Accuracy of drones in warfare taken to task

The CIA claims that no civilians have been killed in a year, but serious doubts abound

Cutting through the fog of the drone war is important in part because the drone aircraft deployed in Pakistan are the leading edge of a revolution in robotic warfare that military experts expect to sweep the world.

It killed all the militants – a clean strike with no civilian casualties, extending what is now a yearlong perfect record of avoiding collateral deaths. Or so goes the US government’s version of the attack, from a US official briefed on the classified CIA programme. Here is another version, from a new report compiled by British and Pakistani journalists: The missiles hit a religious school, an adjoining restaurant and a house, killing 18 people – 12 militants, but also six civilians, known locally as Samad, Jamshed, Daraz, Iqbal, Noor Nawaz and Yousaf.

The civilian toll of the CIA’s drone campaign, which is widely credited with disrupting al-Qaida and its allies in Pakistan’s tribal area, has been in bitter dispute since the strikes were accelerated in 2008. The debate has intensified since President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O Brennan, clearly referring to the classified drone programme, said in June that for almost a year, “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” Other officials say that extraordinary claim still holds: Since May 2010, CIA officers believe, the drones have killed more than 600 militants – including at least 20 in a strike reported Wednesday – and not a single noncombatant.

Cutting through the fog of the drone war is important in part because the drone aircraft deployed in Pakistan are the leading edge of a revolution in robotic warfare that has already expanded to Yemen and Somalia, and that military experts expect to sweep the world.

“It’s urgent to answer this question, because this technology is so attractive to the US and other governments that it’s going to proliferate very rapidly,” said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict, or CIVIC, a Washington nonprofit that tracks civilian deaths. The government’s assertion of zero collateral deaths meets with deep skepticism from many independent experts. And a new report from the British Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which conducted interviews in Pakistan’s tribal area, concluded that at least 45 civilians were killed in 10 strikes during the last year. Others who question the CIA claim include strong supporters of the drone programme like Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, who closely tracks the strikes.
“The Taliban don’t go to a military base to build bombs or do training,” Roggio said. “There are families and neighbours around. I believe the people conducting the strikes work hard to reduce civilian casualties. They could be 20 perent. They could be 5 per cent. But I think the CIA’s claim of zero civilian casualties in a year is absurd.”

Doubtful death count

A closer look at the competing claims, including interviews with US officials and their critics, discloses new details about how the CIA tracks the results of the drone strikes. It also suggests reasons to doubt the precision and certainty of the agency’s civilian death count. In a statement on Tuesday for this article, Brennan adjusted the wording of his earlier comment on civilian casualties, saying US officials could not confirm any such deaths. “Fortunately, for more than a year, due to our discretion and precision, the US government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths resulting from US counterterrorism operations outside of Afghanistan or Iraq, and we will continue to do our best to keep it that way,” he said.

Reporters in North Waziristan, where most strikes occur, operate in a dangerous and politically charged environment. Militants use civilian deaths as a recruiting tool, and Pakistani officials rally public opinion against the drones as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty.

“Waziristan is a black hole of information,” acknowledged Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer who is suing the CIA on behalf of civilians who say they have lost family members in the strikes. U S officials accuse Akbar of working to discredit the drone programme at the behest of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the Pakistani spy service. Akbar and others who know him strongly deny the accusation.

US officials, who will speak about the classified drone programme only on the condition of anonymity, say it has killed more than 2,000 militants and about 50 noncombatants since 2001 – a stunningly low collateral death rate by the standards of traditional airstrikes.

The officials say CIA drone operators view their targets for hours or days beforehand, analysing what they call a ‘pattern of life’ and distinguishing militants from others. They use software to model the blast area of each proposed strike. Then they watch the strike, see the killed and wounded pulled from the rubble and track the funerals that follow. The video is supplemented, officials say, by informants on the ground who sometimes plant homing devices at a compound or a car. The CIA and National Security Agency intercept cellphone calls and emails discussing who was killed.

“Because our coverage has improved so much since the beginning of this programme, it really defies logic that now we would start missing all these alleged noncombatant casualties,” said a US official familiar with the programme. The agency’s critics counter that an intelligence officer watching a video screen thousands of miles away can hardly be certain of the identity of everyone killed in a strike. In a tribal society where men commonly carry weapons and a single family compound can include a militant fighter, an enlistee in the Pakistani government’s Frontier Corps, and a shopkeeper, even villagers may be uncertain about the affiliations of their neighbours.

The standard drone weapons, Hellfire missiles and 500-pound bombs, like other ordnance, are not absolutely predictable. A strike last Oct 18, all reports agree, hit a militant compound and killed a number of fighters. But Akbar, the lawyer, said the family next door to the compound had told his investigators their 10-year-old son, Naeem Ullah, was hit by shrapnel and died an hour after being taken to the hospital in nearby Miram Shah. Neighbours confirmed the account, Akbar said. The CIA would not permit its drone operators to speak about their work. But Col. David M Sullivan, an Air Force pilot with extensive experience with both traditional and drone airstrikes from Kosovo to Afghanistan said,  “Zero innocent civilians having lost their lives does not sound to me like reality. Never in the history of combat operations has every airborne strike been 100 per cent successful.”

Though Pakistani officials often denounce the drone programme, even as they have at times quietly assisted it, skeptics about its overall impact include US officials as well. The former director of national intelligence, Dennis C Blair, said at a public forum in Aspen, Colo., last month that he thought unilateral U S strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia should end.

“Pull back on unilateral actions by the United States except in extraordinary circumstances,” said Blair, who headed national intelligence from January 2009 until May 2010.

The New York Times

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