On January 23, 2009, the Obama Administration carried out its first drone strike in Pakistan, three days after the president's inauguration. But instead of striking the Taliban, the missile hit the house of Malik Gulistan Khan, a member of a pro-government peace committee, killing him along with three if his sons and his nephew. His family told me, "We did nothing, have no connection to the militants at all...our family supported the government. All we want to do is clear our names and to convince people we were harmed unjustly."
The US claims that despite a dramatic escalation of drone strikes in Pakistan, only 20 civilians were killed from January 2009-March 2010. They say less than 10 have been killed this year. Yet we here at CIVIC have uncovered 30 civilian deaths in only nine cases since 2009, casting serious doubt on US officials' claims.
Having spoken with innocent victims of drone strikes, their anger and despair is clear. Gul Nawaz, who lost 11 members of his family in a drone strike told me, "I blame the government of Pakistan and USA...they are responsible for destroying my family. We were living a happy life and I didn't have any links with the Taliban. My family members were innocent...I wonder, why was I victimized?"
Though victims acknowledged that drones often kill militants, they decried the strikes for the harm they cause to civilians and claimed that they are ineffective at combating militancy in the long-run. After years increasing drone strikes, civilians in these areas feel less, not more safe.
More transparency and accountability is absolutely necessary, as the New York Times and others have recently called for. That's a legal and political imperative for the US to protect the innocent and effectively combat terrorism, but it's also vitally important for victims themselves. In Afghanistan, victims of US operations receive compensation for harm. Across the border in Pakistan, there is no help or even investigations; victims are ignored and left to pick up the pieces on their own. Anger and despair are left in the wake.
The US and Pakistan need to come clean on drone strikes -- to explain to the public and victims the basis for targeting people and how they ensure civilian casualties are minimized. The US and Pakistan should also work together to create ways to recognize and help civilian victims of strikes, as Pakistan does in areas such as Swat Valley and the US does in Afghanistan. The US and Pakistan can no longer afford denial and victims deserve no less.