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Drones: Waging war on civilians with a click of a mouse

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In an era of hi-tech warfare, pilotless planes are supposed to kill only the "bad guys". But, writes Siân Ruddick, the truth is that punishing civilians has always been part of the plan
Issue 2309
Drones: Waging war on civilians with a click of a mouse

Drones, or unmanned aircraft, have become a defining feature of the seemingly endless “war on terror”. The missile-loaded planes have been tested and used by the US since before 9/11.

They have no pilot—or rather, their pilot sits thousands of miles away with a joystick and a screen which shows them what the drone’s camera can see.

Barack Obama’s administration has consistently used them as its central way of carrying out bombing raids and surveillance missions.

Obama’s first drone strike in Pakistan came on 23 January 2009—three days after his inauguration. The missiles struck the house of Malik Gulistan Khan. Five members of his family were killed. “I lost my father, three brothers, and my cousin,” said Adnan, Malik’s 18 year old son.

Obama has presided over 278 drone strikes in total. And it’s not just a US tactic—Britain’s forces are increasingly relying on drones too.

This is partly in response to the simmering discontent on both sides of the Atlantic with a war without end. The deaths and injuries of soldiers make a deeply unpopular war even more so.

So the fundamental piece of propaganda about drones is that they are precise. Drone enthusiasts claim that they only kill the people they target, meaning that they are the safest weapons for both soldiers and civilians.


But tragedy upon tragedy contradicts this lie. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has collated verified media and human rights reports to take a forensic look at the use of drones and the civilian casualties they cause.

On 4 June this year 16 people were killed and others injured in one of the deadliest US drone strikes in North Waziristan at Hasukhel village in Pakistan. A drone fired two missiles that struck a house in the village, killing six people on the spot and injuring five others.

A tribesman said, “Later, the drone fired another two missiles and killed ten people when villagers rushed there and started rescue work retrieving the bodies and pulling out the injured persons from the debris of the house.”

The most intensive use of drones is in Pakistan, where the US is fighting what it claims are Al Qaida militants on the border with Afghanistan.

The 330 drone strikes on Pakistan since 2004 have killed at least 2,500 people. Credible reports say that at least 482 of these were civilians. In should be noted that men of fighting age are never categorised as civilians by Western forces.

Reports of the attacks are horrific. On 23 June 2009 the CIA attacked a public funeral attended by thousands, in an effort to kill a senior Taliban commander. Between 18 and 45 civilians were among 83 killed.

At first the Pakistani state tacitly supported the strikes, saying that terrorism had to be tackled in border provinces. But anger among ordinary people has forced the state to condemn the attacks.

The US regularly attacks people trying to help the injured from drone strikes. This includes in villages, mosques and at funerals and weddings.

And on 3 June, a drone strike targeted people gathered for funeral prayers for victims killed in an earlier attack. The intended Taliban targets appear to have survived, although up to ten people died. A mosque was also struck last month killing at least three worshippers.


The operation is widely thought to be run by the CIA, which launches strikes from the remote Shamsi airfield. This is in Pakistan but only 50km from the Afghanistan border. Here drone aircraft are maintained and sent off on their murderous missions.

US drone strikes in Pakistan have risen from one a year in 2004 to one every four days under President Obama. And their use isn’t limited to Pakistan. In the Yemeni city of Jaar, a US drone strike killed up to 26 civilians on 15 May.

Even Afghanistan’s puppet president Hamid Karzai has been forced to speak out against them as he struggles to cling onto office.

As recently as 9 June this year, a US drone bombed Logar in eastern Afghanistan. The strike killed civilians including 18 women, children and elderly people gathered for a wedding party.

This same nightmare has kept repeating for the Afghan people since the US invaded and occupied in 2001.Night raids by troops and drone strikes make a deadly combination. The US is waging this drone war in anticipation of withdrawal by the end of 2014.

We don’t know exactly how many civilians have been killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan but the United Nations believes it is well into the hundreds.

Although advances in drone technology continue apace, drones are part of a long history of arms-length state murder. From the first development of firearms to bombs thrown out of planes in the First World War to the use of cruise missiles, technology has been used to “sterilise” acts of war.

Bombing raids have been used from Guernica and Dresden to Afghanistan as a way to intimidate populations, crush cities and break the resistance of ordinary people. Drones are the latest barbarism in this long, terrible tradition.

Grim reaper firms are piling on profits

Drones don’t just mean mass murder—they are also big money. There are drone research and development projects in 44 countries. Many weapons companies are now moving into the growing market.

General Atomics was awarded a £55 million contract to provide logistical support for its Warrior drones being developed for the US army.

This follows a £33 million contract for spare parts, deployment readiness packages and ground support equipment for the MQ-9 Reaper—an unmanned aerial vehicle also known as the Predator B drone.

But the full extent of drone profiteering remains shadowy. Noah Schachtman, a contributing editor for Wired magazine said in December 2010, “With the Pakistan strikes… you don’t know who these people are. The extent to which contractors are involved is shrouded in mystery.”

Each drone carries up to 14 Hellfire missiles, made for blowing up tanks. Each individual missile costs £43,000, weighs 45kg, and can easily kill everyone in a small building.

Part of the appeal is that drones are far cheaper than fighter planes. A drone can cost £25 million, while a jet can cost over £200 million.

The system works a bit like a console games controller. Each drone has high-resolution cameras and sensors to see things on the ground—and heat sensors, so they can tell where people are.

Losing count of the dead

Just how many civilians have drone strikes killed? The US seems unwilling to count. One White House official claimed that the number of civilian casualties from drones in Pakistan was in “single digits”.

On 4 November last year the CIA said that 60 had died. In the same month a senior US official said it was “a handful”. And in August 2011 a CIA official claimed that “zero” civilians had been killed.

Yet this would mean that fewer civilians were killed by drones under Obama than George Bush, even though drone use has increased.

UN investigates drones ‘war crime’

The UN Human Rights Council is investigating claims that drone strikes violate international law. UN official Christof Heyns this week requested information from the US government as to why they try to kill, rather than capture, suspected terrorists.

Heyns believes some of the strikes could constitute war crimes. The Obama administration has so far been reluctant to provide any information. It ignored a similar request from the UN in 2009.

Britain won’t be left behind

Drones are not just a US tactic. Britain’s use of drones in Afghanistan has risen dramatically. RAF pilots, based in the Nevada desert in the US, have fired 281 Hellfire missiles in Afghanistan.

In the past 12 months alone 105 such attacks have been ordered. The British government says it doesn’t know how many civilians have been killed in the drone attacks.

For more on drones from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism go to

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