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Smokers’ Corner: Of birds and beasts

June 16, 2012

A recent rise and frequency in the number of US drone attacks in Pakistan have simultaneously triggered an even louder campaign against them both in Pakistan and among certain human rights groups abroad.

Without countering or suspecting such voices, I believe one should also be equally conscious of the other side of the drone debate. Yes, there is another side to it as well.

First of all, the way sometimes many Pakistani politicians and media personnel call drone strikes as being illegal; it seems as if those being chased by the drones are legal.

In other words, a lot of effort goes into denouncing drone attacks but not enough is said or done to censure the Pakistani and foreign Islamist militants that are the prime targets of these drones.

It is next to impossible for civilians living outside the conflict zone and the media to enter these areas. But in 2009 the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy (AIRRA) managed to conduct a relatively widespread survey of the public opinion about the drone strikes in FATA.

Five teams of five researchers each, interviewed a total of 550 residents belonging to all walks of life who were being struck by drone attacks.

They were asked what they thought of these attacks.

Most people thought that the drone attacks were accurate and effective in damaging the militants. The survey results were at once picked up by leading American newspapers like the New York Times and some local Pashtun publications, but they were largely ignored by the Pakistan's mainstream media.

Based on the responses the researchers concluded that certain notions held about drones and militants outside the Pashtun belt lacked substance and were mostly incorrect.

According to author, Farhat Taj, (a Pashtun and a research fellow at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Research, University of Oslo and a member of AIRRA ), the drones have only killed a handful of civilians as compared to the militants who were struck down by the strikes.

Taj claims that most locals in conflict zones like Waziristan saw US drone attacks as their liberators from the clutches of Islamist militants.

In her book, 'Taliban, Anti-Taliban' (2011),  Taj suggests that locals of Waziristan had told her that the militants themselves collect the bodies of the targeted Islamists, bury them and then issue a statement to the media claiming that those who were killed were innocent civilians.

She insists that estimates about civilian casualties in the media are wrong because after every attack Islamist militants cordon off the area and no one, including the local villagers is allowed to come near the targeted place.

Taj also adds that (according to the people of Waziristan), most of the civilians who have been killed so far in drone attacks are the unfortunate members belonging to the militants' families who were living with the militants in the targeted compounds and houses.

In her book Taj relates how the people of Waziristan had told the researchers that in a compound with militants, the drones were more likely to only strike that particular room of the compound.

It is believed that from 2009 onwards US began to employ smaller missiles on drones to not only reduce civilian casualties but to also make the strikes more accurate against moving targets such as vehicles.

A Bloomberg report by Tony Cappacio and Jeff Bliss quotes US government sources suggesting that ever since July 2008, drone strikes in Pakistan have killed 1,300 militants and only 30 civilians, with no civilians killed since August 2010.

But a number of Pakistani politicians and media outlets as well as some international human rights agencies say that for every single militant killed by a drone there are at least ten civilians who lose their lives.

But just like the AIRRA report, the US government too suggests that on most occasions the collateral damage usually involves family members of the militants who were present in the house or compound where the militant was hiding or holding a meeting; or the bodies of militants have been paraded by their colleagues as being those of 'innocent civilians.'

A report by Ken Dilanian in the Los Angeles Times (February 2011), maintained that in 2010 the CIA held back drone strikes against Islamist leader and militant, Sirajuddin Haqqani (in Waziristan) at least thrice because women and children were nearby.

The report further quotes the American think tank, the New America Foundation, saying that since 2004 drone strikes in Pakistan have killed between 1,374 and 2,189 people out of which about 435 were non-combatants.

However, a number of think tanks run by Pakistanis and human rights organisations have disputed such figures. They are convinced that collateral damage from drone strikes far exceeds the figures given by the CIA and organisations like AIRRA.

For example, Reprieve, an umbrella group of various non-profit organisations and activist groups, in a recent report claims that 3,180 people have died in drone strikes in Pakistan ever since 2004 out of which 1,700 were civilians.

Nevertheless, the same year (2012) a detailed study and investigation conducted by the Associated Press found that militants were the main victims of drone strikes in North Waziristan contrary to the widespread perception in Pakistan that civilians are the principal victims.

During its investigation the Associated Press studied ten drone strikes. Its reporters spoke to about eighty locals belonging to North Waziristan. The reporters were told that at least 194 people had died in the (studied) attacks.

According to the villagers 56 of those were either civilians or men belonging to the tribal police and 138 being militants.

When the villagers were asked how they determined who was killed in drone attacks, they said that the bodies of militants were usually taken elsewhere for burial by their colleagues, while civilians were usually buried immediately and within the locality.

More than being a thorny issue between those who support drone attacks (saying that Pakistani authorities neither have the resources nor the will to act against militants operating in remote areas) or those who oppose these attacks (suggesting that they are counterproductive and, in fact, illegal), the issue is an awkwardly enigmatic one.

It has become next to impossible to determine the exact truth about drone strikes. Mostly because there seems to be no middle-ground present in the reports released thus far on the issue by the two poles.