Domestic buildings have been hit by drone strikes more than any other target in the CIA’s 10-year campaign in the tribal regions of northern Pakistan.
A new research has revealed that since 2008, in neighbouring Afghanistan drone strikes on buildings have been banned in all but the most urgent situations, as part of measures to protect civilian lives.
A new investigative project by the Bureau, Forensic Architecture, a research unit based at London’s Goldsmiths University, and New York-based Situ Research reveals that in Pakistan, domestic buildings continue to be the most frequent target of drone attacks.
Over three-fifths (61percent) of all drone strikes in Pakistan targeted domestic buildings, with at least 132 houses destroyed, in more than 380 strikes.
At least 222 civilians are estimated to be among the 1,500 or more people killed in attacks on such buildings. In the past 18 months, reports of civilian casualties in attacks on any targets have almost completely vanished, but previously almost one civilian was killed, on average, in attacks on houses.
The research reveals a continued policy of targeting buildings throughout the CIA’s campaign in Pakistan, despite an instruction in Afghanistan from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the body which commands foreign operations in the country, that forces operate under the rule that ‘all compounds are assumed to house civilians unless proven to be clear’.
This rule has been in place since at least September 2008 when, according to a leaked classified report, ISAF introduced a Tactical Directive that ‘specifically called for limiting airstrikes on compounds to avoid civilian casualties when ISAF forces are not in imminent danger’.
In both Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, people tend to live in buildings that are often described as ‘compounds’.
Mansur Mahsud, director of Islamabad-based organisation the Fata Research Center, describes the way people live in these areas, “One compound is used by many families, like brothers and first cousins, although every family has their own portion or space in the compound. The compounds in these agencies are quite big–most would measure half an acre or more. Normally you will find 20-25 people living in one compound and in some cases you will find more than 50.”
When drones attack buildings in Pakistan, the target is typically described in media reports as a ‘compound’–and often as a ‘militant compound’. But these are usually domestic structures, which are often rented or commandeered by militant groups.
According to a US official, “US counterterrorism operations are precise, lawful, and effective. The US takes extraordinary care to ensure that its counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law, and that they are consistent with US values and policy.”
While, over the 10 years of the drone campaign in Pakistan, strikes on houses have been more dangerous for civilians, in the past 18 months there have been no confirmed reports of civilian casualties in any attacks–despite a rise in the proportion of strikes that hit houses.
The research also reveals that on average more civilians die when a building is targeted than when a vehicle is hit.
A project has found that the deaths of women are particularly vulnerable to being underreported.
Women and children are more likely to stay indoors and therefore less likely to be seen “by a drone operator monitoring the structure”, says Susan Schuppli, senior research fellow at Forensic Architecture and the project coordinator. Women and children’s “relative seclusion within private space makes them particularly vulnerable to becoming an unknown casualty when a strike occurs,” she said.
The US official said, “The US government only targets terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. Period. Any suggestion otherwise is flat wrong. Furthermore, before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured–the highest standard we can set.’
Drone strikes are just one of many threats to property in FATA. Localised violence between rival militant groups, and between the Army and militant groups is a frequent occurrence-killing civilians and destroying buildings. Since December the Pakistan military has carried out several large-scale bombings on suspected militant targets, including in urban areas. Scores of civilians have reportedly been killed.
At least a quarter of drone strikes in Pakistan hit vehicles–cars, motorbikes and pickup trucks, according to the research, and these attacks were significantly less likely than average to harm civilians. There have been no confirmed civilian casualties in strikes on vehicles at night.
The analysis has found that strikes on mosques and madrassas–religious schools–are the deadliest. At least eight strikes have hit such targets, killing over 17 people on average in each attack. At least 99 civilians have reportedly been killed in total.
The drone strikes on vehicles in Yemen do kill civilians. However, they are generally targeted when in sparsely populated areas, outside urban spaces. This appears to be a conscious effort to reduce collateral damage. In general the attacks in Yemen are reportedly less lethal for civilians. In Yemen on average one civilian is killed in every other strike whereas in Pakistan, on average more than one civilian is killed in each strike.