US Drones Kill Innocent Civilians, Crisis Group says

In a critical report issued today, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the US Central Intelligence Agency's secretive drone strike program has killed significant numbers of Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders but has also caused the deaths of scores of innocent civilians.

The ICG put the blame for the deaths of innocent civilians "in part because of ‘signature strikes' that target groups of men based on behavior patterns associated with terrorist activity rather than known identities."

Nine years after the first strike in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the report said, "the US refuses to officially acknowledge the CIA-run program, while Pakistan denies consenting to it. This secrecy undermines efforts to assess the program's legality or its full impact on FATA's population."

While the drone strikes may disrupt militant groups' capacity to plan and execute cross-border attacks on NATO troops and to plot attacks against the US homeland, "they cannot solve the fundamental problem. The ability of those groups to regroup, rearm and recruit will remain intact so long as they enjoy safe havens on Pakistani territory and efforts to incorporate FATA into the constitutional mainstream are stifled."

The IDG estimated that at least 350 drone strikes have been carried out, mostly in North Waziristan, South Waziristan and Kurram agencies.

Accurate assessments of collateral damage are impossible, the report said. Independent researchers, facing significant military and militant-imposed barriers to access, rely primarily on media reports that depend largely on anonymous US government and/or Pakistani military sources - "each with a vested interest in under- or over-reporting civilian casualties."

Fearing retaliation from either militants or military, those questioned independently in the tribal areas refuse to give their real feelings about the attacks.

"For the same reasons, it is hard to determine with any precision the strategic impact of the drone campaign," the report said. "While reported signature strikes may in particular fuel local alienation, at the same time, the deaths of senior, highly experienced commanders are certainly a hard blow for the militants."

The report termed Pakistan's attitude towards the strikes "bordering on the schizophrenic. Rather than inherently opposing the strikes, its leadership, in particular its military, seeks greater control over target selection. This is often to punish enemies, but sometimes, allegedly, to protect militants who enjoy good relations with, or support from, the military - leaders of the Haqqani network, for example, or some Pakistani Taliban groups with whom the military has made peace deals."

Despite loud criticism of the program for violating the country's sovereignty, the fact is that the country's leaders consent to and actively cooperate with it, the report says, including former President Pervez Musharraf in April 2013 and by then-Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in 2008 and 2010. Musharraf's military regime allowed the CIA access to at least two airbases, Shamsi in southern Balochistan and Shahbaz in Sindh's Jacobabad district, for intelligence gathering and collaboration.

"While drones have not themselves caused the political falling out between Washington and Islamabad, the Pakistani military has attempted to take advantage of downturns in the relationship to leverage greater control over drone targets," the report notes. "Even after the US vacated the Shamsi base in December 2011, some level of Pakistani sanction for the strikes continues."

The Pakistani military has condemned strikes against anti-Afghanistan-oriented jihadi allies including Badruddin Haqqani, the Haqqani network's third in command, but supports strikes against its internal enemies, such as Maulvi Dadullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban in Bajaur Agency who was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan's Kunar province that same month.

The ICG called on the Obama administration to "terminate any practice, such as the reported signature strikes, that does not comply with principles of international humanitarian and human rights law. It must also introduce transparency to the drone program, including its governing rules, how targets are selected and how civilian damage is weighed.

The organization also called on the US to transfer management from the CIA to the Defense Department to establish clearer lines of authority and accountability, including greater congressional and judicial oversight.

"While the U.S. and international debate over legitimacy and control of drone strikes is highly important, drones are not a long-term solution to the problem they are being deployed to solve - destruction of local, regional and wider transnational jihadis who operate out of Pakistan's tribal belt."

The US should pressure the Pakistanis to abandon any logistical or other support to violent extremists, including by more rigorously applying existing conditions on security assistance; and encouraging and supporting efforts by the elected leadership in Islamabad to extend the state's writ to the federally administered territories.

"Similarly, if Pakistan is genuinely committed to ending strikes on its territory, it should realize that its strongest case against the drone program lies in overhauling an anachronistic governance system so as to establish fundamental constitutional rights and genuine political enfranchisement in FATA, along with a state apparatus capable of upholding the rule of law and bringing violent extremists to justice."