The Central Intelligence Agency, while increasing the frequency of drone strikes in Pakistan, has reduced civilian casualties, a U.S. official and independent analysts said.
The 75 strikes launched in the ungoverned tribal region since the drone program accelerated in mid-August have killed several hundred militants without causing any deaths among civilian non-combatants, said the U.S. official, who, lacking authorization to discuss the program, requested anonymity.
Analysts who monitor developments in the region said figures based on press reports show a decline in unintended deaths, although verifying exact figures may be impossible.
“The drone strikes do appear to becoming less lethal for civilians as time goes on,” said Bill Roggio, editor of The Long War Journal, which reports on terrorism and is based in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.
The Obama administration’s reluctance to share evidence, such as video, or allow independent investigations of the casualty reports has made verification hard, said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistani representative at the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“We’d like to believe the U.S., but we have no reason to do so,” he said, referring to the drop in civilian casualties in an interview. “It would be in the interest of the U.S. to make sure this information is in the public domain.”
Improved intelligence has enhanced the imagery gathered by unmanned Predators flying 24-hour patrols over the region near the Afghanistan border, making the missile-firing drones more precise, the U.S. official said.
As a further safeguard, each strike is approved by either CIA director Leon Panetta or his deputy, Michael Morell, the official said. The CIA since mid-2008 has executed about 200 strikes, killing roughly 1,300 militants and 30 non-combatants, the official said.
The U.S. has increased the frequency of attacks since President Barack Obama took office two years ago, from about 35 in 2008 to 50 in 2009 and 115 last year, the official said.
The U.S. death count and the claim of no recent non- combatant fatalities are impossible to validate, since the identities of those killed, and their roles, are often unclear in Pakistani press reports.
Katherine Tiedemann, a research fellow who helps conduct an ongoing survey of the attacks for the Washington-based New America Foundation, said in an e-mail that the group’s independent estimates are “mostly consistent with the official claims.” Tiedemann is co-author of a Foreign Policy article last month titled “There Were More Drone Strikes -- and Far Fewer Civilians Killed” in 2010.
A drop in civilian deaths -- at least for now -- as attacks surged is a positive development for the Obama administration because non-combatant fatalities fueled a domestic backlash in Pakistan as well as international criticism of the unacknowledged U.S. strikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
The U.S. doesn’t publicly acknowledge the drone attacks against targets in Pakistan, although the strikes are perhaps the best-known CIA covert activity. CIA spokeswoman Marie Harf declined to comment on the drone issue.
Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., indirectly commented on the issue in a Jan. 11 interview when asked about drone strikes. He replied that Pakistan “has been America’s partner” in supporting U.S. efforts using “technical means to get rid of terrorists who cannot be eliminated in any other way.”
Unintended casualties are “the subject of an ongoing dialogue” between the two countries, he said.
The CIA has been working to avoid the civilian deaths, said Roggio of The Long War Journal. “The CIA is making a great effort not to kill civilians in these strikes by using better surveillance and modified weapons,” he said in an e-mail.
A similar view is expressed by Brian Williams, a history professor at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth in North Dartmouth, Massachusetts, who wrote a drone-attacks study that warned of a “‘backlash against America in Pakistan’’ if civilian deaths rose. ‘‘I have no reason to doubt the official who told you that only 30 civilians died in the attacks’’ last year, he said.
Williams said he hasn’t seen reports of civilian death in air strikes ‘‘for ages now.’’ The attacks ‘‘are incredibly precise according to my read of Pakistani media sources, which have no cause to downplay civilian deaths,’’ he said in an e- mail.
The falling civilian casualty rate likely is the result of the CIA developing better sources of information, he said.
‘Eyes on the Ground’
‘‘These strikes would not be this accurate or numerous if they did not have eyes on the ground relaying the location of Taliban, al-Qaeda convoys and hujras,’’ or tribal guest houses, he said.
The Obama administration’s Afghanistan strategy depends heavily on drone strikes because the Pakistani army has been hesitant or unwilling to mount major offensives in safe-haven areas of Pakistan, such as North Waziristan, and won’t allow U.S. ground troops to fight there.
The CIA has relied on Predator and Reaper drones made by San Diego-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc.
The drones are mounted with laser-guided Hellfire missiles and smaller ordnance that target groups using the tribal area as a safe haven while planning attacks on Americans in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
‘Difficult to Believe’
It’s hard for the U.S. to avoid unintended deaths in a region where the line between militants and civilians is blurred, said Human Right Watch’s Hasan. ‘‘It’s a little difficult to believe there have been no civilian casualties” since mid-August, he said.
Last year, Philip Alston, then the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extra-judicial executions, called for a halt in CIA strikes. The U.S. drone program is setting a bad precedent for human rights, Alston said in a June 2 statement accompanying a 29-page report on the attacks.
“This strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life,” he said.
Alston didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail asking for comment on the new U.S. figures.
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