The drone war is obscure by design. Operated by armchair pilots from clandestine bases across the American west, the Predators and Reapers fly over Afghanistan, Yemen, and Pakistan's Tribal Areas at invisible heights, where they are on orders from the CIA to kill "high value" targets with laser-guided "surgical" precision thousands of feet below. But because of where the Hellfire missiles land, and because the program is operated in secret, verifying their precision and their lasting effects isn't easy.
For years, US officials have downplayed the number of civilian deaths in particular, even as a chorus of independent reports have offered their own grim estimates. The latest, according to new research by the United Nations and Amnesty International: 58 civilians killed in Yemen, and up to nine hundred in Pakistan. In a speech in May, President Obama finally broke his silence on drones, acknowledging that civilians had been killed—he didn't say how many—and promising more transparency for the program. “Those deaths," added the President, "will haunt us for as long as we live."
For journalist Madiha Tahir, the numbers are important, but they're not the whole story. Her documentary "Wounds of Waziristan," which premieres above, features interviews with the people who live in the southern part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, bordering Afghanistan, under the eyes of the drones, and in the wake of their destruction. The film switches up the typical calculus that drives the drone debate at home. Tahir, who grew up between Pakistan and the U.S., points out that drone strikes aren't just about the numbers of casualties, or the kinds of ethical arguments that arise around "just war" concepts like proportionality. The effects of the drone war have as much to do with the way those casualties rip apart communities and haunt the living, in distant places that exist on the fringes of law and order.
"Because drones are at a certain remove, there is a sense of uncertainty, a sense that you can't control this," Tahir says, describing the attitude among the people who live in Waziristan. Already haunted by the legacy of British colonialism and the laws it left behind, this part of the Tribal Areas is now ruled with a brutal fist by the Pakistani military and various insurgent groups. But the buzz of the drones, sometimes seven or eight overhead a day, signals another kind of indeterminate power. "Whether its true or not, people feel that with militants there is some degree of control. You can negotiate. There is some cause and effect. But there is no cause and effect with drones. It's an acute kind of trauma that is not limited to the actual attack."
For the operators of the drone program, who have launched more than 300 missile attacks in Pakistan since 2008, the political vacuum of the Tribal Areas have encouraged a special kind of war-on-terror calculus. As the New York Times reported last year, the American government has been counting all military-age males in a strike zone as “militants,” which leads to skewed figures about who exactly has been killed. The Obama administration has executed "signature strikes," drone attacks based on a so-called “pattern of life” analysis in which simply suspicious behavior is enough to qualify for an attack. And in a so-called "double tap" maneuver, a second attack follows an initial strike, killing those who have come to recover bodies from the scene.
"When an attack happens, the media claims to know how many militants were killed," says Noor Behram, a journalist in the Tribal Areas who has been photographing the casualties of drone strikes for years. "Actually, you only find body parts on the scene, so people can't tell how many have died."
In one interview, Tahir speaks with a man from South Waziristan named Karim Khan, whose brother and son were killed in a drone strike. "What is the definition of terrorism?" he asks her, and she returns the question to him. His tired eyes light up.
"I think there is no bigger terrorist than Obama or Bush," he says. "Those who have weaponry like drones, who drop bombs on us while we are in our own homes, there are no greater terrorists than them."
Despite the secrecy, independent reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, combined with a set of leaked cables detailing dealings between Islamabad and Washington and published in the Washington Post, have shed new light on the still-secret program. On October 29, a family injured in a strike that Amnesty International mentions in its report is scheduled to testify before Congress (though their lawyer, Shahzad Akbar, who also appears in the film, has been denied a visa.)
In a separate report last week to the UN, which is due to be discussed before the General Assembly in New York on Friday, the special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson called for the US to declassify the program, which he said may be in violation of international laws—a claim that many officials and rights groups have echoed. The US, which has slowed the rate of drone strikes to their lowest level in five years, insists they are "necessary, legal, and just."
"By hiding behind arguments of secrecy and exploiting the difficulty in confirming details of specific strikes due to the lawlessness, remoteness and insecurity of Pakistan’s Tribal Areas," Emmerson writes, "the USA is contributing to the litany of violations and abuses endured by a population that has been both neglected and assaulted by their own state and victimized by al-Qa’ida, the Taliban and other armed groups."
Reports like the UN's can help make the effects of drone strikes more tangible, Tahir says. But deeper, persistent wounds linger, ones that are harder to calculate. "There need to be ways we can talk about drones beyond the legal discourse," she says. "What are the ways we can think about what it means to experience life under drones, and about exactly what it means to be, as the President said, 'haunted' by the loss of life."