“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” ~James Baldwin
In a letter dated May 22, 2013, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder wrote to congressional leaders to inform them that the Obama administration “has specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi. The United States is further aware of three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in such U.S. counterterrorism operations over that same time period: Samir Khan, ’Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi, and Jude Kenan Mohammed. These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States.” The FBI has removed its most wanted page for Mohammad, but you can see it here.
Earlier this year, Sen. Lindsey Graham, an ardent supporter of the U.S. drone program, admitted that at least 4,700 people have been killed by U.S. drones since the program began under the Bush administration.
The figure cited by Graham matches the high end of a tally by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It says the number killed in drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia is between 3,072 and 4,756. The Washington-based New America Foundation says there have been 350 US drone strikes since 2004, most of them during Barack Obama’s presidency. And the foundation estimates the death toll at between 1,963 and 3,293, with 261 to 305 civilians killed. –Al Jazeera
Holder’s letter has sparked another round of debates about the use of drones to kill so-called “terrorists” as well as the use of drones against American citizens. You can turn to any mainstream news station and hear the pundits and scholars debate with each other about the legalities and constitutionality of the drone program. What is utterly lacking from the current conversation is the voices of those who live under the constant threat and fear of another U.S. drone attack. Today I share one of those voices with you. It’s the voice of Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer and former special prosecutor for Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau, who wrote the following Op-Ed to the New York Times.
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — WHEN Barack Obama ran for president of the United States in 2008, his message of hope and change gave us, the citizens of lesser republics, hope that he would close Guantánamo and shut down programs where extrajudicial killing or bribing foreign heads of state with American taxpayer dollars had become standard practice.
Instead, a few days after his inaugural address, a C.I.A.-operated drone dropped Hellfire missiles on Fahim Qureishi’s home in North Waziristan, killing seven of his family members and severely injuring Fahim. He was just 13 years old and left with only one eye, and shrapnel in his stomach. There was no militant present. A recent book revealed that Mr. Obama was informed about the erroneous target but still did not offer any form of redress, because in 2009, the United States did not acknowledge the existence of its own drone program in Pakistan.
Sadaullah Wazir was another victim of hope and change. His house in North Waziristan was targeted on Sept. 7, 2009. The strike killed four members of his family. Sadaullah was 14 years old when it happened. A few days after the attack, he woke up in a Peshawar hospital to the news that both of his legs had to be amputated and he would never be able to walk again. He died last year, without receiving justice or even an apology. Once again, no militant was present or killed.
Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech on drones at the National Defense University today. He is likely to tell his fellow Americans that drones are precise and effective at killing militants.
But his words will be little consolation for 8-year-old Nabila, who, on Oct. 24, had just returned from school and was playing in a field outside her house with her siblings and cousins while her grandmother picked flowers. At 2:30 p.m., a Hellfire missile came out of the sky and struck right in front of Nabila. Her grandmother was badly burned and succumbed to her injuries; Nabila survived with severe burns and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder.
Nabila doesn’t know who Mr. Obama is, or where the Hellfire missile that killed her grandmother came from. As she grows older, she will learn about the idea of justice. But how will she be able to grasp it if she herself has been denied this basic right?
The civilian victims of drone strikes have not been let down just by Mr. Obama. Their own government is equally culpable; Pakistan has been complicit in several strikes.
I have brought litigation on behalf of more than 100 civilian victims and their families before the provincial High Court in Peshawar and lower courts in Islamabad, the capital, to demand that the Pakistani government exercise its duty to protect the lives of its citizens.
A growing number of civilian casualties has raised the question of the efficacy of drone strikes in killing militants. Clearly Fahim, Sadaullah and Nabila were not menaces to America who had to be attacked in a brutal and lawless manner. According to the revelations in a recent McClatchy News Service article, the C.I.A. has no idea who is actually being killed in most of the strikes. Despite this acknowledgment, the drone program in Pakistan still continues without any Congressional oversight or accountability.
The burden of accountability is not exclusively on the American side. It is widely believed that the Pakistani government not only gives tacit consent for such strikes but also provides ground intelligence to the United States.
In response to our lawsuit, the Pakistani government has claimed that there is no written, verbal or tacit consent for such strikes nor any intelligence sharing. It cites two joint parliamentary resolutions declaring drone strikes a counterproductive violation of sovereignty and a request to stop such strikes. But Pakistan’s former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, painted a different picture in a CNN interview in April, admitting that he consented to a number of strikes during his tenure as president.
In a recent landmark ruling on one of our drone lawsuits, the Peshawar High Court categorically ordered Pakistan’s government to end its duplicity and defend its citizens’ right to life by demanding that America halt drone strikes and compensate civilian victims. People in Waziristan do not expect much of their government, but they at the very least deserve justice and a right to live.
If Mr. Obama will not end the strikes that are killing innocent Pakistanis, it is the duty of our government to stop America’s extrajudicial campaign of killing on our territory, just as it is the Pakistani government’s duty to eliminate the menace of terrorism from the country — but within the bounds of law and adhering to the principles of due process.
Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer and former special prosecutor for Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau, is co-founder and legal director of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a legal aid organization.