The killings of civilians in the US drone attacks, is an important and politically charged issue in Pakistan as well as in the rest of the world. However, United States covert program legality has never been questioned by International Court of Law or by any US Court. It is rarely discussed by the US Congress. Drones are involved in targeted assassination of militants but they are also killing innocent people. The killing of civilians was never acknowledged by Government of the United States until recently White House Counter Terrorism adviser John Brennan publicly stated that the US conducts drone strikes targeted on al-Qaida and for the first time he admitted that US drones have killed civilians. “Sometimes you have to take life to save lives,” Brennan said, adding, “It is exceedingly rare, but it has happened”.
Before going into further details let’s explain what the Drone attacks are and where are they taking place? Drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). It is an aircraft without a human pilot on-board.
The United States is the first country to have regularly conducted strikes using remotely piloted aircraft in an armed conflict. From 2004 till April 29th 2012, there are 296 reported drone attacks conducted in Federal Administered Tribes Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. Approximately between 1,785 and 2,771 individuals were killed, out of whom around 1,492 to 2,300 were described as militants in authentic media resources.
Different organizations have their own version of reports on the number of militants versus civilian casualties’. The reports always differ with each other. The Pakistani military has stated that most of those killed were hardcore al-Qaida and Taliban militants. The CIA claims that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities. However Daniel L. Byman from the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 percent of those killed in the attacks were militants. On these claims experts are disputed. However, not a single drone strike had targeted Osama bin Laden before he was killed by the US Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011. Meanwhile, al Qaida’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has not been targeted by any drone since 2006.
In late 1990s the US Drone program started with the aim of unmanned and unarmed aircraft was to spied and tracked al-Qaida leadership in Afghanistan. However, after 9/11 US Drone program aimed to kill leaders of Al Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, later in Yemen and Somalia. From 2004 to 2009 the US President George Bush authorized 44 strikes in FATA. The program was accelerated by nearly four times by President Barack Obama. It is worth mentioning here that the drones are launched from the air bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan but are controlled by pilots in the United States
The past year has seen decline in the number of drone strikes in Pakistan. In the first three months of 2012, there were 11 drone attacks as compared to 21 in the corresponding period in 2011 and a record 28 attacks in the first quarter of 2010.
The fall of drone strikes in year 2011 was due series of events. First American citizen Raymond Davis killed two Pakistani citizens. The US claimed the diplomatic immunity as Davis’ was employed at the US Consulate in Lahore while Pakistanis did not believe that he was employee of the US Consulate so he landed in jail, charged with a double murder and illegal weapons possession. As a result of the complex negotiations to get Davis out of Pakistani jail, there was no drone strike during Davis’s imprisonment. There were just 3 drone strikes in February and another 9 strikes in March while the US officials worked to settle the issue and finally send Davis back home. The day after Davis was finally released, a strike on March 17, 2011, reportedly killed 36 as well as a top Taliban Commander. People came on streets to protest and government of Pakistan condemned the attack as a result the US suspended drone strikes for a month, before resuming them again on April 13.
On May 2, 2011, Osama was captured and killed by the US Navy SEALs in Abbottabad, a garrison city where young army officers get their training in Pakistan Military Academy (PMA). Pakistani Military was concerned about the violation of its sovereignty and relations between the US and Pakistan further sank. Aware of how unacceptable drone strikes were becoming in Pakistan, the US Defense and State Department were pushing for more selective drones strikes which was opposed by CIA.
The White House implemented new rules in November 2011 on Drone Program and the State Department was given a larger say in the decision-making process. Pakistani leaders were promised advanced notification of some strikes and the CIA pledged to refrain from conducting strikes during the visits by Pakistani officials to the United States.
As already the US Pakistan relations were going through a tough time and efforts were underway to build trust between two, when Salala incident occurred resulted in a further deterioration of relations. The US-led NATO Forces engaged Pakistani security forces at two Pakistani military check posts in Mohmand Agency along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border on November 26, 2011 killing up to 24 Pakistani soldiers. The Pakistani public reacted with protests all over the country and the government took measures adversely affecting the US exit strategy from Afghanistan including the evacuation of Shamsi Airfield and closure of the NATO supply line. The incident prompted an approximately two-month stop to the drone strikes, which resumed on January 10, 2012.
Recently the US has firmly defended the country’s drone program and called it as legal and ethical, marking the administration’s most open description of the program yet. It is for the first time a formal acknowledgement was given on what’s been an open secret up till now. These justifications are unlikely to placate critics in and outside Pakistan, who condemn the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and the killings of its civilians. It is obvious as the years have passed the drone strikes have become more precise and discriminating but still there are civilian causalities and even infrastructure damage. Can these victims go to any Pakistani court or in the US court for justice? How drone program becomes legal and ethical?
The drone issue is complicated by the fact that some elements of the Pakistani government, including the military, have helped the US carry out strikes in the past. That cooperation has come under strain as the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated, but many analysts believe that some people in the government still support the program at some level. They are very unpopular in Pakistan, so opposing them makes sense for political reasons. Opposition to the drone strikes is one of the rare issues that unite a country, which is facing divisions of geography, class, culture and tribal affiliations. On April 16, the Pakistani Parliament called on the United States to halt all drone strikes. In reality, the resolution was toothless, because of the imbalance in the perceived partnership between the United States and Pakistan. The White House under Obama, Bush or any other American President is not ready to accept a foreign government’s constraints on what it regards as its national interest.
The drone program was so secretive that until last January it was not officially acknowledged to exist; President Obama changed that in an appearance in which he insisted that drone attacks “have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” Such assurances regarding the civilian casualties, even when they come from the president, aren’t enough. America’s covert program legality has never been questioned by a US Court and is seldom discussed by Congress, which has ceded extraordinary authority over the drone program to the president and the Other countries have developed drone technology, and if they follow the US example, they could start targeting their enemies across any border they like, including America. Before it cause chaos, the US Courts and the should explore the legal issues involved in targeted assassination and set rules that take into account advances in technology.