Drone strikes: the human cost

The efficacy of American drone strikes in Yemen has been well-explored in recent weeks. With those on both sides of the argument offering their own comprehensive analyses, I’d recommend a look at Frank Cilluffo and Clinton Watts’ report, “Yemen & Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula: Exploiting a Window of Counterterrorism Opportunity“, as well as Gregory Johnsen’s excellent response over at Waq al-Waq.

Whilst the strike programme was initiated during President Bush’s time in office, it has found real favour under the Obama administration. As Leonie Northedge points out, it is often justified by the ‘success’ of similar tactics in Pakistan. There, the CIA runs a secret programme to assassinate al-Qaida and Taliban members seeking refuge in the remote Waziristan province. According to the New America Foundation, at least 118 attacks took place there in 2010, a figure almost four times higher than that for 2008.

And yet claims of success in the Pakistani context mask a bloody reality that few policymakers acknowledge. The Guardian ran an excellent piece this week on the human cost of Waziristan’s drone strikes. Following the experiences of Noor Behram, a photographer who documents the civilian casualties, it makes for sobering reading:

“Noor Behram says his painstaking work has uncovered an important – and unreported – truth about the US drone campaign in Pakistan’s tribal region: that far more civilians are being injured or dying than the Americans and Pakistanis admit […] For every 10 to 15 people killed, maybe they get one militant,” he said. “I don’t go to count how many Taliban are killed. I go to count how many children, women, innocent people, are killed.”

Behram’s testimony is complemented by a growing body of anecdotal evidence suggesting the human cost of drone strikes far exceeds current estimates. In Yemen too, the impact on civilians has not gone unoticed. Reports of targeted attacks are regularly followed by the stories of those who become collateral damage.

As Will Picard points out, the efficacy of drone strikes was not up for debate – publicly, at least – in Tuesday’s Senate hearing on US policy in Yemen. Those testifying were drawn from the State Department or Washington-based think tanks. Military and intelligence officials were notably absent. Of course, there are undoubtedly a number of reasons for this, not least the desire to maintain operational secrecy. However, as Picard argues, the hearing effectively put US diplomacy and aid on trial at the expense of scrutiny over the drone programme:

At a time when the Congress is looking for programs to cut, and politicians are looking to score points ahead of elections, this discrepancy is particularly noteworthy. The Obama administration loves drones and special ops (as does much of the public), and Congress is much more willing to fund military projects than diplomatic ones. A hearing like this one, in which senators challenged witnesses to prove the effectiveness of “soft” assistance to Yemen, could certainly aid in explaining the prioritization of the kinetic approach to America’s problems in Yemen, while still maintaining the fiction that this country cares about the plight of the Yemeni people.

Whilst diplomatic efforts suggest concern for the Yemeni people, the military approach suggests quite the opposite. This cognitive dissonance deserves far more scrutiny than it is currently attracting. In the battle for hearts and minds, this is not a choice, but a necessity.



  1. Although interestingly Cilluffo and Watts don’t seem to be bothered about the hearts and minds:

    “The 2000 U.S.S. Cole bombing, the recruitment of John Walker Lindh, the droves of AQ foreign fighters of Yemeni descent, and countless other historical indicators demonstrate more than a decade of Yemeni-based extremism against the U.S. Prior to the airstrikes noted by Johnsen, AQAP situated in Yemen in part because of its natural base of Yemeni popular support. Yemeni “hearts and minds” were not lost in recent American airstrikes and will not be immediately lost if limited drone operations hunt key AQAP leaders. Yemeni popular support for the U.S. was lost long ago.”

    I think this is another fundamental misreading of the Yemeni context.

  2. Pingback: Debating drone strikes in Yemen « wordstothateffect

  3. patlockley

    Recommenting (is that a word) – I wonder if drones are shaping up politically to be akin to land mines? I feel there is a contentious element around the usage of them (morally, and like say dum dum rounds) that remains ambivalent in treaties.

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