ISLAMABAD: American drone strikes inside Pakistan are killing far fewer civilians than many in the country are led to believe, according to a rare on-the-ground investigation by the Associated Press of 10 of the deadliest attacks in the past 18 months.
The widespread perception in Pakistan that civilians, not militants, are the principal victims — a view that is fostered by leading right-wing politicians, clerics and the fighters themselves — fuels pervasive anti-American sentiment and, some argue, has swelled the ranks of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
But an AP reporter who spoke to about 80 villagers at the sites of the 10 attacks in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militants in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region along the Afghan border, was told that a significant majority of the dead were combatants.
Indeed, the AP was told by the villagers that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent — at least 138 — were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single attack on March 17, 2011.
Excluding that strike, which inflicted one of the worst civilian death tolls since the drone program started in Pakistan, nearly 90 percent of the people killed were militants, villagers said.
But the civilian deaths in the covert CIA-run program raise legal and ethical concerns, especially given Washington’s reluctance to speak openly about the strikes or compensate the families of innocent victims.
U.S. officials who were shown the AP’s findings rejected the accounts of any civilian casualties but declined to be quoted by name or make their own information public.
The United States has carried out at least 280 attacks since 2004 in Pakistan’s tribal region. The area is dangerous and off-limits to most reporters, and death tolls from the strikes usually rely on reports from Pakistani intelligence agents speaking on condition of anonymity.
The numbers gathered by the AP turned out to be very close to those given by Pakistani intelligence on the day of each strike, the main difference being that the officials often did not distinguish between militants and civilians.
Drone attacks began during the Bush administration. President Barack Obama has ramped them up significantly since he took office but slowed them down in recent months because of increased tension between the U.S. and Pakistan caused by American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
Pakistan responded by kicking the United States out of a base used for American drones, but the move is not expected to affect the program significantly.
The AP study paints a much different picture from that advanced by important Pakistani opinion-shapers.
Syed Munawar Hasan, head of the country’s most powerful Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, recently claimed on TV that the strikes “are killing nearly 100 percent innocent people.”
Imran Khan, a popular opposition politician close to some right-wing Islamic groups, addressed a cheering crowd last April and said: “Those who lie to the nation after every drone attack and say terrorists were killed should be ashamed.”
He called for journalists and activists to go to the tribal region to see that the strikes were killing civilians, not militants.
Some analysts have been skeptical about carrying out on-the-ground investigations, assuming villagers would follow the militants’ narrative of high civilian death tolls to avoid reprisals. But the AP study showed otherwise.
Many villagers said they knew the dead civilians personally. They also said one way to distinguish civilians from militants was by counting funerals, because the bodies of dead militants would usually be whisked away for burial elsewhere.