Drones are grey

Questions about the US's drone strikes refuse to go away. More clarity is needed.

On October 29, American legislators will, for the first time, hear testimonies from the civilian victims of a drone attack in Pakistan. Coming as it does in the context of two deeply critical reports released earlier this week, the debate around the US drone programme has been reignited. To say that the Obama administration's policy on surgical bomb strikes conducted via drones, based on intelligence on the locations of al-Qaeda operatives and other terrorists in places like Pakistan and Yemen, has been controversial would be an understatement. Official claims of civilian casualties are viewed with deep suspicion, in part because of statements like current CIA director John Brennan's improbable assertion in 2011 that "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop"

Such strikes have also become a contentious issue in the fraught relationship between the US and Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, visiting the US, called upon the latter to "end drone attacks" ahead of a meeting with President Obama. Anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani people is high, and the drone strikes are thought to be a contributing factor. Earlier this year, a leaked internal Pakistani document found that the number of civilian casualties was lower than claimed by Pakistani politicians but still higher than that admitted by the US government.

Part of the problem is that US claims on the accuracy of its attacks are difficult to verify. The drone programme is shrouded in secrecy and, despite intense pressure, the White House has resisted outlining legal guidelines for when and how drone strikes can be conducted. That military technologies like drones carry a moral hazard is well documented. It's important, then, to put a human face to the costs of waging a virtual war by, for instance, hearing the stories of those affected by such strikes.

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