Saturday, August 13, 2011

The C.I.A. and Drone Strikes

Perfection is rare in life; in war, rarer still. Yet the Central Intelligence Agency says it has a yearlong perfect record of no civilian deaths from its campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan. We find that hard to believe. So do many Pakistanis, journalists and independent experts, including those who support the drone program.

Lacking proof, the claim fuels skepticism about American intentions and harms United States-Pakistani relations.

The Obama administration has vastly expanded the shadow war against terrorists, using the military and the C.I.A. to track down and kill them in a dozen countries. Pakistan — home base to Taliban and Al Qaeda militants — is the leading edge of robotic warfare.

According to The Times’s Scott Shane, the C.I.A. says that since May 2010 drones have killed more than 600 militants in Pakistan and not a single noncombatant. Since 2001, the totals are almost as striking: 2,000 militants, and 50 noncombatants.

A new report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University in London tells a different story. It says that most of the 1,842 people killed in more than 230 strikes ordered by President Obama in Pakistan since 2008 were militants, but at least 218 may have been civilians. And while “civilian casualties do seem to have declined in the past year,” the bureau still found “credible evidence” of at least 45 noncombatants killed.

It is almost as if there were parallel realities. The C.I.A. contends that a May 6 strike on a pickup truck along the Afghan border wiped out only the intended targets: nine militants and their bomb-making materials. But British and Pakistani journalists say the missiles hit a religious school, an adjoining restaurant and a house — killing 12 militants and six civilians.

There is no question that the drone program has been successful, enabling the United States to disrupt Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan’s lawless border region. It is true that the precision technology and American efforts have kept noncombatant deaths to a minimum. And in the remote region of North Waziristan, where most strikes occur, it is hard to find the truth. But no civilian casualties?

The strikes have long been controversial in Pakistan, fueling anti-American sentiments. Washington’s refusal to be more transparent about the program is counterproductive. It should provide as much public detail as possible, including civilian casualties. Pakistan’s government needs to end its duplicity: privately allowing the strikes, yet publicly condemning them.

Drones are becoming central to modern warfare. The United States needs to be honest about what it can do and about its failings as well. It will have little ground on which to fault other countries for strikes that cause civilian casualties if it does not own up to its own errors, compensate victims’ families and keep working hard to make fewer errors in the future.
Editorial, New York Times

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