New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 3 Oct 2012, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Shooting Down Drones with Academic Guns? — I


By Dr Mohammad Taqi

October 04, 2012

So the ‘independent’ conclusions the NYU and Stanford arrived at, were facilitated, nay, fed to them by Reprieve and its Pakistan wing, the FFR

Two new studies recently came out in the US criticising the use of weaponised unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones by the US against the terrorist targets in Pakistan and elsewhere. The debate over the drones is as old as the perhaps first known use of the Hellfire missile by the US, killing the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist leader Nek Muhammad Wazir in 2004. But the anti-US sentiment purported in these reports to be on the rise due to the continued drone attacks in FATA predates drone strikes by decades. The 1979 and 1989 attacks on the US embassy and the American Centre, respectively, in Islamabad had nothing to do with UAVs. There actually were no UAVs back then and the Pakistan and the US were allies against the big bad Soviet Union. The perpetrators in both instances were religious zealots egged on by the Pakistani state machinery.

Similarly, the anti-war and anti-US sentiment, predominantly of the European leftists and a few in the western academic circles, also antedates the use of drones and indeed the War on Terror (WoT). In opposing drones, the Muslim street and some leftists have made common cause against the US. The two reports appear to be an attempt by the anti-American Islamist-leftist coalition to trot out academic big guns to shoot down the drones, and by proxy US ‘imperialism’.

The first study, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan, conducted jointly by the Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law, calls for a re-evaluation of drone use. It claims that the ‘high-level’ terrorist targets killed by drones, as a percentage of total casualties, is extremely low and the cost to civilians, especially in the North Waziristan Agency (NWA), in terms of physical and psychological trauma is immense, making the exercise futile and indeed counterproductive.

For an academic cross-sectional study conducted over nine months, the principal authors, Professors James Cavallaro and Sarah Knuckey and the Clinical Lecturer Stephan Sonnenberg, leave much to be desired. For starters, the study was commissioned not by any independent agency but the UK-based group Reprieve of Clive Stafford Smith, which is not only an interested party in the campaign against drones but virtually an ally of the Pakistani political party Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan that has anti-Americanism as a cornerstone of its politics. The study notes: “In December 2011, Reprieve, a charity based in the United Kingdom, contacted the Stanford Clinic to ask whether it would be interested in conducting independent investigations into whether, and to what extent, drone strikes in Pakistan conformed to international law and caused harm and/or injury to civilians.” Similarities to the large pharmaceutical companies commissioning academics to produce favourable trials for their next big drug are eerie.

The Stanford Clinic then “agreed to undertake independent fact-finding and analysis on these questions, as well as others related to drone strikes and targeted killings in Pakistan” and started the project and “later, the NYU Clinic agreed to join the research”. To achieve ‘independent’ results, the two universities adopted a novel approach: “The Stanford and NYU Clinics have exchanged information and logistical support with Reprieve and its partner organisation in Pakistan, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR). The latter organisation assisted in contacting many of the potential interviewees, particularly those who reside in North Waziristan, and in the difficult work of arranging interviews. The Stanford and NYU Clinics designed the research project, analysed information, and drafted and edited the report independently from Reprieve and FFR.”

The report states, “The majority of the experiential victims interviewed were arranged with the assistance of the FFR, a legal nonprofit based in Islamabad that has become the most prominent legal advocate for drone victims in Pakistan...Nine of the 69 experiential victims are clients of the FFR.” Considering the minuscule sample size — 69 out of a NWA population of some 450,5000 — of the ‘experiential’ victims, there is a monumental selection bias and tremendous conflict of interest that renders this tainted for all practical purposes. But that is not it. The authors have clearly noted, “Some interviews also included a researcher from either Reprieve or the Foundation for Fundamental Rights.” Also of note is that this is effectively a descriptive, cross-sectional study in which no attempt was made to have any comparison with any sort of control population from within the drone-affected areas. So the ‘independent’ conclusions the NYU and Stanford arrived at, were facilitated, nay, fed to them by Reprieve and its Pakistan wing, the FFR.

The psychological trauma, anxiety and specifically the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among the civilian population gets a lot of mention in the report. However, the authors have relied solely on the information provided to them by the Pakistani mental health professionals. It is not clear if Reprieve also lined up these psychiatrists. It does not appear that the authors themselves used any of the easily available PTSD screening tools in the interviews or to verify the psychiatrists’ reports.

Also, while the focus of the study is the impact of drones, its complete silence over the psychological effects of terrorist attacks on the general population all over Pakistan is rather baffling. For example, compared to a total of roughly 350 drone attacks since 2004, there were well over 600 terrorist bombings and more than a 1,000 fatalities across Pakistan. In addition, over 35 targeted attacks on the Shia and other minorities took place in 2011, causing over 500 deaths. But apparently the idea of the study was to highlight only the alleged atrocities by the US, while glossing over the rein of terror unleashed over Pakistanis at large by those holed up in FATA and their handlers in and cohorts in ‘mainland’ Pakistan.

Life under drones is a catchy title, but the irony is that the authors did not venture beyond Peshawar and Islamabad, let alone actually studying life in the NWA or the other tribal Agencies. The study’s partisan findings are likely to lead to further bickering over the use of drones rather than help find answers for the tribal civilian population held hostage by perfidious terrorist groups that remain the primary target of the drones. In a blatant disregard for academic standards, NYU and Stanford have produced a shoddy, biased and politically motivated research that is tremendously skewed in favour of those who commissioned the study.

(To be continued)

Dr Mohammad Taqi can be reached at He tweets at