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Global Conflicts

'More informed debate' needed in 'secret' drone war in Pakistan

About 2,500 people have been killed in US drone attacks on Pakistan's tribal regions in the last nine years. It's crucial to identify the victims, says Jack Serle from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

DW: Why is it important to give the dead a name?

Jack Serle: There are two reasons. First of all, we are trying to bring transparency to what is fundamentally a secret nine-year war in Pakistan's tribal areas. We believe that by giving each of these dead people a name, hopefully a picture of their face and certainly some biographical information, we will enable a debate that's going on about the merits of the drone campaign and the legality of it.

You have claims coming from the [United] States that everybody killed is a militant of some sort and you have counter claims coming from other areas saying that the drones only kill civilians. And we believe that by providing a stronger evidence base, we will be able to have a more informed debate.

The second reason is more general than that: These people are people, and by giving them names we return that humanity to them and stop them from being merely numbers, statistics in an ongoing war.

How does the definition of 'militant' that the CIA and the US military are using differ from the definition that you are using - if it differs at all?

We understand from reporting from the [United] States that the White House Administration has viewed individuals of military age - which I understand is somewhere in the region from 16 or 18 and up, males of those ages in the strike areas - are considered militants unless posthumously proven otherwise. We don't have a definition of 'militant,' and it's important to bear in mind that 'militant' doesn't have a legal definition under international law in the same way that a 'combatant' or a 'non-combatant' does.

A US Predator unmanned drone armed with a missile stands on the tarmac of Kandahar military airport (Photo: Massoud Hossaini)

Since 2009 there have been more than 300 drone strikes over Pakistani territory

What we present in our database - rather than saying that one person is a militant and another is a civilian - is we will say that they are reportedly a militant; that they have been reported in the wealth of sources that we draw our information from as a militant, or that they have been reported as a civilian. It's important to bear in mind that we are publishing a live project as we go along, this is very much only the start of what we put up online. And therefore each of these entries for each of these individuals is open to be amended.

If anybody can come forward with compelling evidence to show that one person is in fact a member of an outlawed organization like the Taliban and not in fact a civilian then we will happily incorporate that into our record. And vice versa, if somebody can show that an alleged Taliban militant is in fact just a farmer, then we will gladly incorporate that into our information as well.

What kind of picture are you building up of people who have been killed by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan?

About 2,500 people or more have been killed overall, and of those we have got the names of 568. There are people from all over the world who have gone to Pakistan for various reasons, people from the UK, Germany, Yemen, Iraq, and people from Pakistan itself. The dead are a mixture of men, women and children, who are living in this area where the drone strikes are happening. Some are very senior al Qaeda figures like Ilyas Kashmiri, some are taxi drivers or pharmacists or local mechanics from the tribal agencies.

Why is it that a data gathering project like this has fallen to an independent investigative journalism bureau rather than to the CIA itself?

The CIA is a fundamentally secret organization. It's a truism, but it bears repeating that under law, a lot of what it does has to remain secret, and is only reported to various administrational or senate and congressional committees. We believe that what they are doing requires a greater degree of transparency than that is going to allow. We feel that there needs to be a debate over what is happening in Pakistan, and we feel that there needs to be solid evidence to support that so we have taken it upon ourselves to provide that evidence base.

People shout slogans during a protest rally against US drone strikes in central Pakistan's Multan photo/Stringer)

People in Pakistan have started protesting against drone strikes

Could you give a few personal illustrations of people whose stories have come to light as the result of your investigations?

There are 568 of them so I am going to have to think carefully about which ones I provide you with. As is the nature of a conflict like this there are civilians who have been killed who one would like to know more about.

But unfortunately one of the things we have found is that it's the real top echelon militants who get the full biographical timeline published in the press, because these are notorious individuals.

But there is one man who does spring to mind, a 45-year-old individual called Malik Daud Khan. He was a tribal elder; he lead a jirga, a kind of council which resolves local disputes. The jirga was supposed to be resolving a conflict between various people over the rights to mine Chromite, which is one of the few natural resources in the area.

About 50 people were collected together, and Malik Daud Khan and various other tribal elders were discussing the issues when they were killed. This is a man whose son described him as a strong proponent of democracy and development in the area, he was well-loved by his tribe and by the surrounding areas. And he was working to try and resolve internal conflict between people going about their everyday lives when he was killed.

Jack Serle is a journalist with the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism which runs the Naming the Dead project.

DW.DE

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