More than 2,400 dead as Obama’s drone campaign marks five years
January 23, 2014
Five years ago, on January 23 2009, a CIA drone flattened a house in Pakistan’s tribal regions. It was the third day of Barack Obama’s presidency, and this was the new commander-in-chief’s first covert drone strike.
Initial reports said up to ten militants were killed, including foreign fighters and possibly a ‘high-value target’ – a successful first hit for the fledgling administration.
But reports of civilian casualties began to emerge. As later reports revealed, the strike was far from a success. At least nine civilians died, most of them from one family. There was one survivor, 14-year-old Fahim Qureshi, but with horrific injuries including shrapnel wounds in his stomach, a fractured skull and a lost eye, he was as much a victim as his dead relatives.
Later that day, the CIA attacked again – and levelled another house. It proved another mistake, this time one that killed between five and ten people, all civilians.
Obama was briefed on the civilian casualties almost immediately and was ‘understandably disturbed’, Newsweek reporter Daniel Klaidman later wrote. Three days earlier, in his inauguration address, Obama had told the world ‘that America is a friend of each nation, and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity.’
The Pakistani government also knew civilians had been killed in the strikes. A record of the strikes made by the local political administration and published by the Bureau last year listed nine civilians among the dead. But the government said nothing about this loss of life.
Yet despite this disastrous start the Obama administration markedly stepped up the use of drones. Since Obama’s inauguration in 2009, the CIA has launched 330 strikes on Pakistan – his predecessor, President George Bush, conducted 51 strikes in four years. And in Yemen, Obama has opened a new front in the secret drone war.
Across Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, the Obama administration has launched more than 390 drone strikes in the five years since the first attack that injured Qureshi – eight times as many as were launched in the entire Bush presidency. These strikes have killed more than 2,400 people, at least 273 of them reportedly civilians.
Although drone strikes under Obama’s presidency have killed nearly six times as many people as were killed under Bush, the casualty rate – the number of people killed on average in each strike – has dropped from eight to six under Obama. The civilian casualty rate has fallen too. Strikes during the Bush years killed nearly more than three civilians in each strike on average. This has halved under Obama (1.43 civilians per strike on average). In fact reported civilian casualties in Pakistan have fallen sharply since 2010, with no confirmed reports of civilian casualties in 2013.
The decline in civilian casualties could be because of reported improvements in drone and missile technology, rising tensions between Pakistan and the US over the drone campaign, and greater scrutiny of the covert drone campaign both at home and abroad.
The apparent change in targeting is well demonstrated by comparing a strike carried out by the Bush administration in 2006 and one seven years later under Obama. On October 30 2006 at least 68 children were killed when CIA drones destroyed a madrassa – a religious school – in the Bajaur area of Pakistan’s tribal belt. The attack was reportedly targeting then-al Qaeda second-in-command Ayman al Zawahiri. He escaped. On November 21 last year, drones again targeted a madrassa, this time in Hangu, outside the tribal regions. As many as 80 students were sleeping in the building. But the strike destroyed a specific portion of the building – just one or two rooms – and killed between six and nine people.
In Yemen, however, civilians continue to die in US drone strikes. Last year saw the highest civilian casualty rate since Obama first hit the country in 2009.
Drones were not the first weapon the administration turned to when it started to attack the country. On December 17 2009 a US Navy submarine launched a cluster bomb-laden cruise missile at a suspected militant camp in al Majala, southern Yemen.
The missile slammed into a hamlet hitting one of the poorest tribes in Yemen. Shrapnel and fire left at least 41 civilians dead, including at least 21 children and 12 women – five of them were pregnant. A week earlier President Obama had been awardedthe Nobel Peace Prize. He used his acceptance speech to defend the use of force at times as ‘not only necessary but morally justified’. He warned that ‘negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms’.
…can we all just talk about this? Where is the outrage?