Ninety-five Kalashnikovs and $70,000 in burial money. That’s the price of 12 dead civilians in America’s shadow war on terror.
On Sept. 2, 2012, 14 people were traveling in a Toyota Land Cruiser near Radaa in central Yemen when the missile struck. Three children and a pregnant woman were among the 12 dead. "About four people were without heads. Many lost their hands and legs," Nawaf Massoud Awadh, a local sheikh, told Human Rights Watch. "These were our relatives and friends." The day after the attack, which was intended for an al Qaeda militant, the deputy governor of the province arrived to offer the victims blood money: the Kalashnikovs and cash.
This episode is but one small part of America’s covert war on al Qaeda, the civilian costs of which two reports released on Tuesday — one from Human Rights Watch (HRW) focusing on Yemen, the other from Amnesty International focusing on Pakistan — document through several individual stories. The reports depict a drone war that has become at times unhinged, one in which civilians frequently find themselves in the crossfire and President Obama’s pledges to curtail the use of these weapons go unrealized. They also depict in vivid detail the difficult battlefield choices that have led U.S. commanders to rely on drones, even if individual strikes resulting in civilian casualties point to problems in the way drones are being deployed.
In a landmark speech in May, Obama announced that it was time to take the United States off its permanent war footing and begin to draw down the war on terror. Obama also articulated criteria for using drones. "America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat," Obama said. "And, before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set."
It is unclear at what point — if any — the administration implemented those criteria. But the dual reports from HRW and Amnesty provide compelling evidence from strikes bookending Obama’s speech that U.S. forces have not always adhered to the professed guidelines.
On Oct. 24, 2012, Mamana Bibi, 68, was in her family’s fields in Pakistan gathering okra for that evening’s meal. A drone circled in the sky above her, but the planes were such a ubiquitous presence that she and four of her grandchildren, who were also working in the fields close by, didn’t make much of it. Then, before the children’s eyes, a Hellfire missile obliterated Mamana Bibi. "I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards," Nabeela, her eight-year-old granddaughter, told Amnesty. "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." Shortly thereafter, another volley of missiles rained down on Kaleemul and Samadur Rehman, two of Mamana’s grandsons who had come to investigate what had happened to their grandmother. They narrowly escaped.
According to Pakistani intelligence sources interviewed by Amnesty, a local Taliban commander had used a satellite phone near where Mamana Bibi was gathering okra. Her killing, the sources said, was probably a case of mistaken identity. But family members who spoke to Amnesty said that drones were seen above their village for anywhere from several hours to several minutes prior to her killing. Though the timeframe is imprecise, this nonetheless raises the question of how drone operators could have confused an elderly woman picking okra for a Taliban commander. "The fact that an elderly woman who clearly was not directly participating in hostilities was killed suggests some kind of catastrophic failure," the Amnesty report notes. "She was misidentified as the intended target; the target was selected based on faulty intelligence and the attack was not cancelled after it became apparent that the target was a civilian; or drone operators deliberately targeted and killed Mamana Bibi."
In Yemen, HRW found similar examples of blundered uses of American drones. In one case in August 2012, U.S. drones killed a local cleric who was preaching against the violent brand of Islam espoused by al Qaeda and its affiliates. In fact, on the day he was killed, militants suspected to be a part of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) requested a meeting with the cleric, Salim Jaber, about an anti-AQAP sermon he had recently delivered at a local mosque. It was while meeting with these men — along with his cousin, a local police officer, whom he had brought along for protection — that Jaber was killed in a drone strike.
Taken together, the HRW and Amnesty reports paint the U.S. drone war as, at times, deeply counterproductive and possibly illegal. Neither report goes so far as to say the United States has committed outright war crimes; researchers lack the necessary information to fully evaluate U.S. intentions. Yet both reports suggest that the United States has in all likelihood violated international law.
Consider another case from June 4, 2012, when missiles from a U.S. drone struck the village of Esso Khel in Pakistan, killing five men and injuring another four. As rescuers swarmed on the scene, the drone fired again. Among those killed was Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior al Qaeda commander who helped direct the rescue effort. The Amnesty report says that al-Libi was not directly involved in armed hostilities, and that "[i]ntentionally attacking persons hors de combat, or civilians not participating in hostilities involved in rescue and recovery are serious violations of international humanitarian law and constitute war crimes."
But the results of that strike also point to the allure of drone warfare for American policymakers. In Esso Khel, the United States was able to take out an al Qaeda commander without exposing its own soldiers to danger. However gruesome and possibly illegal, the strike worked.
More than a decade after Sept. 11, 2011, should the United States still be engaged in these bloody tradeoffs? HRW and Amnesty International say "no." The Obama administration, it appears, has a different answer.