On June 4, a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan killed 15 people, including senior al-Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi. And, with a recent New York Times report highlighting the Obama administration’s decision-making over the program, the CIA’s covert war in Pakistan’s tribal areas has once again taken center stage in discussion of U.S.-Pakistan relations.
Drone attacks in Pakistan, which have increased exponentially under President Barack Obama, have prompted huge controversy. The debate around them, however, has become extremely polarized, leaving little space in the middle for a more nuanced discussion. As a result, the whole debate over the issue has generated numerous myths and inaccuracies.
Drone attacks raise important ethical and legal questions, questions that have long been debated by proponents and critics alike. For the moment, though, we will put these aside. Instead, relying on available statistical and anecdotal evidence, there are four major myths about the program that have emerged within the U.S. and Pakistan that should be recognized and responded to.
Myth number one, promoted by the Obama administration, is that drone strikes have resulted in few civilian casualties. The available evidence, however, suggests that civilian casualties from drone strikes are substantial. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports between 2,464 and 3,145 fatalities from drone attacks in Pakistan, of which 482 to 830 have been civilians. According to the New America Foundation, estimated civilian fatalities range from 293 to 471.
The fact that the administration’s criterion for identifying combatants is limited to “all military-age males in a strike zone” means innocent civilians will inevitably be targeted when the militants hide amongst them. Moreover, the emphasis the administration places on the efficiency of such attacks is misleading, as the relative precision of drone strikes is of little consequence if the absolute number of civilian casualties keeps increasing.
The second myth, promoted in Pakistan, is that drone strikes are counter-productive. There are two aspects to this argument from a security perspective: drone strikes are harmful because they cause militants to retaliate by launching terrorist attacks, and they also help their recruitment efforts. The data so far, however, seems to suggest otherwise as terrorist attacks have fallen in Pakistan with the escalation of the drone program. Furthermore, a recent study also found a negative correlation between drone strikes and terrorist activity the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There’s no evidence to suggest that recruitment by militant groups has increased either.
A separate concern is that the drone strikes offer opposition groups within and outside the government ammunition with which to mobilize anti-American sentiment, making support for U.S. policies politically costly. Certainly, although drone strikes are clearly effective in terms of their stated security-centric goals, such political and social consequences do genuinely warrant discussion.