Drones and the "bugsplats" they cause

Drone attacks are anything but impersonal for the Pakistani civilians on the ground.

Pakistani protesters at a rally against US drone attacks
Pakistani protesters shout anti-US slogans at a rally against US drone attacks. Photograph: Getty Images

What do you think about when you hear the word “drone”? President Obama in the White House, authorising the “kill list”. American soldiers pressing buttons. Bearded Taliban militants in faraway, dusty villages, being swiftly, sharply zapped out of existence.

The impersonal language used to describe drones – “targeted”, “accurate”, “enemy combatant” – compounds these impressions. Yet, as ever, the reality of this computer game warfare is significantly messier.

Pakistan’s tribal area has been home to the most sustained drone campaign of anywhere in the world. The attacks started in 2004 and have been stepped up under President Obama. The main defence of drone war is that it results in less “collateral damage” than airstrikes – another impersonal euphemism, this time for civilian deaths. But investigations and anecdotal evidence show that this is not the case. Collating exact figures is difficult, but local activists say that of around 3,000 casualties in Waziristan, just 185 were named al-Qaeda operatives. The Brookings Institution estimates that ten civilians die for every militant killed.

“The problem we have with Obama is this notion that if they have a beard and they are the right age then they are presumed to be terrorists,” says Clive Stafford Smith, head of the legal aid charity Reprieve. “I would estimate that the majority of people being killed are not the people who should be killed under anyone's definition.”

Shahzad Akbar is a Pakistani lawyer, representing 80 cases from Waziristan, the majority of whom have lost relatives to drone attacks. In a landmark case, he is attempting to prove firstly that these people can press charges for murder, and secondly, that their cases can come under the jurisdiction of the Islamabad courts. This is important because the Pakistan’s ungovernable tribal areas are federally administered and operate outside the normal bounds of law and order.

When we speak on the phone, he lists the cases: houses that were targeted while people were sleeping. People who died while attending funerals. Others killed while at jirgas, or meetings of tribal elders. Children asleep in targeted houses. Children playing and killed by shrapnel. Pharmacists. Local policemen. Schoolteachers. “These are Pakistanis employed by the state,” he says. “That is about as civilian as you can get.” And, as with any war, death is not the only outcome. Hundreds of people maimed, blinded, and disabled by the attacks, left with few prospects in an area beset by poverty.

The 800,000 people in Waziristan live under constant threat of death. Strikes frequently take place in the middle of the night, so they are not even safe sleeping in their homes. As standard, four or five drones circle the air, giving a sense of imminent danger and paranoia. The buzzing sound is a relentless presence; people refer to drones as “bees”.  In a chilling echo of this colloquialism, US operators refer to victims as “bugsplats”.
Local doctors report an “exponential” increase in the number of people requiring prescriptions for anti-anxiety drugs or anti-depressants. “Living under constant threat of death – that’s about as stressful as it gets,” says Stafford Smith.

Akbar says that at a meeting in Peshawar last month with people from the tribal areas, nearly everyone carried tranquilisers. “Everyone is constantly thinking about drones. They would take calls from home and their children tell them how many drones they have spotted. Women are possibly most worried. They aren’t allowed to go outside because of local traditions. They don’t know where their husbands, brothers, or sons go, and live in fear that they might not see those people again.”

A few years ago, public opinion in Pakistan was divided, with many liberals supporting drone strikes as a legitimate attack against the terrorists who threaten their way of life. But that was before the extent of civilian casualties was revealed, and now feeling is such that parliament has passed three resolutions condemning drones since 2011. A recent Pew poll found that 97 per cent of people viewed the attacks negatively, and it is set to be a key election issue. Seen as yet another assault on Pakistan’s sovereignty, it has cemented intense anti-US feeling in the country.

The population of Pakistan’s tribal areas operate under their own rules of rough justice and revenge. They are largely uneducated and live by traditions which Akbar describes as “centuries behind”. This compounds their disempowerment: they feel that they are outsiders, not part of the system, and that no-one cares what happens to them.  As the 80 families in Waziristan await the verdict on whether they will be able to press charges for the deaths of their relatives, Akbar explains that an important part of the process is trying to empower the local population, caught up in a remote-controlled war in which they are entirely defenceless. “If you protest, if you come out, if you contact the courts, you can actually do a lot. This is what we are trying to make them understand.”