The controversial campaign of U.S. drone strikes has been intensely focused on small northern Pakistani communities near the Afghan border.
Throughout this week, CityLab is running a series on borders—both real and imagined—and what draws so many of us to places on the edge.
This week at CityLab, many of my colleagues have written about the numerous ways borders shape the lives of those alongside them. But a border’s force on people is always relative. For those with more power than the group attempting to enact the imagined division, a border is nothing more than a line on a map.
President Obama’s controversial “drone war” in Pakistan illustrates the weakness of a border lacking any significant political capacity to enforce it. Though the Pakistani high court has ruled against these drone strikes and the Pakistani public is vehemently against them, since 2009 the Obama administration has repeatedly crossed the Afghan border line to target alleged terrorists in Pakistan. UN officials have said these cross-border actions violate Pakistani sovereignty, and human rights groups like Amnesty International condemn many of the strikes as war crimes. According to data from the U.K.-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the strikes killed 424 to 966 civilians from 2004 to 2016.
Most of the U.S. drone bombings in Pakistan have taken place in the semi-autonomous tribal regions of Northwest Pakistan, where the American military believes Al Qaeda, Taliban, and other terrorist groups have sought refuge. To visualize the concentration of bombings along the Pakistani-Afghan border, CityLab took data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which compiled all American drone bombings that could be geolocated in Pakistan between 2004 to 2013. In the time lapse map below, you can see how the bombings began during George W. Bush’s administration, accelerated with the entrance of President Obama into office in 2009, peaked in mid-2010, and have declined more recently. The thicker line running diagonally through the middle of map is the Afghan-Pakistani border:
In the map below, you can see all the drone strikes that could be precisely geo-located that resulted in civilian killings. Dots are sized by the maximum amount of reported civilians killed; they represent a total of 416 to 957 civilian deaths from 2004 to 2013. Click on each drone strike to see the number killed, total killed, total injured, the number of missiles fired, the town targeted, and the date of the strike.
As you can see, zooming out farther, these strikes are quite concentrated, mostly confined to North West Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, especially in the Pashtun regions of North and South Waziristan.
The effectiveness and legitimacy of these strikes is a hotly disputed topic. While the bombing campaign has likely seriously weakened terrorist networks and taken out key militant leaders, the cross-border killings of civilians has also contributed to the rise of anti-American sentiments among the population. According to a 2012 NYU and Stanford Law School report, many Pakistanis in this area assume the U.S. actively seeks to kill them solely for being Muslims. The strikes have profoundly affected daily life in this remote territory, which faces one of the highest poverty rates in the world. Residents report fear of engaging in social activities like weddings or funerals, since large groups of people may draw military attention.
As many critics have observed in these last days of the Obama Administration, the drone war could be one of President Obama’s most enduring legacies. Though the strikes have significantly decreased over the last two years, the institutionalization of this practice makes clear that the border itself guarantees no protection for those living on either its Afghan or Pakistani side.