The Unblinking Stare: The drone war in Pakistan

Steve Coll, The Unblinking Stare: The drone war in Pakistan. The New Yorker, 24 November 2014. “At the Pearl Continental Hotel, in Peshawar, a concrete tower enveloped by flowering gardens, the management has adopted security precautions that have become common in Pakistan’s upscale hospitality industry: razor wire, vehicle barricades, and police crouching in bunkers, fingering machine guns. In June, on a hot weekday morning, Noor Behram arrived at the gate carrying a white plastic shopping bag full of photographs. He had a four-inch black beard and wore a blue shalwar kameez and a flat Chitrali hat. He met me in the lobby. We sat down, and Behram spilled his photos onto a table. Some of the prints were curled and faded. For the past seven years, he said, he has driven around North Waziristan on a small red Honda motorcycle, visiting the sites of American drone missile strikes as soon after an attack as possible…. He has been documenting the drone attacks for the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a Pakistani nonprofit that is seeking redress for civilian casualties…. [H]e has photographed about a hundred…sites in North Waziristan, creating a partial record of the dead, the wounded, and their detritus. Many of the faces before us were young. Behram said he learned from conversations with editors and other journalists that if a drone missile killed an innocent adult male civilian, such as a vegetable vender or a fruit seller, the victim’s long hair and beard would be enough to stereotype him as a militant. So he decided to focus on children.”

Armed drones are slow-moving pilotless aircraft equipped with cameras, listening devices, and air-to-ground missiles. They can hover over their targets for hours, transmitting video feed of the scene below, and then strike suddenly. They can be flown by remote control from great distances. The models used by the C.I.A.—the Predator and the Reaper—look like giant robotic flying bugs, with unusual flaps and pole-like protrusions. Pilots steer them and fire missiles while sitting before video monitors; during a C.I.A. mission over Pakistan, a pilot might be at a base in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, or as far away as Nevada….

Obama’s advocacy of drones has widespread support in Washington’s foreign-policy and defense establishments. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton wholeheartedly backed the drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen. Republican hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who otherwise criticize the President as effete and indecisive, are also enthusiastic. But do drones actually represent a humanitarian advance in air combat? Or do they create a false impression of exactitude? And do they really serve the best interests of the United States?…

Pakistan has absorbed more drone strikes—some four hundred—than any other country, and has been a test bed for the Administration’s hypotheses about the future of American airpower. Between mid-2008 and mid-2013, C.I.A.-operated drones waged what amounted to an undeclared, remotely controlled air war over North and South Waziristan, a sparse borderland populated almost entirely by ethnic Pashtuns. As the campaign evolved, it developed a dual purpose: to weaken Al Qaeda, and to suppress Taliban fighters who sought to cross into Afghanistan to attack American troops after Obama ordered a “surge” of forces there, in December, 2009. (Drone strikes continue in Pakistan; seventeen have been reported so far this year.) The drone war in Pakistan took place during an increasingly toxic, mutually resentful period in the long, unhappy chronicle of relations between the United States and Pakistan. To many Pakistanis, including Army officers and intelligence officials in the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or I.S.I., drone strikes have symbolized American arrogance. Within the C.I.A. and the White House, a belief took hold that Pakistani generals and intelligence chiefs were unreliable partners in the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Administration officials concluded that since Pakistan wouldn’t help adequately to protect U.S. soldiers and American cities, they would send drones to do the job….

In a 2012 report that was based on nine months of data analysis and field interviews, a team of law students from New York University and Stanford concluded that the dominant narrative in the U.S. about the use of drones in Pakistan—“a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the United States safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts”—is false. The researchers found that C.I.A.-operated drones were nowhere near as discriminating toward noncombatants as the agency’s leaders have claimed. Various estimates have put the civilian death toll in the hundreds. An analysis of media reports by the New America Foundation concluded that drones probably killed some two hundred and fifty to three hundred civilians in the decade leading up to 2014. Researchers working under Chris Woods at the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism conducted field interviews to supplement a separate analysis of media reporting. They estimated that American drones killed between four hundred and nine hundred and fifty civilians….

The Obama Administration has shielded from public examination essential facts about how often targeting failed and innocents died, and why. In the Bush Administration and the Obama Administration alike, secrecy has defeated public candor and accountability….

A C.I.A. covert action seeks to surreptitiously influence events abroad while allowing the United States to deny the project’s existence. The National Security Act of 1947 legalized covert action as long as a President finds that it does not violate the Constitution or U.S. law and is required to protect the nation. A President must sign a written “Finding” that authorizes the program. Memorandums of Notification are highly classified follow-on documents—specific orders from a President to the C.I.A. describing the scope and the necessity of the operation. They can be concise, sometimes as short as a single page.

On September 17, 2001, President George W. Bush signed a new counterterrorism M.O.N., partly based on Rizzo’s input. It was “multiple pages” in length, according to Rizzo. He had worked at the C.I.A. since 1976 and he regarded this document as the “most comprehensive, most ambitious, most aggressive, and most risky Finding or M.O.N. I was ever involved in.” Among its provisions, “one short paragraph” authorized targeted killings of Al Qaeda terrorists and their allies. “The language was simple and stark.” That paragraph became the foundation for the C.I.A.’s drone operations….

[In 2008 C.I.A. director Michael Hayden] approved changes to the internal C.I.A. targeting and strike guidelines. These changes gave rise to what would become known as “signature strikes.” The new rules allowed drone operators to fire at armed military-aged males engaged in or associated with suspicious activity even if their identities were unknown. (To justify this looser approach, a former Administration official said, C.I.A. lawyers relied on instructions in an M.O.N. that permitted strikes on terrorist property and facilities.)

Signature strikes are “not a concept known to international humanitarian law,” according to Christof Heyns, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions. The proper standard for attacking a person under the laws of war is whether the person has a “continuous combat function” or is “directly participating in hostilities.” If a signature strike rests on “targeting without sufficient information to make the necessary determination, it is clearly unlawful,” Heyns argues in a 2013 report submitted to the U.N. General Assembly. The Obama Administration’s position is that, relying on intelligence sources, the C.I.A.’s remote operators could determine whether armed men were involved in violence directed against American personnel and interests. Under the laws of war, which the Administration asserted were applicable in FATA, it isn’t necessary to know the names of enemy guerrillas before attacking….

Being attacked by a drone is not the same as being bombed by a jet. With drones, there is typically a much longer prelude to violence. Above North Waziristan, drones circled for hours, or even days, before striking. People below looked up to watch the machines, hovering at about twenty thousand feet, capable of unleashing fire at any moment, like dragon’s breath. “Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more,” Malik Jalal, a tribal leader in North Waziristan, told me. “They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-16s might be less accurate, but they come and go.”…

The C.I.A. has never explained the criteria it uses to count a drone victim as a civilian. Nor has it described what sort of interviews or field research, if any, the agency’s analysts undertake to investigate possible mistakes. According to a May, 2012, Times article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” In briefings to congressional intelligence committees, the C.I.A. has disputed that characterization, saying that any person deliberately targeted must be associated with a known fighting group or enemy facility, or else be observed preparing for violence….

By mid-2012, Obama had ordered Brennan to reassess drone policy. The following spring, at the National Defense University, the President announced a new policy for American drone operations, which remains in effect. The full rulebook is highly classified. Yet Obama did make one new standard public. Before striking, drone operators must determine to a “near certainty” that no civilians are in harm’s way—a considerably tougher standard than the C.I.A.’s original one, which dates to the Bush Administration….

In early 2013, Obama asked Brennan to lead the C.I.A. The President appointed as Brennan’s deputy Avril Haines, a National Security Council lawyer who had worked on drone-strike rules and operations. The number of drone strikes carried out in Pakistan fell. Since Brennan became C.I.A. director, according to the data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there has not been a single documented civilian casualty, child or adult, as a result of a drone strike in Waziristan….

[T]he President and his advisers don’t seem to accept how little credit the United States is ever likely to receive from targeted populations just because it chooses to bomb with more accurate drones. On the ground in North Waziristan, drone war doesn’t feel much different from other forms of air war, in that many civilians are displaced and frightened, and suffer loss of life and property….

In a research paper published this summer, Micah Zenko and Sarah Kreps, two scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that the very precision of drone technology raises the prospect for “moral hazard.” The reduction in risks may tempt governments to order drones into action more frequently than they would conventional bombers or missiles. In other words, drones may spare more innocents but they may also create more war.

“I think the greatest problem is the mentality that accompanies drone strikes,” Philip Alston, an N.Y.U. law professor who investigated drone attacks for the U.N. between 2004 and 2010, told me. “The identification of a list of targets, and if we can succeed in eliminating that list we will have achieved good things—that mentality is what drives it all: if only we can get enough of these bastards, we’ll win the war.”