The Debate on Drones: Away from the Politics, the Nameless Dead Remain

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U.S. Air Force / HANDOUT / Reuters

Undated handout image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force shows a MQ-1 Predator unmanned aircraft.

The Obama Administration’s use of drones in its war against al-Qaeda and its affiliates has finally garnered real attention in the U.S., dominating front pages of late and appearing on TIME’s cover last week. At Thursday’s confirmation hearing for John Brennan, the counterterrorism chief tapped to head the CIA, drones hovered over proceedings: a recently leaked Justice Department memo revealed the legal arguments used by the Administration to justify targeted drone strikes on those suspected to “present an imminent threat to national security,” including American citizens. Far from simply providing Washington with an improved tool to achieve its policies, drones are transporting the U.S. — and the rest of the world — into unfamiliar territory, clouded by murky moral and legal reasoning.

(PHOTOS: Everyday Drones: Photographs by Gregg Segal)

At the hearing, Brennan recognized there ought to be more transparency in the way Washington uses its drones, admitting even that the U.S. should “acknowledge publicly” when innocent civilians get killed by drone strikes. That’s a degree of accountability yet to be seen so far, despite numerous rights groups cataloging the toll drone attacks have exacted on civilian populations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Still, foreign fatalities won’t really be weighing heavily on the minds of those in the Beltway. For all the uproar and debate this week about drones and the Executive power that wields them, Americans as a whole remain in favor of drone strikes — in a Pew survey last year, the U.S. was the only nation polled where a majority approved of their use. And why not? As a military tactic, it’s hard to dispute (though perhaps more Americans will be skeptical when drone technology fully proliferates into the militaries of other nations). Here’s a bit from TIME’s drones cover story, written by Lev Grossman:

They represent a revolution in the idea of what combat is: with drones the U.S. can exert force not only instantly but undeterred by the risk of incurring American casualties or massive logistical bills, and without the terrestrial baggage of geography; the only relevant geography is that of the global communications grid.

(MORE: The Risks in Waging War by Flying Robot)

But that’s a hard sell to the civilians on the ground who live forever in the shadow of drones buzzing above. In Pakistan, in particular, where the CIA has launched dozens of drone strikes on alleged al-Qaeda militants in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, drones have long been sparking popular anger and unrest, not to mention obliterating from the sky whatever traces of public goodwill there once was for the U.S. The data for civilian fatalities from drone strikes is sketchy, but Grossman enumerates suspected casualty counts:

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a U.K. nonprofit, estimates that since 2004, CIA drone attacks have killed 2,629 to 3,461 people in Pakistan alone, of whom 475 to 891 were civilians. The New America Foundation puts those numbers somewhat lower, from 1,953 to 3,279, of whom 261 to 305 were civilians.

What complicates those hundreds of civilian deaths is the official silence that surrounds them. The U.S. government has so far refused to publicly recognize its culpability in what are clandestine missions away from the Afghan theater of operations, while its Pakistani counterparts, who to an extent allowed and abetted the CIA’s drone program, would rather not own up to their own tacit role in supporting many of the strikes. “Both sides are trapped in their own double-dealing,” writes Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his new book, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. “The Americans cannot discuss drones, because they are a classified CIA operation, while Pakistan pretends it never sanctioned the drones or provided intelligence to the United States, for fear of riling up the militants.”

The awkward geopolitical pas de deux leaves the victims of drone strikes and their families in the dark. Some rights groups and activists have already started collecting testimony from villagers in places like North and South Waziristan. The aforementioned London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism announced Thursday a project to determine the names of as many of the reported fatalities of drone strikes in Pakistan as possible. The endeavor will be a difficult one, not least because it will require prying information out of U.S. and Pakistani officials. “In the face of official secrecy, having the full facts about who is killed is essential for an informed debate about the effectiveness and ethics of the drone campaign,” said Christopher Hird, managing editor of the Bureau, in a statement posted on its website. An editorial the same day in the prominent Pakistani daily Dawn, concurred: “More information is needed to convince both Americans and Pakistanis that their civil liberties are not being eroded in the name of their security.” The more we learn about drones, the more we should know about who they kill.

MORE: An Inside Look at the U.S.-Pakistan Feud Over Drones