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What exactly are drone strikes trying to achieve?

US drones

Soldiers launching unmanned drones are far removed from the horror they cause when they reach their destination. Official US Navy Imagery under a Creative Commons Licence

Collateral damage. Drone strikes. Civilian casualties. These are mere words, lifeless words. They do not, to the average person, conjure images of the horror of what those cold blooded words mean to the families involved. The parents, grandparents, children, who collect the mutilated, lifeless bodies, mostly bits of bodies, of their loved ones when the drones have been and gone. Yes, collateral damage means different things to different people. To the generals who order the strikes, they are surgically targeting terrorists. But for the children who see their father or mother collaterally ‘damaged’, it’s the end of their world as they know it.

Amnesty International have published a report on Pakistan entitled ‘ “Will I Be Next?” US drone strikes in Pakistan’. It is a powerful document putting a human face to the nameless, faceless victim. Amnesty has made a Pakistani woman, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi, wife of a retired school principal, the iconic face of the drone dead. Mamana Bibi was killed while picking bhendi (okra) from her garden for the family’s next meal. Her young granddaughters were a few feet away when she was blown up by a drone.  ‘I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body.’ Bibi’s eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela described what she saw: ‘The body had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and was in pieces. We collected many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.’

Amnesty conducted 60 interviews with families in Pakistan’s North Waziristan, considered a hotbed of militant activity and therefore heavily targeted to destroy terrorists.

The report doesn’t tell us anything new. But it contains sensitively collated stories of real people and what the dreaded drone means to the population cursed with its presence on a daily basis. It raises the moral question at a critically important moment as Nawaz Sharif meets Obama, giving US peace activists a new weapon to fight with. We can feel a sense of injustice, reading about the villagers who take sleeping pills and anti-depressants because they are so terrorized and afraid they could be next. This might be their last night.

It also questions the strategic wisdom of the US making itself the hated enemy. ‘The tragedy is that drone aircraft deployed by the US over Pakistan now instils the same kind of fear in the people of the tribal areas once associated only with Al Qaeda and the Taliban.’ Says Mustafa Qadri, author of the report.

‘There have been politicians like Imran Khan who said “If ever I became prime minister, my first act will be to ask the Pakistan air force to shoot down the drones”’, remarks Akbar Ahmed, Pakistan’s former high commissioner to Britain. ‘Just that act would have enormous implications for international relations. So feelings in Pakistan are very, very high around this subject of the drones. It’s become very symbolic now, something poisonous in the relationship between the US and Pakistan.’ And Pakistan is supposed to be an ally of the US.

Calling for drone strikes on civilians to be treated as war crimes is a gutsy move. The report does not merely target the US. It calls for action against all who collaborate or abet in the war crimes.

The report has been covered by The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Guardian, so it cannot be wished away.

A new generation of television addicts fed on brilliantly crafted serials like Covert Action and Homeland tend to be psychologically brainwashed. In spite of everything, the CIA agent remains the good girl, or guy, as the case may be. But villagers in remote, bombed out Waziristan or Afghanistan don’t buy this message. They see their innocent relatives destroyed mercilessly in the war against terror. So drones are strategically a stupid weapon.

We need a new strategy to fight against terror. We should have learnt from Vietnam that mighty weapons won’t win a war.    

*Secret US documents leaked on 24 October revealed that senior Pakistani government officials have known of and endorsed CIA drone strikes for years.

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