The South Asia Channel

A Drone Killed My Friend, Warren Weinstein

Instead of using drones to combat men who kidnap aid workers, let's support local movements that seek to prevent the men from taking such actions in the first place.

US President Barack Obama speaks during a press conference in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on April 23, 2015 in Washington, DC. The White House admitted Thursday that a January US operation against an Al Qaeda compound near the Afghan-Pakistan border killed one American and one Italian hostage, along with an American member of the jihadist group. The White House identified the hostages killed in the operation against the border compound as US contractor Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto. AFP PHOTO/MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

I am devastated to hear that Warren Weinstein, a colleague and an acquaintance, is no more. The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Weinstein and an Italian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto, are even more shocking. U.S. authorities admitted last week that a U.S. drone strike, in January 2015, “inadvertently” killed 73-year-old Weinstein and a much younger Lo Porto. The venue was a suspected al Qaeda compound in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal regions that border Afghanistan. President Obama apologized and said he takes full responsibility for the incident. “I profoundly regret what happened,” he said.

In 2008, I advised a U.K. aid-supported governance reform program in Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab. Weinstein represented the firm J.E. Austin and Associates that was part of the consortium of consultants. In the succeeding years, we worked together on private sector development, improvement of livestock, and related institutional reforms. By then, Weinstein had adopted Pakistan as his second home. He mostly dressed in Shalwar Kameez, spoke near-fluent Urdu, and knew almost all the stakeholders in policy circles.

Fed on years of xenophobia, Weinstein’s style and demeanor raised questions for some. There were whispers by some of the colleagues that he was perhaps a spy in the guise of an aid worker. Others were curious about his efforts to integrate into local culture, often finding it difficult to believe that a Westerner would choose local ways. But Weinstein was far too open, given to revealing lots of information about his background and international development experiences, to be a spy. This is why I was never convinced of such deductions.

Weinstein’s seven year-long work sojourn in Pakistan was fatally interrupted when unknown men abducted him from his home, located in a relatively secure and posh neighborhood of Lahore city.

For the next three and half years, he was in custody of al Qaeda. My immediate worry was his health, since, as a sufferer of asthma, he always kept an inhaler with him. Later, a video message released by al Qaeda showed him looking unwell and under immense stress. He also complained of being abandoned and forgotten by the U.S. government.

The deaths of foreign aid workers amid the “fog of war” — as described by Obama — brings forth the complicated nature of conflict in Pakistan and its troubled relationship with the United States. Months before Weinstein was abducted from his Lahore residence, the United States launched a successful operation to nab Osama bin Laden, the former head of al Qaeda, from Abbottabad.

In its campaign to hunt bin Laden, the CIA supported a fake polio fake vaccination program and attempted to obtain DNA samples from bin Laden’s family. A Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi (now jailed in Pakistan), ran a vaccination drive for Hepatitis B, bypassing the local health authorities. A large number of U.S. medical practitioners condemned the fake drive and warned of the risk of undermining Pakistan’s battle against communicable diseases, such as polio. Aid workers, local and foreign, since then have faced hazards in implementing vaccination programs.

Since 2012, Pakistani militants have killed over 66 anti-polio workers in attacks. The tribal areas of Pakistan are home to more than half of all polio cases in Pakistan. According to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, 2014 was the worst year with at least 306 cases reported, 85.2 percent of the 359 cases worldwide, in Pakistan. However, mistrust of vaccines has been an ongoing issue in Pakistan due to the propaganda of Islamists for decades. But it has worsened due to the enduring conflict and perceptions of aid work as another means of spying.

This is why attacks on aid workers continue unabated. Since 2008, at least six foreign aid workers have been killed, 11 wounded and four kidnapped in various incidents according to The Aid Worker Security Database.

Giovanni Lo Porto, who was killed with Weinstein in the fateful counterterrorism operation, had arrived in Pakistan, ironically, to work on low-cost shelter assistance for flood victims. His death has saddened many, but more importantly it alarmed thousands of other aid workers who serve in the areas of bilateral and multilateral development assistance.

Weinstein’s family rightfully complained about the Pakistani and U.S. governments’ lack of effort in trying to free the men. Congressman John Delaney termed the flawed drone strike of January 2015 as “a sobering national security and government failure.”

This incident has effectively challenged the doctrine of “near certainty” of avoiding civilian casualties during drone strikes. Pakistan’s official response has echoed this view by citing the “risk involved in using such drone technology.” From 2004 to 2015, at least 396 drone strikes have been conducted — mostly in the tribal regions of Pakistan — according to data collected by New America. New America estimates that there may have been 258 to 307 civilian casualties. While such strikes have been tacitly sanctioned and sometimes even praised by the Pakistani government, there have been considerable negative reactions within the country.

Obama has indicated that “lessons that can be learned from this tragedy” will be identified and “changes that can be made.” Thus far, the Obama administration has been reluctant to place the drones program under public scrutiny. Last year, under pressure from European governments and human-rights groups, Obama announced a set of rules governing drone attacks. It is evident that the rules, which were put into place, are not foolproof. There is a need for transparency and greater accountability. This holds true for the Pakistani government as well, so that the people know exactly how the targets are selected and why there are no alternatives to the use of drones.

Security-centric states and their war narratives are prone to bypassing the rights of their citizens. Regardless of the exact numbers involved, there are thousands of Pakistanis who have turned digits in the collateral damage. A former spy agency chief from Pakistan recently admitted to such collateral damage. Similarly, it is clear that the U.S. government did not vigorously negotiate for Weinstein’s release. Media reports also suggest that there was a hefty ransom paid by Weinstein family in this case. Contrarily, Bowe Bergdahl, an Army soldier in custody of Taliban, was released in exchange of four Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo in 2014.

More worrisome, al Qaeda may have weakened but the new specter Islamic State has appeared in Afghanistan and is making inroads into South Asia. Drones are technological instruments and the conflict in the region requires political and institutional responses. This tragedy may have opened a window for a comprehensive review of drones program. Supporting local movements that resist ideological narratives driving young men to kidnap aid workers or kill children may be far more useful strategy than taking out targets in the short-term. This holds equally true for the Pakistan authorities engaged in a military-centric counter terrorism operation since June 2014.


Raza Rumi is a visiting fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, Washington DC. He is also a consulting editor at The Friday Times. His writings are archived at

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