It's been a bad week for drones. On Friday, U.N. official Philip Alston announced he would be asking the United States to move the controversial, Central Intelligence Agency-run program under the aegis of the military, and international law. He joins a growing chorus of people opposed to the use of drone airstrikes to target militants ensconced in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), on legal, humanitarian, and operational grounds. (Alston is at least more informed than most drone foes in that he recognizes that the drone strikes in Pakistan's FATA are CIA-led covert operations rather than "military strikes.")
The anti-drone argument goes like this: Because drone attacks kill innocent civilians and violate Pakistan's sovereignty, they are deeply and universally despised by Pakistanis, and contribute to deepening anti-U.S. sentiment in the country -- enmity that could boost terrorist organizations' recruitment and eventually force Pakistan's military and civilian leaders to abandon their cooperation with the United States.
During his testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2009, David Kilcullen, a former counterinsurgency advisor to Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus, said it was time for the United States to "call off the drones." Later that month, Kilcullen and Andrew M. Exum, who served as an Army Ranger in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 to 2004, published a provocative editorial in the New York Times, titled "Death From Above: Outrage from Below," in which they estimated that over the "past three years" drones had killed just 14 "terrorist leaders" at the price of some 700 civilian lives. "This is 50 civilians for every militant killed," they wrote, "a hit rate of 2 percent." Their conclusion? Drone strikes produce more terrorists than they eliminate-an assertion that has become an article of faith among drone-strike opponents.
It would be a damning argument -- if the data weren't simply bogus. The only publicly available civilian casualty figures for drone strikes in Pakistan come from their targets: the Pakistani Taliban, which report the alleged numbers to the Pakistani press, which dutifully publishes the fiction. No one has independently verified the Taliban's reports -- journalists cannot travel to FATA to confirm the deaths, and the CIA will not even acknowledge the drone program exists, much less discuss its results. But high-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me that very few civilians have been killed by drones and their innocence is often debatable. U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings. In fact, since January 1 there has not been one confirmed civilian casualty from drone strikes in FATA.
Not only do drone opponents rely upon these fictitious reports of civilian casualties, they also tend to conflate drone strikes in Pakistan with air strikes in Afghanistan, lumping the two related but very different battlefields together as one contiguous theater. They also conflate different kinds of air strikes within Afghanistan.
These distinctions matter, a lot. In Afghanistan, it is an ignominious truth that hundreds of civilians are killed in NATO airstrikes every year. But most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan have not stemmed from pre-planned, intelligence-led attacks; rather, civilians are most likely to die when troops come into contact with the enemy and subsequently request air support. This is because when it comes to air strikes, NATO forces in Afghanistan have a limited range of air assets at their disposal. As a result, when troops come into contact with insurgents and call for air support, they get the ordinance that is available, not the firepower that would be best suited to their needs. Sometimes large bombs are dropped when smaller ones would have been better, and the risk of civilian casualties increases accordingly.