The Missing Piece in Pakistan: Civilians
Last week some Pakistani officials called for the American government to suspend the drone strikes that take place in the northwestern region of the troubled nation. Reports on Wednesday indicated the United States has no intention or desire to suspend, or even decrease, drone activity in Pakistan. The usual debate surrounding this sensitive topic involves questioning the value of killing so-called “high value” targets (read: Taliban) versus saving civilian lives. Some researchers have tried to tease out the number of innocents killed in drone strikes to find out whether the unmanned bombing campaigns have been, for lack of a better term, worth it.
One such person is Patrick Johnston, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Using strike data from 2004 to 2010, Johnston and his colleague Anoop Sarbahi studied how effectively the attacks countered terrorism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that comprise the border shared with Afghanistan. Econometric analyses revealed that there was a negative correlation between the drone strikes and terrorism — that is, terrorist activity decreased following drone strikes in FATA.
At first glance, this is great news, right? Without risking the lives of U.S. soldiers, the strikes effectively decrease the incidence of terrorist activities in a poor and unstable region. That would be an easy conclusion to draw, but it would also be a wrong one. Johnston admits that one of the greatest faults of the study was his inability to include civilian casualty data in his analyses. He calls this a “forgivable sin,” since there is such a wide variation in estimates of how many civilians have been killed by drone strikes since 2004.
Take this data, for example, from the New America Foundation, comparing high and low estimates of casualties from 2004 to 2010 (via GOOD). The Foundation reports a low estimate of 1,210 civilian and militant deaths versus a high estimate of 1,863 during that time period. The low estimate of solely militant deaths is 919, while the high is 1,328 — just 71.3 percent of all casualties. And the number of estimated militant leader deaths? Only 38. And these variable numbers are from a single source.
Considering the number of civilian deaths estimated by this report, Johnston is surprised by the results of his study. He suggests that the negative correlation was unexpected, since imprecise drone strikes (those that kill civilians along with militants) might enrage locals and make them more “recruitable” by terrorist organizations. Regardless, he concedes that the civilian piece of his puzzle is missing, a problem that will likely remain unsolved until someone starts officially and accurately tracking casualties.
With research like this to back the drone program, the United States may continue pursuing desirable targets from afar indefinitely. Johnston, however, thinks that would be a mistake. Tactically, the United States could claim gains in the fight against Pakistani terrorism but, strategically speaking, Johnston sees this road leading to a dead end. Bottom line? “The US is really risking losing its most important ally in the region for these short-term counterterrorism gains,” Johnston says.
Now, we turn it over to you. Divanee wants your opinion.
Where do civilians fit into the drone puzzle? How would you change this situation?
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