Pakistan and United States negotiate about the role of drones while two US law school say CIA's programme that targets Al Qaeda and Taliban militants has killed a significant number of civilians.
Pakistan, US drone battle drones on
NEW YORK // Amid a wider thaw in relations, Pakistan and the United States are reportedly negotiating a greater role for Islamabad in Washington's drone programme.
But a report released a week ago featuring interviews with civilian victims of the strikes has reignited a debate over the legality and efficacy of the targeted assassinations.
Living Under Drones, produced by the law schools of Stanford and New York universities, said that the CIA's remote-controlled killing programme, which targets Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, "terrorises" the entire population of Pakistan's tribal areas and has killed a significant number of civilians.
The authors said that since 2004, drones have killed between 474 and 881 civilians in Pakistan, according to what they said were the most thorough available estimates. Officials in the administration of US President Barack Obama have said that the strikes are exceedingly precise and that there have been limited civilian casualties, although US officials also reportedly consider all military-age males killed in the strikes to be militants until proven otherwise.
Based on interviews with victims and witnesses of the strikes, as well as doctors and local journalists, among others, the report argues that the drones are politically counterproductive, set a dangerous precedent for the disregard of international law, and may even be in violation of such laws through the targeting of first responders and so-called "signature strikes" against nameless residents of Pakistan's tribal regions based on circumstantial evidence.
While rights activists and drone critics hold up the report as more evidence of the programme's dangerous moral, legal and strategic flaws, others say that the report's claims are based on unrepresentative data and are political polemic rather than objective analysis.
"Making the categorical statements that the report makes isn't justified by the kind of research that they mustered," said Joshua Foust, a fellow at the Washington, DC-based American Security Project think tank.
The report's methodology states that the Islamabad-based Foundation for Fundamental Rights, a non-profit that advocates for drone victims, provided the majority of the 69 residents from the tribal areas who gave eye-witness testimony to the researchers.
Mr Foust questioned this approach, saying: "When you interview a very small number of people, ask them potentially leading questions that you don't disclose, and those people were organised by a group with a stake in the outcome of your research, it's not going to be rigorous."
The problem with making claims about the drones' effects, is that collecting reliable polling data in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwestern Pakistan, where the attacks occur, is extremely difficult, according to analysts.
"FATA is not a credible place to survey right now," said Moeed Yusuf, a Washington-based Pakistan expert with the US Institute for Peace.
"The people have been over-polled in the past eight years … they've learned what people like to hear, what they don't like to hear and what gets them something," he added. "I am sceptical of any data - good, bad or ugly - that I find on drones simply because there's a perverse incentive to misrepresent for all involved."
The US does not release any official data about the numbers of people killed in the secret programme, or the intended targets. Journalists and analysts are forced to rely on death tolls relayed by anonymous government officials in Pakistan and the US, or by the militants themselves. Access to residents of the areas under attack is next to impossible.
In the vacuum of facts, it is easy for both sides of the debate to selectively use data to justify their position.
"Drones have killed innocent people and I don't think it's unfair to be outraged ... they have also been really effective at eliminating really dangerous people," said Mr Foust. "But both sides engage in very categorical descriptions without having the data to back [them] up."
But others say that critics of the new report are overlooking what it adds to the debate. "What it does really well is foreground voices of drone affectees from the tribal areas, which is something we haven't seen before to this extent," said Madiha Tahir, an independent journalist who is one of the few reporters to have recently travelled into the tribal areas to interview locals.
"It moves away from the obsession with numbers," Mrs Tahir said. "It also shows that the civilian-militant binary is deeply problematic. People are not one or the other ... these lines are confusing."
Both the US and Pakistan governments seem to have agreed that drones are a tactic that will continue. Even while Pakistan protests them as a violation of its sovereignty, it is seeking a greater role in the programme, with the Associated Press reporting last week that talks on the issue are continuing.
The question of cooperation on the drones is important, Mr Yusuf said, because the perception that the US has declared war on Pakistan through the use of drones is a central rallying cry for right wing and militant forces within the country. The drones are "not sustainable quite frankly if one of the goals is to curb anti-Americanism" and turn public sentiment, he said.
"Somebody will have to come up with an innovative answer to this but because the mistrust is so high, the US will never trust Pakistan to be operating these."
But after a year of crises between the two countries, trust appears to be building again, however fragile it may still be. At last week's United Nations General Assembly in New York, Pakistan's president Asif Ali Zardari referred to "positive momentum" in bilateral relations.
Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's foreign minister, said last week that senior officials from Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan would soon be holding renewed talks on improving counterterrorism cooperation. There were also reports last week that the US and Pakistan were planning a joint initiative to bring the Taliban to the table for peace talks.
Analysts say that intense cooperation will be necessary to quickly create the conditions necessary to foster a political settlement in Afghanistan before US forces withdraw at the end of 2014, and reduce the likelihood of a civil war that would spill over calamitously into Pakistan.
"Pakistan has realised time is running out and it is now willing to play a positive role. And the US also realises this is crunch time," said Mr Yusuf. "We will see a real push, but it may still not work, the odds are against it."
Among the many factors increasing those odds are divisions within the Afghan Taliban on the necessity of negotiating with the US. "It is a controversial idea and lots of work needs to be done within the insurgent groups and among the groups and between the various power brokers [to create support for negotiations]," said Arif Rafiq, a Washington, DC-based political consultant.
The US, Pakistan and the Taliban have all failed to articulate a strategy for achieving a negotiated settlement. "There is a closing window of opportunity for them to gain coherence in terms of a vision for the country and region," said Mr Rafiq. "It may be too late."