What We Don’t Know About Drones
Image Credit: Samarpit Gupta

What We Don’t Know About Drones


The gaps in public understanding of the effects of drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere was made clear during a presentation given by Pakistani journalist Kiran Nazish, at O. P. Jindal Global University near Delhi. The talk, called, “Drone Attacks on Pakistan: The impact on Humanitarian Life and the Legal Debate,” was moderated by Dr. Robert Barnidge Jr., Associate Professor and Assistant Dean at the University, and author of The Liberal Way of War.

On hand was an international audience that included Indians, Africans, Nepalese, Canadians and Americans, all with their own perspectives on drone warfare. Most quickly realized, however, how little they understood about the repercussions of drone strikes in Pakistan and the humanitarian and legal dynamics.

“In a drone war that aims to protect the rest of the world, we do not know the faces or names of Pakistani people losing their lives every time the strike misses the target and kills someone else. Unfortunately these people are just called collateral damage and shrugged off as statistics on the list,” she said. “How and why this is allowed in a world with an international humanitarian legal system and United Nations, and countries that make promises to protect democracies, is simply because we still have not studied the costs of this war beyond statistics. And until we do that, we will not be able to be sincere in the debate.”

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Nazish went on to question why the legal and humanitarian realities of drone warfare were at conflict with each other. “Current international humanitarian law and the law of wars are not equipped to deal with the issue of drone warfare. We need to improvise and redesign laws that fit for this specific instance,” she noted.

An international lawyer, Barnidge sees U.S. involvement in Pakistan as legal. In his view, the U.S. is justified in its actions, given that it is fighting an armed international conflict, which gives it the right to pursue hostile elements across state boundaries if that state is unwilling or unable to stop enemy forces, as has been the case in Pakistan. This military action requires no legal redress by U.S. courts or other judicial bodies as it is an act of war, no different than any other.

Nazish countered with another perspective. “This is not a regular war and the element of physical absenteeism of the attacker brings a new dynamic, which is what we need to scrutinize again. This is not like any other war. If anyone says that, they are being manipulative and insincere.” She then went on to draw attention to the human element of the War on Terror. Having visited nearby locations, on the outskirts of Waziristan where the drone strikes have been focused, and meeting other drone victims in FATA, Mohmand Agency and Peshawar, she provided firsthand accounts of the indelible impact of the strikes, such as the “60,000 internally displaced persons who had to leave their homes behind because of the war and now live in camps in Jalozai and other parts of the country.”

Drone strikes impart terror that goes beyond the legal calculation of the collateral damage inflicted, she noted, including the psychological impact on people living in the neighbourhood where drones buzz above their heads. Nazish spoke about how the hissing that the drones make has altered the psyche of those living in the affected area. This sound has been tied to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, with implications for a significant proportion of the strike zone population.

With the sound comes the fear of actually being targeted. As Taliban agents often remain hidden, often the only opportunity for drone strikes are public spaces such as markets or tribal meetings called Jirgas. The strikes then eliminate militants and civilians alike.

Nazish explained how civilians who flee the area are forced to move into tent cities, generally lacking in basic healthcare and educational opportunities for the displaced. Some families have to sell all their possessions to travel to the nearest hospital or risk being treated by untrained medical staff.

This displaced population feels ever rising resentment toward the U.S., creating a new generation of Taliban militants.

Cameron Paxton is a graduate of Chicago University and currently researching at  O.P Jindal Global University, India before he goes back to the U.S. to continue with his PhD.

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