This Debate Has Been Redacted

A new report details the awful civilian casualties inflicted by American drones, but the arguments over the weapons' use have begun to feel grimly familiar.

We are at an impasse in the debate over America's use of drones and so-called "targeted killings." It is an impasse that the U.S. government can, and should, resolve.

The debate has come to follow a depressingly predictable pattern. Initial reports about a drone strike quote anonymous officials claiming that a number of militants were targeted. Journalists and human rights investigators then get word that local residents say civilians were killed. More detailed investigations are carried out. Witness testimony and other evidence, such as photos or videos of the victims and fragments of the missile, are gathered. Then, long reports are published alleging that the strikes killed or injured innocent men, women or children. Supporters of current U.S. practices critique these reports of civilian casualties, questioning their biases, evidence, or methods. In response, drone program critics dispute the relevance or validity of those reviews.

Officially, the U.S. government does not respond, or simply states that all strikes are investigated and comply with the law. Anonymous officials provide additional details to a select group of journalists. Those outside the government pore over these fragments of information, attempting to extract some nugget of truth. People on all sides of the debate often demand more transparency, although they are often seeking different kinds of information for very different reasons.  

At this point, it almost feels scripted.

And, so, on Thursday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released the most detailed account yet of one of the most controversial drone strikes of President Barack Obama's time in office: a widely reported December 2013 strike on a Yemeni wedding convoy that killed at least 12 and injured 15 more. The report concluded that while the United States may have intended to target suspected members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the evidence suggests that "some, if not all of those killed and wounded were civilians." (Earlier journalistic accounts reached similar conclusions.)

HRW's findings demand an official response from the U.S. government -- and not just the platitudes officials and spokespersons have parroted for the past year. The government needs to explain this strike and respond to the evidence of civilian deaths.

HRW presents evidence of civilian harm caused by this strike, but its legal and policy conclusions are delicately couched. The group ultimately does not say definitely whether the strike violated applicable law or policy, instead stating that the strike "may have" violated the laws of war, and that it "raises serious questions" about whether policies were followed. And HRW acknowledges at various points that more information is needed to make firm conclusions.

With this careful language, HRW's latest report also brings to the fore the fundamental problem in attempting to assess U.S. strikes. There is an asymmetry of information that is virtually insurmountable: key information remains in the sole possession of the U.S. government.

The laws of war state that, in cases of doubt, individuals should be presumed civilian. But in U.S. public discussion, those killed in drone strikes de facto begin as militants. Injured victims and family members must provide evidence of their own civilian status. If the criticisms of NGOs are to have any impact in the U.S. debate, those groups must gather significant amounts of testimony, as well as additional corroborative evidence.

But how does one definitively prove civilian status? Or prove that no members of al-Qaeda were near the strike at the time it occurred, thereby countering the argument that the civilian harm was lawful and proportionate? And how can outside actors know if any nearby al-Qaeda operatives constituted high-value targets? How can outside actors assess whether the U.S. took reasonable precautions prior to the attack?

Alleged victims or NGOs can provide evidence documenting civilian deaths, but it may be possible that some other, publicly unknown information could indicate that a strike was legal or justifiable. Many cases are simply irresolvable without detailed information from Washington.  

And so the American public and the international community are left concerned and ultimately guessing, repeatedly asking the same questions about the specific legal, policy, and factual basis for strikes.

The reported impact of civilian casualties in America's drone war extend beyond the immediate deaths, with significant consequences for individual Yemenis and U.S. efforts to win over their hearts and minds. HRW's report includes gruesome details, often absent from media accounts of strikes, on the wounds allegedly suffered by survivors. One man lost an eye, another his genitals. The report also highlights the broader, secondary impacts on family members. One of those allegedly killed left behind a blind father, a wife, and seven children, including a newborn. The groom in the convoy is quoted as saying that his wedding "became a funeral." A local sheikh who says he witnessed the strike says that the United States "turned many kids into orphans, many wives into widows." Other relatives and tribesman are said to have denounced the United States and Yemen, temporarily blocked a main road in protest, and demanded an international investigation.  

Yet the U.S. government refuses to meaningfully engage on the issues surrounding strikes like the one on the wedding convoy and refuses to explain its legal interpretations, specific policies, or conduct. In October 2013, HRW and Amnesty International released major reports detailing evidence of civilian deaths resulting from U.S. strikes, alleging that certain strikes between 2009 and 2013 violated international law and U.S. policy. The government responded to those reports by stating that it had not violated the law and claiming that it carefully examines whether any strike caused civilian deaths. No specific evidence refuting the reports was offered.

Government officials also referred to a May 2013 speech in which Obama publicly addressed drone strikes and released a summarized version of new policies governing targeted killings, which promulgated new restrictions on such strikes. The president stated that a strike would not be launched unless there was a "near-certainty" that no civilians would be hurt or killed and only where a target posed a "continuing and imminent threat" and could not be feasibly captured. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State John Kerry stated, "We do not fire when we know there are children or collateral [damage]....We just don't."

U.S. officials have repeatedly leaned on these kinds of assurances. They did so once more on Thursday in responding to HRW's new report. A Pentagon spokesman refused to comment on specifics, referring the Associated Press to Yemeni government statements that the targets were members of  AQAP. The National Security Council's spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, provided the Washington Post and Al Jazeera the same response she has offered journalists many times in the past: She would not comment on specifics, said the United States takes extraordinary care in its use of drones, and emphasized that civilian casualty claims are thoroughly investigated. The State Department seems to have not responded at all.

Meanwhile, anonymous U.S. officials "leaked" to the AP that two government investigations "concluded that only members of al-Qaida were killed" in the strike. How do they know this? What investigations were undertaken?

In the past, officials have stated that they "harness" their "relevant intelligence capabilities," gathering information from a "myriad" of sources. But it is has never been clear what kinds of investigations the government actually conducts. Indeed, the author of this latest HRW report, Letta Tayler, the organization's senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher, told me that she found no evidence that the United States had interviewed alleged witnesses of the wedding strike. And, on Thursday, Cori Crider, a lawyer at the NGO Reprieve, which investigates and has conducted advocacy against U.S. targeted killings practices, stated that the group wrote directly to the National Security Council about the strike "offering to connect them to witnesses and were ignored." In addition, two senior Yemeni officials told HRW that their sources said civilians were among the dead. But we still don't know what steps the United States took to determine that all those killed were al Qaeda.

U.S. lawmakers who had apparently watched a video of the wedding strike told the AP that the video "showed three trucks in the convoy were hit, all carrying armed men." But it is widely known that carrying guns in this region of Yemen is common and hardly indicative on its own of militancy. Surely, U.S. investigations and congressional oversight are based on far more than simply reviewing video in the aftermath of a strike, especially in a case like this.  But we don't know, because the government won't explain investigation outcomes or processes.

After Obama's May 2013 speech, criticism of U.S. drone strikes significantly abated. Many critics of the administration were apparently satisfied that the targeting rules were restrictive and that real reform on improved transparency was near. But Thursday's careful, detailed HRW report indicates that much, much more needs to be done to assure the public of the legality, ethics, and strategic effectiveness of the U.S. targeted killing program -- and to ensure accountability. The U.S. government should take the first necessary step to resolve the impasse over drone strikes by sharing information -- by explaining, on the record, its investigations into the wedding convoy strike and releasing at the very least redacted versions of the results of its investigations. It should do the same for past strikes in which civilian casualties have been credibly alleged, and for future ones.


Democracy Lab

When Is Negotiating Bad for Democracy?

Pakistan's efforts to talk with the Taliban are threatening to undermine the country's recent democratic gains.

Is it possible to negotiate peace with terrorists who openly eschew democracy, rule through violence, and vow to eliminate anyone who doesn't share their extreme beliefs? Or is a military response the only way to secure a sustainable peace and protect democratic values against such attacks? This essential dilemma is the subject of furious debate in Pakistan, where democrats are once again in an existential fight for the future of the country. But this time, they're fighting with Taliban terrorists, not the army.

Despite the achievements of Pakistan's decade-long march toward democracy, the start of so-called negotiations between the government and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has put those hopes in doubt. After years of struggle against military rule, parliament was finally able to rid the constitution of dictators' distortions -- but now, the Taliban have refused to accept its supremacy and declared democracy "un-Islamic." They are demanding, instead, that the constitution be replaced by their extreme interpretation of sharia as a condition for peace -- a position they have backed up by threatening to deploy 500 female suicide attackers ready to die for the cause.

The TTP have already demonstrated what a Taliban-style government would look like. In 2009, they seized control of the Swat Valley and implemented a brutal regime of public beheadings, beating women, and school closings until the army, backed by parliament, conducted an operation to retake the territory and impose the writ of the state. Can negotiations resolve such profound differences with those who are committed to destroy democracy?

Peace talks quickly turn conflict into a public relations battle, where the two sides must fight to win hearts and minds of the public. With surprising speed, the Taliban seized control of the public agenda just days after talks began in early February. They were able to focus the debate on the country's constitution -- shifting attention away from over their own self-proclaimed acts of terror, in which they have killed and injured an estimated 50,000 innocent Pakistanis; blown up public markets, cinemas, and schools; and completely cut off the tribal areas from the rest of the country. Instead of demanding a ceasefire and an end to the horrific violence, the government has desperately tried to convince the Taliban that the constitution is founded on sharia as a way to appease and keep them at the table.

How did this happen? How were the Taliban able to define the negotiation narrative in their favor while continuing to blow up public places, attack journalists and polio immunization teams, and brazenly murder kidnapped members of the security forces?

To find the answer, we need to look back to 2013. That year began as one of the most promising in Pakistan's history. A string of unprecedented transitions of power seemed to confirm that democracy had firmly taken root. The parliamentary elections saw an elected party complete its five-year mandate for the first time; it not only passed power peacefully to another party, but also announced its intention to act as a "constructive" opposition. The powerful chief of army, the feared head of Interservices Intelligence (ISI), and the hyper-active chief justice of the Supreme Court all retired at the end of their terms, and their successors took office without controversy. The stage was set for the country to unify behind a popular government and tackle the serious threat of terrorism.

Instead of capitalizing on these achievements, however, newly elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif retreated soon after the election into apparent hibernation, and did not once appear in parliament, and rarely in public, for the next year. During the preceding five years in opposition, Sharif had touted democracy and the supremacy of parliament as his defining mantra. Once elected, however, the reality was far different than the rhetoric. Besides his own unexplained absence from parliament, his government didn't introduce any major legislation and offered no coherent policy on terrorism for almost a year. The media assailed the prime minister's "dithering" and deemed his government "confused."

Imran Khan, meanwhile, head of the new Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, former cricket star and media darling in both Pakistan and the West, brashly blamed the Americans and drones for causing every Taliban suicide attack, explosion, and military ambush. Despite the fact that his party runs the government in Khyber Pakhtunkwa (the province where the Taliban strike most frequently), Khan, from the safety of his mansion on the outskirts of Islamabad hundreds of miles away, not only continued to act as though he were powerless to do anything about the attacks, but actually became a Taliban apologist, refusing to condemn their actions. When a teenage boy was killed trying to protect his fellow students during a suicide attack, no one from the PTI government attended his funeral. Last month, the PTI government blocked the launch of Taliban victim Malala Yousafzai's book at a university in Peshawar, the provincial capital.

The reclusive Sharif and the bombastic Khan made for a (literally) deadly combination. As the Taliban continued their murderous attacks, Khan continued to intone John Lennon's dictum that it was time "to give peace a chance." This was dubious, considering that none of the previous 11 peace accords with the Taliban have ever resulted in a lasting peace.

The established moderate opposition parties like the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and the Awami National Party (ANP), meanwhile, failed to grasp the significance of Khan's mastery of the media. They've focused their protest efforts exclusively on parliament, where they staged token walkouts over the prime minister's absence and demanded the government "take them into confidence" on the negotiations. They don't appear to understand that the fight for hearts and minds has little to do with parliamentary rules of procedure, votes on motions, or yet more parliamentary committees.

While they were calling in vain for parliamentary debate on closed-door decisions made in the privacy of the prime minister's house, Khan, who is also a member of parliament, was busy exploiting his photogenic good looks and celebrity status in TV studios, deftly using his simplistic message to tap popular fury at the Americans. The single loudest exception to Khan's pro-Taliban narrative comes from the PPP's 25-year-old chairman, Bilawal Bhutto, who has channeled his outrage into his Twitter account, where he blasts searing criticisms of what he perceives as the Khan-driven capitulation to the Taliban. While Asif Zardari -- his father, former president of Pakistan, and party leader -- has largely been silent, Bilawal has relentlessly tweeted a steady stream of indignation at how the government has surrendered to those who, many believe, assassinated his mother and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. While he doesn't yet have Khan's elected stature or omnipresence in the media, Bilawal's tweets have captured some media attention and become a focal point for those who share his despair and anger about the negotiations.

By the time the prime minister was ready to announce a strategy, Khan had boxed him into a corner. He used the months of dithering to shape public opinion and, according to Pakistani columnist Cyril Almeida, "mainstreamed extremism."

Despite the fact that most of his cabinet supports a military option, Sharif decided at the eleventh hour to announce that his government would pursue negotiations with the Taliban. He even used Khan's "give peace a chance" slogan to justify his decision. The fear of Khan eroding his support base in Punjab drove Sharif to put politics ahead of policy considerations in a decision that gambles with the safety and security of all Pakistanis and will have far-reaching repercussions throughout the region.

Pakistan's future is being negotiated by Taliban sympathizers representing the government on one side, and hardline extremists representing the Taliban on the other. According to PPP Senator Aitzaz Ahsan, the "Taliban are negotiating with the Taliban." The voice of mainstream, moderate Pakistanis has effectively been silenced, and elected officials kept in the dark.

The Taliban, however, may have already undermined their impressive PR success by their continued use of violence while talks were underway. (In the photo above, mourners bury the victims of a recent terrorist bus bombing in southwest Pakistan.) The murder of three police commandos in Karachi and the mass execution of 23 members of the Frontier Constabulary have put the future of the talks in question. The government committee, although sympathetic to the Taliban, announced that peace talks cannot proceed in such a context. Even Imran Khan was finally forced to condemn the blatant attack on the military, exposing the superficiality of his demand for talks with the extremists.

If talks somehow succeed, however, Sharif will be able to claim success. If they fail, the prime minister is betting that Khan's appeal will diminish, thus giving him the political freedom to stage a military operation. What remains unclear, however, is the cost of a negotiated agreement and how much Sharif is willing to pay for it. No less than the future of democracy in Pakistan is at stake.