more than three times on average, before they were actually killed. In one instance, a person was targeted seven times before eventually being killed. Two others were killed six times and one is believed to still be alive today, said the report.

The latest drone strike on Tuesday, 25 November, targeted Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah. It reportedly killed five unidentified people, although Fazlullah narrowly escaped the strike that took place near the Durand Line.

In Pakistan, 24 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times. Missed strikes on these men killed 874 other people, and account for the 35% of all confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistani drone strikes. They also resulted in the deaths of 142 children. Each person was killed an average three times.

There are reports that at least three of these men- Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sirajuddin Haqqani, and Jalaluddin Haqani, are still alive, despite multiple attempts to kill them, and that a fourth - Abu Ubaidah al Masri survived three attempts on his life before eventually dying from natural causes. 

In total, attempts to kill these four individuals have instead killed 213 other people, including 103 children. In targeting Ayman al Zawahiri, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults. Zawahiri is reportedly still alive. “Abu Ubaidah al Masri died three times in US drone strikes, only he never did,” said the report. Instead, 120 people others died in those strikes. Al Masri eventually died of natural causes. 

In the six attempts it took the US to kill Qari Hussain, alleged deputy commander of the TTP, 128 people were killed including 13 children.

Baitullah Mehsud was directly targeted potentially as many as seven times, during the course of which 164 people were killed, including 11 children. His area was targeted at least a further 9 times, resulting in the deaths of 123 additional people. Further, 82 people, including 14 children, were killed over four repeated attempts to kill Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior leader of the Haqqani Network. 

In Yemen, strikes against just 17 targets accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties, while there is also evidence that suggests that at least four of these 17 men are still alive. One individual, Fahd al Quso, was reported killed in both Yemen and Pakistan. In four attempts to kill al Quso, 48 people potentially lost their lives, the group said in its report.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the US has carried out up to 486 drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen combined. “These numbers should be considered conservative estimates: the drone programme is so secretive that the very fact of a strike is never acknowledged,” the report notes.

The Reprieve study, which looked at the intersection between the two phenomena: the Kill List and the covert drone programme in Pakistan and Yemen, aimed to identify “multiple kills,” those who have been reported targeted and/or killed by a US air strike (drone or otherwise) on more than one occasion.  The group acknowledged that obtaining verified ‘numbers’ in the drone ‘debate’ was difficult and near impossible due to the secrecy of the US drone programme and the US Kill List.

“Reporting is often hindered by the remote nature of these locations, which can lead to conflicting accounts,” said the report. However, the study noted that without more transparency from the US, reporting is also the only information from which conclusions could be drawn.

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