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A “Fair” Assessment of Civilian Drone Deaths?

Academics celebrate UAV warfare even as the toll on noncombatants becomes undeniable.
A “Fair” Assessment of Civilian Drone Deaths?

Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised to come across a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) blog post on civilian collateral damage from our widely acknowledged drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen.

I say “surprised” because the elite foreign-policy community has been, until now, pathetically slow in acknowledging the magnitude of this issue, which is blood on our hands as a nation and as a society of so-called “enlightened” citizens of the world.

Before we get too excited, the blog post in question, written by CFR fellow Michah Zenko, doesn’t sound the alarm on human collateral damage so much as it weighs the varying data, including some of the most exhaustive fatality counts to date, provided by the UK-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism. (Leave it to the Brits to best us on our own watchdogging.) Zenko does make the clear point, however, that the Obama administration has been forced to backpeddle quite a bit from insisting there were no innocents lost in U.S-led drone strikes a year ago to now what the president calls “not … a huge number of civilian casualties.”

Funeral for a Pakistani boy who reportedly died in a 2009 drone srtrike

Not sure how one qualifies “huge,” but when you are dealing with approximately 200 dead children — which is the number of children the Bureau estimates have perished from drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia since 2004 — one should be mindful of sounding too nonchalant. “Unacceptable” would have been the more appropriate term, but as we are finding out more each day, the name of the game is “truthiness” not truth, message management not accountability.

Still, Zenko managed to stick in this jab at the administration:

In response to the Newsweek and Times reporting last week, the White House spokesperson said, “I am not going to get into the specifics of the process” and I don’t have the assessments of civilian casualties…we make great efforts to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.” That same day, the Pentagon spokesperson told reporters, “Specifics I can’t get into…I can assure you that the number of civilian casualties is very, very low,” and “we’re very confident that the number is very low.” In other words, the Obama administration is maintaining its “trust us” position on targeted killings, without providing any supporting evidence to reinforce that trust.

Glad someone in the Beltway Bubble is finally getting it. The New America Foundation, another of Washington’s top think tanks, has been assessing the drone strikes for some time too, by the way, though they have come up with much smaller fatality numbers than the Bureau. But at least they’ve been on the case.

That’s why I was more than a little disappointed in the reaction to this all from Dr. Christine Fair, an assistant professor at the School for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University. I’ve only met her personally once and practically in passing, but I find her to be one of the most knowledgeable American analysts on Pakistan I’ve heard. Her command of the history and the current political, military, and social landscape of this most complicated region is awe-inspiring, and coin of the realm in Washington, where poseurs and ham-n-eggers haunt every corner of the think tank world.

Syed Wali, killed in 2008 drone strike in Waziristan

That said, I was interested to read in Zenko’s piece that in 2010 she made the bold claim that “actually, the drones are not killing innocent civilians.” I clicked through the link, which brought me to a Jeremy Scahill column for The Nation, “Georgetown Professor: ‘Drones Are Not Killing Innocent Civilians’ in Pakistan’“:

Professor Fair, who has also worked for the RAND Corporation and as a political officer to the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan in Kabul, acted dumbfounded at the idea that the US drone strikes kill any civilians. “I take extreme exception top the way my colleague characterized the drones,” Fair said. “Actually the drones are not killing innocent civilians. Many of those reports are coming from deeply unreliable and dubious Pakistani press reports, which no one takes credibly on any other issue except for some reason on this issue. There’ve actually been a number of surveys on the ground, in FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas]. The residents of FATA generally welcome the drone strikes because they know actually who’s being killed. They’re very much aware and who’s being killed and who’s not.”

Scahill further linked to the television interview segment where the remarks were made. Her “colleague” with whom she so adamantly disagreed was former Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer, who spent 25 years in the military, mostly in defense intelligence, and served in Afghanistan. He was pushed out of the military for wandering off the reservation in his book Operation Dark Heart in 2010. His point in this particular interview was that the drone strikes in Pakistan were creating more terrorists — a radical concept.

“The Taliban are more motivated than ever to come at us,”  Shaffer said.  “The Predator program [in Pakistan] is having the same effect in Afghanistan two years ago in killing innocents.”

No one seems to dispute now that the strikes have contributed to civilian body counts, so I quipped via Twitter yesterday that I wondered if Dr. Fair had ever retracted her statements. This is how she replied:

“Dude! I am still very much pro drones. Sorry. They are the least worst option. My bed of coals is set to 11.”

I was disturbed by this flippant response on several levels, but dared not reply because I felt that the 140 character limit would only serve to make me look too peevish, or melodramatic, or worse, unnecessarily hostile. But I felt disappointed because I think that if someone has invested so much time and energy in learning about a foreign culture, mastering the Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi languages, she could do more than laugh off her own apparent disregard for the destruction our bombs are causing to people and property there.

Does she still believe the drones are “not killing innocent civilians” in places like Waziristan? Apparently not. In a August 2011 New York Times story about the disconnect between what the government was saying regarding civilian casualties and reports from the ground, she acknowledged civilians had been killed — but the numbers were very low and the drones highly effective in killing the bad guys.

However, she said the C.I.A. should make public its strikes and their results — even to the point of posting video of the strikes online.

“This is the least indiscriminate, least inhumane tool we have,” Ms. Fair said. “But until there is complete transparency, the public will not believe that.”

So, there if there is no “complete transparency,” how does Dr. Fair know how low the civilian deaths are? Are we to believe here that this assistant professor has greater access to classified government information than we do? If not, then she too is taking the administration and its minions at their word, and that makes her a bigger dupe than any of us bleeding hearts who at least have a healthy skepticism of what our government tells us. Especially when that government tells us one thing about civilian casualties one day and then changes its tune a year later when the heat is on.

Another reported child casualty of the U.S drone war in Pakistan

Frankly, I would rather Dr. Fair had disputed the data from the Bureau or the lawsuits launched on behalf of innocent victims in the Islamabad courts, but instead she chose to double down and support the entire drone war as a “least worst option.” What does that even mean anyway? It’s like saying a wife should stay with an abusive husband because he is the “least worst option.” To what? Homelessness? Death? Are we not to discuss the “best options” or “the very worst best option”?

It’s all very empty and glib and reduces a serious issue to a chatty exchange in an ivory tower. It’s not very attractive. Especially to the outside world, which is always watching. Twitter may not have been the best venue for such a discussion, and I hope I am wrong about Dr. Fair’s true feelings. But probably not. She is a good surrogate for the government’s narrative about drones and counterterrorism, and that’s her choice. I just wish she were on our side.

** Photos taken by photojournalist Noor Behran



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