Drones, as Washington’s prevailing wisdom goes, are the least messy weapon to deploy on a diffuse and disorganized global battlefield. They can surgically target terrorist organizations, depriving them of key leaders with, in theory, little collateral damage. After taking office in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama quietly expanded the use of drones, which began under President George W. Bush, targeting hundreds of suspected terrorists, mostly in Pakistan and Yemen.
While there has been skepticism about the use of drones from the beginning, Obama’s drone policies were subject to a more heated discussion the past year. The legality and effects of drone strikes have been litigated in Congress (domestic ramifications at least), in scholarly articles, both pro, and con, and most importantly by Obama, who discussed the issue in the most public detail in a speech at the National Defense University in May.
During that speech, where Obama called for an end to the War on Terror as we know it, the president argued that drones are far more precise than conventional airpower or missiles and that invasions of soldiers lead to “a torrent of unintended consequences.” Obama’s overall message was that drone strikes lead to fewer civilian casualties, which translates into less civilian outrage.
But drone strikes do lead to civilian casualties, which the president acknowledged in the speech. “There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties and nongovernmental reports,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war.”
Two such reports were released today, one from Amnesty International detailing U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, and another from Human Rights Watch, which attempts to catalog recent civilian drone casualties in Yemen. Both call into question the legality of the U.S. drone program and raise the specter of American war crimes. Amnesty International conducted 60 interviews with families, eyewitnesses and residents in Pakistan’s tribal region of North Waziristan, considered a hotbed of militant activity. Human Rights Watch interviewed 90 people to investigate six drone strikes in Yemen, one from 2009 and five from 2012-13.
Both reports include gruesome anecdotes to illustrate what’s missing from most of the numbers-heavy policy discussions. The Amnesty International report on Pakistan–titled “Will I Be Next?”–leads with the dramatic story of 68-year-old Mamana Bibi who was killed by a drone missile while tending to her crops in North Waziristan. According to the report, Bibi was blown to pieces in front of her grandchildren. “I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards,” Bibi’s eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela later described. “It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected as many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.”
Human Rights Watch’s report on Yemen contains an equally detailed account from August 2012, where five men were blown to bits by multiple drone-fired missiles behind a mosque in the village of Khashamir in southeastern Yemen. Three of the men were identified by Yemen’s Defense Ministry as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but the other two were not. Villagers later told a Human Rights watch researcher than one was a cleric who had preached against al-Qaeda.
Both stories are tragic. In every war, civilians are caught between the two sides. But even if the August 2012 drone strike did succeed in killing three members of AQAP, it also killed the kind of people the U.S. hopes to secure as partners in a fight against terrorism.
Human Rights Watch framed their conclusions in a series of recommendations to the U.S. and Yemeni governments. At the top of that list is that the U.S. government release key facts about the drone program—the number of militants and civilians killed, the memoranda from the Justice Department outlining the administration’s interpretation of operational law—that so far have been withheld. At the moment, the American public—and the rest of the world—is kept largely in the dark. The organization recommends that the government of Yemen ensure that any targeted killings–by the U.S. or Yemeni forces–take all possible precautions to minimize danger to civilians, and that when civilians are harmed, families receive “prompt and meaningful compensation” for any loss of life or damage to property.
Based on the drone attacks Amnesty international examined in Pakistan, the organization found massive uncertainty, which “arises from the US authorities’ deliberate policy of refusing to disclose information or even acknowledge responsibility for particular attacks,” the report concludes. “What is certain from Amnesty International’s research, however, is that the cases in this report raise serious concerns that the USA has unlawfully killed people in drone strikes, and that such killings may amount in some cases to extrajudicial executions or war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.”
One of the largest problems–and both reports make this case–is that it’s difficult to determine how successful, damaging or disastrous any of the hundreds of drone strikes over the past decade have been because the U.S. government does not release details about targeting, identification, precision, or local response. Even pinpointing the number of strikes is impossible because official figures are classified, but analysis from the New America Foundation estimates that in Pakistan, there have been 365 strikes, which have killed between 1,611 and 2767 militants, with between 258 and 307 civilians killed. In Yemen, the organization tallies 92 drone strikes, resulting in between 582 and 768 militants killed, alongside approximately 65 civilians.
While the reports provide devastating details and draw attention to the debate, stories of innocent people hurt in drone strikes “don’t add substantively to knowledge of the drone program nor do they alter the standard line about needing more transparency and access to medical help,” Joshua Foust, a commentator on U.S. counter-terrorism policy and former fellow at the American Security Project, told TIME in an email. Transparency in the drone program faces two main obstacles, Foust says: First, the drone politics of a country like Pakistan are messy, with the government quietly supporting the strikes (including feeding the U.S. intelligence), then publicly condemning them and whipping public opinion into a frenzy.
Second, there is little political incentive in the U.S. government to further declassify drone policy, and there are virtually no political consequences for the Obama Administration continuing as they have for years. Polls show Americans have few qualms with the U.S. deploying drones overseas. Until that changes, Foust says, “none of the other calls for redress or openness will come to pass.”
The reports also touch – though not implicitly – on a far murkier question that Obama and future commanders-in-chief should consider: are drone strikes the best solution in the long term? Drones are arguably the most effective way to rid the world of terrorists today, but do they create more terrorists tomorrow? In Khashamir, in eastern Yemen, the Human Rights Watch report explains that nearly everyone in the village has seen pictures of the two men killed alongside the al Qaeda members. The images, the report describes, “show the men’s bodies charred and in pieces,” and relatives had to identify them by what remained of body parts and bits of clothing. “Now when villagers see these images,” one relative said, “they think of America.”