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US drone attacks in Pakistan have killed at least 29 noncombatants since 2012 – deaths that could be categorized as war crimes, Amnesty International said today in a report released just a day before Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is set to meet with President Obama.
The report, “‘Will I be Next?’ US Drone Strikes in Pakistan” was released by Amnesty International in conjunction with a separate report by New York-based Human Rights Watch on US drone attacks in Yemen. The Amnesty report analyzed 45 publicly known drone attacks in the most commonly targeted region of Pakistan where the Taliban has been particularly active, North Waziristan, between January 2012 and August 2013.
The timing of the report's release puts perhaps the most sensitive issue in US-Pakistan relations in the spotlight as the two leaders meet.
President Obama publicly acknowledged a drone program in Pakistan in January 2012, and promised greater transparency in May 2013. “There must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured,” Obama said, noting that civilian deaths from drone strikes would haunt him and others involved in the administration’s hierarchy “as long as we live.”
Amnesty wrote in its report release that despite this, the US “still refuses to divulge even basic factual and legal information” on its drone program, which means little opportunity for victims’ families to press for compensation or take legal action.
“Secrecy surrounding the drones program gives the US administration a license to kill beyond the reach of the courts or basic standards of international law,” said Mustafa Qadri, author of the report.
“The tragedy is that drone aircraft deployed by the USA over Pakistan now instill the same kind of fear in the people of the tribal areas that was once associated only with Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” said Mr. Qadri.
According to Reuters, the Pakistani Taliban largely controls North Waziristan, in northwestern Pakistan, offering “safe havens to Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban who are fighting NATO troops across the border.”
The United States has carried out 376 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, the [London based] Bureau of Investigative Journalism says, with the death toll put at between 2,525 and 3,613. Local media reported that up to 926 of the dead were civilians.
Most of the time, the dead are militants although their rank is often unclear, residents, militants and Pakistani security sources have told Reuters. Government officials frequently say militant groups have killed 40,000 Pakistanis since 2001.
In the first publicized drone attack since Obama’s May speech, the Pakistani Taliban’s second in command, Wali-ur-Rehman, was killed in a strike along with at least five others.
"This is a huge blow to militants and a win in the fight against insurgents," one security official told Reuters at the time.
The Pakistani government has long condemned drone strikes, often citing civilian casualties, as well as territorial integrity and Pakistani sovereignty. Obama is set to meet Sharif at the White House tomorrow, and on Friday the United Nations is set to debate drones and transparency.
In its report, Amnesty found that US drones killed a grandmother, Mamana Bibi, in October 2012 while she was picking vegetables near her grandchildren. Another strike in July that same year killed 18 laborers near the Afghan border as they sat down to eat dinner. A subsequent missile strike killed many of those who came to the rescue of the first victims.
A big challenge in tallying civilian deaths is the difficulty of saying with certainty whether or not a military-aged victim of a strike is part of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or another extremist group, the report authors acknowledge. However, family and friends often insist their loved ones “had no connection to extremists,” reports the Los Angeles Times.
“American intelligence officials and their congressional overseers argue that in almost all cases the strikes have hit legitimate targets. Sorting out the truth in individual cases is often impossible,” the LA Times reports.
According to The New York Times, in communities often targeted by drones – for example, the northwest Pakistani town of Miram Shah, which has been hit 13 times since 2008 – the psychological stress has been palpable.
While the strike rate has dropped drastically in recent months, the constant presence of circling drones — and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike — is a crushing psychological burden for many residents [of Miram Shah].
Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared, said Hajji Gulab Jan Dawar, a pharmacist in the town bazaar. Women were particularly troubled, he said, but men also experienced problems…. ...
In the aftermath of drone strikes, things get worse. Many civilians hide at home, fearing masked vigilantes with the Ittehad-e-Mujahedeen Khorasan, a militant enforcement unit that hunts for American spies. The unit casts a wide net, and the suspects it hauls in are usually tortured and summarily executed.