(MintPress) – The U.S. defines “terrorism” as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.” The response to non-state actors, particularly al-Qaida, after 9/11 has been robust, with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now, the use of unmanned drones to strike targets in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other areas with al-Qaida cells.
While drone warfare has successfully eliminated high level targets, a recent research project authored by professors at New York University and Stanford, called “Living Under Drones,” finds that just 1 out of 50 killed in drone attacks are actual terrorists, the vast majority of fatalities are civilians. Despite the mounting evidence against drones, opinion polling shows nearly two-thirds of Americans continue to support the current drone program.
Professors James Cavallaro of Stanford University and Sarah Knuckey of New York University (NYU) released a groundbreaking report called “Living Under Drones” earlier this month. The investigative piece examines the effect drone strikes are having on civilian populations in Pakistan.
The professors conducted the investigation over two separate trips to Pakistan. The two human rights law professors received special permission from government officials to travel to Waziristan and conduct interviews with 130 residents living in the region.
The findings of the report counter the dominant narrative supported by the Obama administration, namely, “In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the U.S. safer by enabling ‘targeted killing’ of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts.”
However, the findings, based upon nine months of in-country research and 130 interviews, show that while there are terrorists threatening U.S. national security in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), drone strikes have been a destructive force, alienating allies and killing scores of innocent civilians.
This, researchers contend, constitutes a form of collective punishment against a civilian population. The United Nations (U.N.) forbids collective punishment against civilian populations, a central tenant of the Fourth Convention of the Geneva Convention drafted in 1949.
The U.S. is one of 194 countries supporting the convention. However, scholars and and activists familiar with the use of drones contend that indiscriminate bombings — bombings that kill 50 non-combatants for every one terrorist — are anything but precise, constituting a collective punishment for Pakistanis living in the region.
The strikes have also had a burdensome psychological impact on residents young and old, particularly among those who have lost family members as a result of missile strikes.
Clive Stafford Smith, director of the U.K.-based human rights group Reprieve, a sponsor of the report’s research, commented, saying, “An entire region is being terrorized by the constant threat of death from the skies. Their way of life is collapsing: kids are too terrified to go to school, adults are afraid to attend weddings, funerals, business meetings or anything that involves gathering in groups.”
“They don’t know who they will strike. The result is symptoms of psychological disorder, of trauma, of severe anxiety and of dysfunctionality. We heard stories of people who won’t leave their houses,” added Cavallaro.
Activist groups have taken the research by Cavallaro and Knuckey as support for their opposition to the drone campaigns. CodePink, a women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement, is leading the first ever delegation of U.S. activists protesting the use of drones in Pakistan. Thirty-five CodePink activists reportedly received a warm reception from Pakistani human rights groups, members of government and victims of U.S. drone attacks upon arriving in Pakistan Oct. 3.
Medea Benjamin, a leader of the CodePink delegation, is hoping the group will be able to visit Waziristan, a tribal area bordering Afghanistan that is subject to frequent drone attacks. After meeting with generals and Pakistani human rights leaders in Islamabad, the group will try to march against drones in the tribal area.
“Frankly, it’s a win-win situation for us, whether we get into Waziristan or not. We are going because we are challenging the Pakistani government to allow us to go to a place that has been off limits but needs to be seen. And if they try to stop us, it will be clear they do not want the world to see what is going on there,” said Benjamin, veteran activist and CodePink leader in an interview.
CodePink activists have spoken with many locals who have lost family due to U.S. attacks. Sherabaz Khan lost two brothers in a March 17, 2011, drone strike in Datta Khel, a town in North Waziristan. “My brothers were attending a tribal council to settle a business dispute in a timber deal, and they were killed. None of the people killed were militants,” said Khan in a statement.
US support for drones
Despite the mounting evidence against the use of drones, a recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project shows that 62 percent of Americans support the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
A full 72 percent of Republicans polled supported the use of drones. Sixty percent of Independents and 58 percent of Democrats polled also supported the policy. However, these results contradict the majority of populations in 17 out of 20 countries polled who were opposed to the U.S. drone strikes in these countries.
Ninety percent of Greek citizens oppose the U.S. use of unmanned drones, the highest percentage of any country polled. Similarly, those polled in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey expressed similar opposition, with 89, 85 and 81 percent opposition respectively.