At first glance, the plight of Colombian peasants may appear to have little to do with the drone strikes being carried out in the Middle East, but there is more in common than you might think.
Last month, both Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) released damning reports on the harm US drone strikes have caused to innocent civilians. HRW observed civilians in Yemen were caught “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda” and Amnesty paints a similar picture in Pakistan (the Pakistani military released revised reports of civilian casualties). While drone strikes have not yet been seen in Colombia’s conflict, for decades rural communities have similarly been caught “entre la espada y la pared,” or “between a sword and a wall.” Lessons about how these Colombian communities have dealt with these circumstances can inform the current discussion about drones.
The advocacy reports call for “taking all feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians,” and CIVIC has noted how revised targeting procedures within the military can reduce harm. But in combating extremism, the fundamental problem of the “fog of war” remains where, due to poor information and intelligence about locations or identities, innocent civilians can end up being killed alongside those who collaborate with armed actors, be they Al Qaeda in Yemen or Pakistan or the FARC insurgents, paramilitaries, or military forces in Colombia. The reports note there is too little intelligence gathering on the ground and too little information to investigate suspected terrorists, which has led to cases of “signature strikes” (based suspicious patterns of behavior of unidentified individuals) and cases of “mistaken identity.”
During field research I documented how Colombian communities figured out a solution to this problem. The ATCC community organization in the Department of Santander, living under a similar environment of the “law of silence” and fear of retribution, devised a local information system to investigate threats and “clarify” the fog of war. Dialogues with different armed actors and transparency of information has helped protect innocents, provided suspected extremists and collaborators with second chances to reform, and deterred would-be collaborators for fear of being exposed.
So, here’s how Colombian communities might advise the US drone program and communities in drone areas with their hard-won lessons:
- Communities should dialogue will all parties to increase transparency and communicate preferred rules of engagement that prioritize protecting innocent civilians. As possible, they should also work to discourage community members from becoming involved with armed actors.
- The US and partner governments should boost the amount of human intelligence and dialogue to gain a better understanding of social landscapes and reduce harm to civilians. If US forces are unable to access target areas, partner militaries may be able to help. However, they must be wary that intermittent interactions with civilians can also stigmatize them in the eyes of extremists and put them at risk.
- To avoid targeting mistakes, investigations of suspected extremists should be emphasized, and not just after strikes to account for casualties, but before strikes, and with community involvement. To the extent feasible, individuals that have gone astray should be given second chances to “reform.”
These steps were put to good use by Colombian campesinos. However, face-to-face dialogue with communities in current drone target areas may also produce several unique challenges compared to distant and faceless drone strikes:
- There is a worry that dialogue could tip-off actual extremists who might then escape. This is a risk, but it could also be desirable if it helps liberate communities from threat or if many communities come to deny safe-haven to extremists.
- Providing second chances to suspected collaborators requires time and monitoring, so it may be harder to implement in the regions currently targeted by drones if suspects immediately aspire to depart and carry out attacks against the West.
- High levels of community cohesion are likely required to overcome fear, manage local information and dialogues, and minimize retaliation from extremists. While communities in Pakistan have protested in the wake of drone strikes, communities may need external assistance to unite and manage community security prior to becoming potential targets. As with any war-torn community, this is not a simple task given the challenges of access.
In sum, if drone strikes are to continue, to the extent possible, efforts should be made to engage communities in drone areas in dialogue and help them organize to prevent extremists from making inroads in the first place. One need not look so far as Colombia for models, as communities in places such as Afghanistan (but one recent example), Pakistan, Dagestan and Libya have already stood up to expel Islamist extremists.