x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'Few civilian victims' of US drone strikes in Pakistan

Of 194 killed by drones in North Waziristan over the last 18 months at least 138 were combatants, according to an on-the-ground report.

ISLAMABAD // US drone strikes inside Pakistan are killing far fewer civilians than many in the country are led to believe, according to a on-the-ground investigation by the Associated Press of 10 of the deadliest attacks in the past 18 months.

The widespread perception in Pakistan that civilians, not militants, are the principal victims - a view that is fostered by leading right-wing politicians, clerics and the fighters themselves - fuels pervasive anti-American sentiment and, some argue, has swelled the ranks of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

But a reporter who spoke to about 80 villagers at the sites of the 10 attacks in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militants in Pakistan's northwest tribal region along the Afghan border, was told that a majority of the dead were combatants.

The journalist was told by the villagers that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 per cent - at least 138 - were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single attack on March 17, last year.

Excluding that strike, which inflicted one of the worst civilian death tolls since the drone programme started in Pakistan, nearly 90 per cent of the people killed were militants, villagers said.

But the civilian deaths in the covert CIA-run programme raise legal and ethical concerns, especially given Washington's reluctance to speak openly about the strikes or compensate the families of innocent victims.

US officials who were shown the reporter's findings rejected the accounts of any civilian casualties but declined to be quoted by name or make their own information public.

The US has carried out at least 280 attacks since 2004 in Pakistan's tribal region. The area is dangerous and off-limits to most reporters, and death tolls from the strikes usually rely on reports from Pakistani intelligence agents.

The numbers gathered in the investigation turned out to be very close to those given by Pakistani intelligence on the day of each strike, the main difference being that the officials often did not distinguish between militants and civilians.

Drone attacks began during the administration of the former US president, George W Bush. Barack Obama, the US president, has increased them since he took office but slowed them down in recent months because of rising tensions between the US and Pakistan caused by American air strikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.

The investigation paints a much different picture from that advanced by important Pakistani opinion-shapers.

Imran Khan, a popular opposition politician close to some right-wing Islamic groups, addressed a cheering crowd last April and said: "Those who lie to the nation after every drone attack and say terrorists were killed should be ashamed."

He called for journalists and activists to go to the tribal region to see that the strikes were killing civilians, not militants.

Some analysts have been sceptical about carrying out on-the-ground investigations, assuming villagers would follow the militants' narrative of high civilian death tolls to avoid reprisals. But the study showed otherwise. While some villagers spoke on condition of anonymity saying they feared for their safety, others let their names be published.

Many knew the dead civilians personally. They also said one way to distinguish civilians from militants was by counting funerals, because the bodies of dead militants would usually be whisked away for burial elsewhere.

An attack near Miran Shah before dawn on August 10, last year, was one of six mentioned in the study in which villagers said no civilian died.

A drone fired missiles at a large brick compound, killing at least 20 Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fighters, said Sajjad Ali, a local driver. The compound hit was known as a rest house for militants run by the Haqqani network, an Afghan group focused on fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan, he said.

The charred bodies were hastily buried in a graveyard more than two kilometres away, said Mr Ali, who spoke to several people who attended the burial. Those who attended were not allowed to see the victims' faces, he said.

A second man who spoke to people who attended the burial confirmed Mr Ali's account. He requested anonymity.

Christopher Rogers, a lawyer who has studied civilian casualties in Pakistan from drone attacks and other military action, said that regardless of casualty tolls, the US still needed to make the programme more transparent to prove it is complying with international laws on who may be targeted and measures to minimise the loss of innocent lives.

"The percentage of militants killed is an important piece of this, but it is one piece of a larger picture," said Mr Rogers, who works at Open Society Foundations, an advocacy group in New York City. "The bigger issue here is the covert nature of the programme, the complete lack of any transparency and accountability and the lack of information about how the US distinguishes a militant from a civilian."

The drone programme is so secretive that Mr Obama publicly acknowledge its existence only last month. He said the strikes "have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," but gave no details.