THE debate over civilian casualties in drone strikes has picked up again. The preposterous claim that there were zero civilian casualties in a year of strikes up till last June, made by the top US counterterrorism official, John Brennan, has even been picked apart by the New York Times in an article trying to cut through the “fog of the drone war” on Thursday. Earlier this week, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK published a report compiled by Pakistani and UK journalists stating that up to 775 civilians, of whom possibly 168 were children, have been killed among at least 2,292 victims of drone strikes since the programme began in 2004. According to the Long War Journal , there have been 261 strikes in total until earlier this week, with 251 since January 2008.While the US claim seems impossible — militants in Fata live among the local population and alongside their families in many instances — it is difficult to say with certainty how many civilians have been killed. Because access to the site of strikes is rare, if not unheard of, for journalists and independent observers, there is no way of corroborating claims of civilian deaths made in sections of the media. And part of the problem may be who is classified as a 'combatant'. Does an unarmed driver of a militant qualify as a combatant? Or what about a teenage male relative who hangs about militants but hasn't taken up arms as yet? It seems likely that US officials have been using a more elastic definition of 'combatant' to achieve the unprecedented level of success they have been claiming.
Perhaps the broader problem here is the veil of semi-secrecy that still surrounds the drones programme in Pakistan. Is Pakistan still assisting in the strikes? The army sends out signals that it wants the strikes 'to end', but is silent about complicity, past or present. Is the Shamsi airbase still in America's control and are drones flying from there? Again, silence. Apparently torn between the efficacy of the strikes — as vouched for earlier this year by a senior Pakistan general posted in North Waziristan — and not wanting to politically 'own' the strikes, the army, and other Pakistani officials, appear willing to continue with a dualist policy on the drones. Could lives be saved if there were more openness by both the US and Pakistani states about the strikes? Arguably they could, for then target selection and the outcome of the strikes would be open to greater public scrutiny — allowing the drones to continue to take out bad guys without attracting so much bad publicity.