It's Official Dogma in political Washington right now that you can't touch the Pakistan drone strike policy. "Wasting bad guys for free" is too popular, the story says; besides, Democrats have to have some military killing of foreigners that they're for, to give them political cover for the military killing of foreigners that they're against. Most Democrats want to get U.S. troops the hell out of Afghanistan (outside of Official Washington, most Republicans agree.) But, the story goes, these Democrats have to have an "alternative," and the "alternative" is drone strikes.
As a political matter, this story is true as far as it goes: it's true because people believe it to be true. But in order for this political story to continue to work, drone strikes have to continue to be a black box, about which you can claim "success," regardless of whether it is true. If people have to confront the actual reality of the Pakistan drone strike policy - the reality in which its impact is mostly about killing and terrorizing civilians and alienating Pakistani public opinion from the United States as opposed to the fairy tale in which it is all about wasting top-level "bad guys" - the political story will fall apart. A policy that does more harm than good isn't an alternative to anything.
Recall that in 2006-8 there was very little Democratic opposition to the war in Afghanistan. It was the "good war" and the "right war," unlike Iraq, which was the "bad war" and the "wrong war." If you pressed Democrats on why they were cheerleaders for the war in Afghanistan while they slammed the war in Iraq, some would say what amounted to: "well, we have to be for some war."
Today the situation is totally reversed on Afghanistan: Democrats overwhelmingly want to get out. What changed? Did the war change? Was the war in Afghanistan from 2009-12 fundamentally different from the war in Afghanistan from 2006-8? Or was it more that the perception of the war in Afghanistan changed, as the drawdown of troops in Iraq and the escalation of troops in Afghanistan brought the Afghan war under greater public scrutiny, so that it couldn't be a black box anymore, about which you could claim "success," regardless of whether it was true?
Now there is a new level of effort in the United States to open the black box of the drone strike policy and reveal to Americans the injustice that has been hidden inside the box. A report this week has given an unprecedented amount of mainstream media attention to impact on civilians of the drone strike policy. Next week I will join 34 other Americans in visiting Pakistan, meeting with the families of victims of US drone strikes, participating in a peace march against the drone strikes, and delivering a petition to US and Pakistani officials from Americans, calling for the drone strike policy to end.
Here are the facts that will cause the Pakistan drone strike policy to fall:
US drone strikes in Pakistan have killed and harmed too many civilians. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has reported 474 to 884 civilian deaths caused by US drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, including 176 children. Moreover, as a recent study from researchers at NYU and Stanford law schools notes, "US drone strike policies cause considerable and under-accounted for harm to the daily lives of ordinary civilians, beyond death and physical injury," as civilians live in a state of constant fear, since drones could strike at any time. Families are afraid to attend weddings or funerals, because US drone operators might strike them.
US drone strikes in Pakistan aren't making America safer. The Stanford/NYU study notes, "Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best ... The number of 'high-level' militants killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low - estimated at just 2%. Evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks."
US drone strikes in Pakistan have helped turn the Pakistani public against the United States. Three quarters of Pakistanis now consider the United States to be an enemy. Only 13% of Pakistanis think relations with the U.S. have improved in recent years; four-in-ten believe that US economic and military aid is having a negative impact on Pakistan, while only about one-in-ten think the impact is positive. Only 17% back U.S. drone strikes, even if they are conducted in conjunction with the Pakistani government.
US drone strikes in Pakistan violate international law. Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, has said that US drone strikes in Pakistan threaten fifty years of international law, and that some drone strikes may constitute war crimes. A recent Congressional Research Service report noted that the US claims that drone strikes in Pakistan are in "self-defense" run afoul of international law which limits self-defense against prospective threats to ones which are "imminent." And international law experts say that attacks on civilian rescuers are clearly illegal, regardless of whether they take place in a legal conflict or not.
US drone strikes in Pakistan violate U.S. law. The Administration claims the drone strikes in Pakistan were authorized by the 2001 authorization of military force after the 9/11 attacks. The 2001 AUMF authorized attacks on those who carried out the 9/11 attacks and those who harbored them. Judge Katherine Forrest has held that the 2001 AUMF did not cover mere "supporters" of such groups, and she questioned whether it covered "associated forces." Under this ruling "signature strikes" and "secondary strikes" would be illegal under U.S. law.
US drone strikes in Pakistan undermine democracy. US officials claim that the Pakistani government has secretly approved the strikes by not opposing them in private. But in public, Pakistani officials vigorously oppose the strikes. The Pakistani parliament has unanimously demanded that the drone strikes stop. Meanwhile, the US government refused to give the US public, Congress, or US media basic information about the drone strike policy, claiming the policy is "secret" even as US officials publicly boast of the policy's claimed successes. This lack of transparency undermines Americans' ability to democratically control US foreign policyin the public interest.
Sign our petition to end the drone strike policy in Pakistan, and we will hand-deliver it to U.S. and Pakistani officials in Pakistan.
Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.