U.S. Drone Attacks on Suspected Terrorists Stir Controversy

BY Douglas Johnson  August 29, 2011 at 4:12 PM EDT


Drone photo by Wikipedia commons.

The reported death of al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader has brought new attention to America’s reliance on unpiloted drone strike missiles as an effective way to go after terrorists, but also new animosity between the United States and its tenuous ally, Pakistan, over their use.

In addition, some groups are asserting that the drones are causing high numbers of civilian casualties in Pakistan.

Al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, was killed Aug. 22 in Waziristan, in northwestern Pakistan, according to U.S. officials. Rahman took over as second-in-command after Osama Bin Laden’s death and the subsequent promotion of Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Noman Benotman, formerly a commander in an Islamist militant group and associate of al-Qaida and now an analyst with Quilliam, a self-described counterextremism think tank, described Rahman as al-Qaida’s “CEO,” calling him “the one man al-Qaida could not afford to lose.”

The U.S. drone strike which killed Rahman is the latest in a series of strikes spanning several years. The attacks, centered in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, have targeted and disrupted al-Qaida militants and their allies. They also have inspired al-Qaida retaliation.

Reports vary regarding the precision of the strikes and number of militants killed as a result. The New York Times reported that CIA officers believe the drones have killed more than 600 militants and zero noncombatants since May 2010. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

American assertions regarding noncombatant deaths have recently been subjected to scrutiny. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism examined Brennan’s statement of there not being “a single collateral death,” and reported that since August 2010 there have been “at least 10 individual attacks in which 45 or more civilians appear to have died.”

In a separate investigation, the Bureau reported that in the past seven years, a “minimum figure of 385 civilians [have been] reported killed” by the strikes, 168 of them children.

Chris Woods, lead drone researcher for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, told the NewsHour that an area of concern is that the CIA does not distinctly distinguish between legitimate targets and civilian noncombatants. “The question that really needs asking is who is a noncombatant? If the CIA is defining noncombatants in a certain way, then that is something that we need to understand.”

C. Christine Fair, a Georgetown University professor and expert on Pakistan, told the New York Times that drone strikes are “the least indiscriminate, least inhumane tool we have” to fight al-Qaida, but that there should be greater transparency surrounding the strikes “to the benefit of the drone program.” Fair told the NewsHour that the current covert nature of the program fuels suspicion and anti-American propaganda. “This is not secret, so treating it like one makes the policy unsustainable.”

U.S. drone strikes are “very controversial in Pakistan” and responsible for “civilian casualties…[though] not that many,” author and journalist Pamela Constable said on the July 25 NewsHour.

Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, described on the April 12 NewsHour a “deep-seated anger that I could feel in my conversations with senior military and intelligence officials in Pakistan at what they thought was a very striking use of tactical weapons inside Pakistan.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, while visiting Afghanistan last month, asserted that the demise of al-Qaida is imminent, depending on whether the U.S. kills or captures around 20 remaining leading figures in the organization.

“Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them,” Panetta said.