This weekend, Pakistan ordered the closure of the US drone base after a US attack killed 26 Pakistani soldiers near the Afghan border. This news will be welcomed by the people of Waziristan, where communities have borne the brunt of the "collateral damage" of the US covert drone war. But for many, this decision comes too little too late. For too long, authorities ignored the deaths of innocent civilians being "bugsplat" by drones. After a recent trip to Pakistan to investigate the human consequences of the US drone attacks, I had no idea how close I was to come to understanding the horror of it.
In Islamabad I took part in a jirga – the traditional Pashtun forum for public discussion and dispute settlement – where tribal elders and villagers from the Pakistan tribal areas (FATA) came to meet with us to explain their personal experiences of US drone attacks. Sitting just two rows behind me was a 16-year-old boy named Tariq Aziz. Listening to story upon story of the extrajudicial murder of innocent civilians and children, the heartache for loved ones lost and the constant terror instilled by the now familiar roar of drones overhead, I could not have imagined that Tariq and his family would soon suffer the same fate.
Three days later Tariq was killed along with his 12-year-old cousin Waheed when their car was targeted by a Hellfire missile as they headed home to Norak, a village in Waziristan near the Afghan border.
Drones are described not only as the future of warfare, but as risk-free war. But Tariq\’s death – and the hundreds of other civilian deaths recorded in a recent Bureau of Investigative Journalism study – demonstrate that this PlayStation warfare is only risk-free for operators of these remote-controlled killers. From the safety of an office building in Langley, Virginia, CIA operatives play games with Pakistanis\’ lives.
As I landed at Heathrow, thousands of miles away from the dirt road where Tariq and Waheed now lay dead, a CIA operative in northern Virginia will have reported "bugsplat". Bugsplat is the official term used by US authorities when humans are killed by drone missiles. The existence of children\’s computer games of the same name may lead one to think that the PlayStation analogy with drone warfare is taken too far. But it is deliberately employed as a psychological tactic to dehumanise targets so operatives overcome their inhibition to kill; and so the public remains apathetic and unmoved to act. Indeed, the phrase has far more sinister origins and historical use: In dehumanising their Pakistani targets, the US resorts to Nazi semantics. Their targets are not just computer game-like targets, but pesky or harmful bugs that must be killed.
It was Hitler who coined this phraseology in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust. In Mein Kampf, Hitler refers to Jews as vermin (volksungeziefer) or parasites (volksschädling). In the infamous Nazi film, Der ewige Jude, Jews were portrayed as harmful pests that deserve to die. Similarly, in the Rwandan genocide, the Tutsis were described as "cockroaches". This is not to infer genocidal intent in US drone warfare, but rather to emphasise the dehumanising effect of this terminology in Nazi Germany and that the very same terms are used by the US in respect of their Pakistani targets. The US asserts that targeted killings are justified as a necessary counter-terrorism measure: Terrorists and militants are the pesky bugs that must be swatted.
The term "bugsplat" dehumanises their targets – often innocent civilians – with families, friends, hopes and aspirations. I will never forget the pensive, yet curious look Tariq gave us as we joined the jirga, a look so reminiscent of my brothers at that same age. He had his whole life ahead of him. But two days later, "bugsplat", and Tariq and Waheed brought the known total of children killed by drones in Pakistan to 175.
Obama has launched more drone attacks in Pakistan than Bush – one every four days – but allegedly insists that strikes "do not put … innocent men, women and children in danger". John O Brennan, Obama\’s top counter-terrorism adviser, said in June that "there hasn\’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision or the capabilities we\’ve been able to develop". Yet, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 225 of those killed in drone attacks during the Obama administration "may have been civilians". Add Tariq to the fast-growing list.
How do we know how many civilians are being killed? From what I heard from village elders at the jirga, the majority were civilians, not militants. Was Tariq a militant? By all accounts, no. Yet "official" reports of the attack told us that four militants had been killed. In truth, the only victims were Tariq and his young cousin.
Access to information and reliable statistics is vital. Neither the US nor Pakistan provide accurate reports of civilians killed, in breach of the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings. Reprieve, a British charity, is working together with lawyers and villages to better document the attacks. Tariq had volunteered for this task. He did so in the hope that his efforts would assist us – foreign lawyers – to raise awareness and to take legal action to stop the collateral murder he witnessed in his homeland and to compensate its victims.
Clive Stafford-Smith of Reprieve alleges that Tariq was targeted for his efforts: Informants must have attached a tracker to their car after our meeting; otherwise, he argues, it would be unlikely for the CIA to have picked two innocent children from a population of 800,000. Whether his allegation is proven or not, the legal point is simple: Tariq\’s murder by drone was an extrajudicial execution in breach of international law and Pakistani law.
What evidence did they have to suspect Tariq of being a militant? We will never know, because he was never questioned and he was never tried. Tariq deserved better. The people of the Pakistan deserve better.
Attacks like these on innocent children fuel anger and resentment. Imran Khan, leader of Pakistani political party PTI, argues that the US counter-terrorism strategy in Pakistan is counter-productive: Rather than targeting militants, drone attacks merely create them. For every innocent civilian like Tariq that is killed, many more militants are created. Having witnessed the fervent emotion expressed during the jirga in Islamabad and the sorrow and anger I felt upon hearing of Tariq\’s death, I cannot but agree.
Tariq was an innocent 16-year-old boy whose life and death should never have been reduced to the term "bugsplat". As Pakistan retaliates against the US for the loss of its soldiers, it is time to re-humanise the drone debate and consider more carefully its military – and civilian – consequences.
(Jennifer Robinson is a London-based human rights lawyer. This article was first published in Aljazeera.com)