AFTER considerable silence and ambiguity on the number of people killed in American drone strikes in Fata, the state, for the first time, went public with official figures on Wednesday, the same day missiles rained down on suspected militants in North Waziristan. In a written statement to the Senate, the defence ministry, replying to a lawmaker’s question, said that over the last five years drones had eliminated over 2,100 terrorists, while 67 civilians had been killed. The number of civilian deaths the state has released is in stark contrast to statistics cited by critics of the drone war, including reputed rights groups, who claim that hundreds, if not thousands, of non-combatants have died in the attacks.
While the release of the figures by the government is welcome, why has it come so late in the day, especially when drone strikes in this country have been occurring for nearly a decade? If the government and previous dispensations had released casualty figures regularly, the drone debate, both at home and internationally, would have been more rational and less prone to guesswork. However, no set of figures can be taken as accurate, unless more details are released. The discrepancy in numbers exists in large part because of the inaccessibility of Fata. A transparent investigation is needed and all sides must come up with the names of victims and the venue and dates of the attacks. But regardless of whose figures are correct, the death of civilians is deplorable. It shows the strikes are not as surgical as touted, and that innocent people get killed in the process |of drones eliminating militants.
The official figures, if they are correct, also show that the strikes have taken out thousands of militants. The list indicates that local, Afghan, Arab and Central Asian militants have used North Waziristan as a launching pad. The government’s own data supports the argument that Pakistan needs to act if it wants the militants eliminated. While we believe that America’s unilateral drone strikes violate Pakistan’s sovereignty and are not legitimate, the state is also responsible for its lack of action and for leaving a vacuum to be filled — unlawfully — by the US. Drone strikes have stopped where the security forces have taken action, and that’s one reason why Pakistan should now lead the effort to eliminate foreign militants who are based in the tribal areas.