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When a Drone Flies Over Waziristan, Does It Make a Sound?

How confident are you that drone strikes are narrowly targeted on top-level terrorist leaders?

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Early in the Iraq war, I heard a radio story that interviewed a woman whose son had been deployed to Iraq. She said something that pierced my heart: “I just have to trust President Bush when he says that this war is necessary.”

She wasn’t saying: I sincerely believe in my heart that this war is necessary. She was saying: I have to believe this, because the alternative belief that the President has put my boy in harm’s way for no damn good reason is just too awful for me to contemplate, and I need to get through my day.

On the one hand: I take it as obvious that we can’t have a properly functioning Schoolhouse Rock democracy if there are a whole lot of people running around saying: “We memorized in Church that whatever government officials say is Jesus, Mary, and the Saints.” If we want to have a functioning democracy, we need more people to say: I have heard what the government official said. I’m curious to know: what evidence was offered for that? Are there plausible alternative views? What’s the evidence for them?

On the other hand: if you have no empathy for this woman, then you have a heart of stone.

I try to keep this woman in mind as I work to goad people into to doing a little something to help reform U.S. foreign policy, because while I prefer to play on the field of facts, evidence, logic and argument – it’s the only field I know how to play on – I’m keenly aware that there are a bunch of people running around saying things that clearly come from somewhere else.

There are a lot of people who say that they support the current policy of drone strikes. It doesn’t seem likely that much of this support is based on a careful weighing of the evidence: until now, the government hasn’t produced any evidence in support of its key claims in defense of the policy, such as its claim that civilian deaths have been “exceedingly rare,” or its claim that the drone strikes are narrowly targeted on top level terrorist leaders. So it’s not clear what evidence drone strike supporters would have been weighing to make their judgment.

Rather, it seems more likely that support of the current drone strike policy is based on convenient belief. It’s convenient to believe that the drone strike policy is narrowly targeted on top-level terrorist leaders and has killed few civilians, because the alternative belief, that our government has cavalierly killed many innocent civilians for no good reason, is pretty awful to contemplate.

And this convenient belief sets up a powerful barrier against the fair contemplation of evidence.

So let us put to the side for the moment the broader questions of whether the current policy is just, wise, and fully complies with international and domestic law.

Let us consider instead the following much narrower question: is the current policy under any kind of effective control? Is it being carefully supervised by knowledgeable, responsible, attentive and conscientious grownups?

I claim that I have a little piece of new evidence that powerfully illustrates that it is not.


Recently a major report, Living Under Drones, was published on the drone strike policy in Pakistan by the Stanford International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic. A striking feature of this report was that it shone a light on the impact of the drone strikes on life for the entire civilian population of Waziristan, due to the ever-present fear of the strikes:

Importantly, those interviewed for this report also described how the presence of drones and capacity of the US to strike anywhere at any time led to constant and severe fear, anxiety, and stress, especially when taken together with the inability of those on the ground to ensure their own safety. Further, those interviewed stated that the fear of strikes undermines people’s sense of safety to such an extent that it has at times affected their willingness to engage in a wide variety of activities, including social gatherings, educational and economic opportunities, funerals, and that fear has also undermined general community trust. In addition, the US practice of striking one area multiple times, and its record of killing first responders, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid to assist injured victims.

This report got a lot of U.S. press coverage. But one thing you didn’t see in the press coverage was any official U.S. government response. And that is a severe problem. The normal situation would be: someone raises a criticism, the government responds, and then as a citizen and news consumer you can attempt to weigh and judge the criticism and the response. But you couldn’t have done that in this case, because there was no official U.S. government response to the report.

However, a group of Americans just had a slightly different experience, because we went to Pakistan on a peace delegation against the drone strikes, and the Acting U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Richard Hoagland, agreed to meet with us, and answered questions on the record about the drone strikes. So we experienced a deviation from the U.S. government’s official policy of no public dialogue on the drone strikes.

And here is a disturbing fact that we learned: the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, who appears in general to be is a well-intentioned and informed person, is either ignorant or is in denial of basic facts about U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan which have been reported in mainstream press accounts.

No-one is minding the store.

In our second meeting with Ambassador Hoagland, we asked about the impact on the civilian population of Waziristan of having U.S. drones constantly flying over them, poised to strike. Leah Bolger, President of Veterans For Peace, asked: “Would you concede that the constant buzzing of drones overhead 24 hours a day, is a form of psychological warfare?”

Ambassador Hoagland responded: “You know I’ve heard those stories, I haven’t been there to hear it myself, and I will tell you what my suspicion is, that that’s not actually true, because drones fly at such a high altitude they can’t be seen or heard.”

This was a striking response, because what Ambassador Hoagland disputed is a basic empirical fact. Either it is true that you can hear drones from the ground, or it is not true. It’s not a judgment call.

Compare what Ambassador Hoagland said with this BBC report from October 3rd:

Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan, constantly watched and regularly bombarded by US military drones, has been called the most dangerous place on earth. The relentless assault exacts a huge psychological toll on the people who live there.The US missile-attacks destroy militant training compounds and cars but they also hit mosques, homes, religious schools and civilian vehicles.

I witnessed the fear, stress and depression this causes for the tribal communities on a visit to the region in May.

The drones do not suddenly appear over the horizon, carry out the attack and leave. At any given time of the day, at least four are hovering in the sky, emitting a distinctive and menacing buzzing sound.

They call them “mosquitoes”.

“Anybody who has been listening to the buzzing all through the day usually can’t sleep at night,” says Abdul Waheed, a tribesman in North Waziristan.

Former New York Times reporter David Rohde spent seven months in 2008-9 living under drones in Waziristan involuntarily when he was kidnapped by the Taliban. In a Reuters account in January of this year, Rohde wrote:

Throughout our captivity, American drones were a frequent presence in the skies above North and South Waziristan. Unmanned, propeller-driven aircraft, they sounded like a small plane – a Piper Cub or Cessna-circling overhead. Dark specks in a blue sky, they could be spotted and tracked with the naked eye.[…]

The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.

On this simple question of basic empirical fact, the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan was unable to acknowledge that which has been published by different mainstream Western news organizations by reporters on the ground in Waziristan recounting their direct experience. (Rohde has won two Pulitzers, by the way, one of them for reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.)

How confident are you, then, in unsubstantiated U.S. government assertions that civilian deaths have been “exceedingly rare?” How confident are you that drone strikes are narrowly targeted on top-level terrorist leaders?

If your confidence in these unsubstantiated U.S. government assertions is just a little bit shaken, don’t you think your representatives in Congress ought to investigate? You can urge them to do so here.

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