Costs of a Blue Sky: The Realities of Drone Warfare


“I no longer love blue skies.”

The haunting words echoed throughout a silent U.S. Congress as 13-year-old Zubair Rehman, a native of North Waziristan, Pakistan, delivered his testimony two years ago.

“When the sky brightens, drones return and we live in fear. It’s something any 2-year-old would know.”

It’s a story we’ve grown deaf to over the past several years. After all, were blue skies really that important to our childhoods? More so than living free of terrorism? It wasn’t until I heard the same words from the mouth of my best friend that I began to investigate our nation’s drone policy with a critical eye.

In mid-October, several confidential government records of the U.S. drone program were leaked to The Intercept, an independent publication dedicated to bringing transparency and accountability to governmental and corporate institutions. The “Drone Papers” in many ways simply reaffirmed many of the fears critics already had of the drone wars supported by the Obama administration. Detailing the inner workings of our nation’s recent assassination programs in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, these papers reveal statistics nothing short of sickening: the campaigns have killed thousands of people in all three countries. The documents reveal that during one 5-month period, almost 90% of the people killed were not those targeted by the strikes.  The new leaked papers provide data, analyzed by the U.S. military itself, telling us that, in truth, we simply do not know who we are going to kill when we engage in such drone activity. The documents also demonstrate flaws in intelligence resources in Yemen and Somalia, leading to what The Intercept’s reporters call “firing blind.” For years, human rights groups have been attempting to gather concrete data on drone strike repercussions, criticizing the U.S. government for hiding operations and consistently mislabeling unknown civilian casualties as militants.

While it has been noted that these documents are only detailing operations in specific “conflict zones” and are not necessarily indicative of all drone operations around the world, Foreign Policy’s Michael Zenko notes that the drone papers represent over a decade’s worth of reporting and analysis. The government has never released detailed accounts or records of U.S. drone warfare at a comparable level to these papers. In light of such discrepancy, the papers comprise more than enough evidence to compel a full investigation of U.S. targeted killing policies.

When the information is laid out and combined with testimonies like that of 13-year-old Zubair, the ethics of U.S. drone policy over the past several decades appear questionable at best. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and numerous independent critics have released statements on how drone warfare traumatizes populations and forces children to stay home from school and avoid large gatherings. Testimony from civilians shows that their fear has prevented family members from attending relatives’ funerals in order to avoid creating a large group of people in one area.

“The drones are like the angels of death,” Pakistani shopkeeper Nazeer Gul told the New York Times. “Only they know when and where they will strike.”

Our nation’s willingness to turn warfare into a remote-controlled video-game has only increased tensions in the Middle East, East Africa and South Central Asia. It’s time for our government to be transparent with its policies, and to take responsibility for the continuously increasing bloodshed at our hands around the world. It’s time to reform counterterrorism efforts based on standards set two years ago, providing for an increased emphasis on intelligence gathering and an end to “guilty until proven innocent” militant labeling. If we’re to continue to fight groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, it’s time for us to give the children of the world the peace of mind we promised and stop giving them reason to pray for gray skies.

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