Making sense of Pakistan drone death reports

Drones protest  - PAKISTAN

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Nearly a decade after they first took to the skies over Pakistan's unruly tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, America's unmanned drone aircraft are causing fierce controversy in both the United States and Pakistan.

The tension arises from recent claims by international rights groups that a large number of civilians are being killed in drone strikes in tribal areas where Taliban and al-Qaeda militants have sanctuaries.

Ironically the issue seems to have put rights groups on the same page as the pro-Taliban forces in Pakistan.

Both are using what they call "high" civilian deaths as the centrepiece of their campaign to denounce the drone programme.

Conflicting estimates

In contrast, the liberal elements in Pakistan and those living in tribal areas seem to be in greater agreement with the official American version, which plays down the number of civilian casualties in those strikes.

The latest twist in the tale came on Wednesday when the Pakistani government issued its own official estimates, putting civilian deaths since 2008 at a mere 67 - much lower than the estimates released by the international rights groups.

Recent investigations have placed estimates of civilian deaths in drone strikes at somewhere between 400 and 900. One by a British lawyer and United Nations rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, also estimated at least 400 civilian deaths from drones since 2004.

A number of other organisations, such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the New American Foundation, Reprieve International, have also come up with similar estimates in reports issued in recent months.

There is a question mark over all these figures.

Most rights groups say they have collected their estimates from media reports, government reports or other sources. Amnesty International says it has interviewed people who lost relatives in a sample number of drone strikes that it studied.

But the impression one gets from journalists based in the tribal areas and the local elders is that for the most part the drone strikes are rather accurate, hitting their targets with precision.

They say they would know if there were high civilian casualties because the area is small and the communities interact closely with each other.

There have been some strikes in which civilians have been hit, but those killings have invariably been reported in the media, they say.

Villagers stand in rubble of a house Pakistani villagers, shown in 2008, after a suspected drone strike

It appears that now the Pakistani government has made an attempt to bring its estimates closer to the losses in these latter strikes.

But this has nevertheless raised many eyebrows.

Public opposition to drone strikes has been the hallmark of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government since it took power in June.

Last week he headed for a meeting with US President Barack Obama amid widespread speculation that he will plead for an end to drone strikes.

Many thought his cause was aided by the recent reports put out by the international rights groups.

For many in Pakistan, therefore, this volte-face over civilian figures typifies the ambivalence of the Pakistani state on an issue which has generated extreme views and compromised the ability of the government to formulate a clear policy.

Pakistani co-operation in the drone strikes was evident in the early days when its intelligence officials actively prevented local journalists from reporting drone strikes.

Some of these drone strikes were allegedly ordered by Islamabad, while it offered indirect justification for several others.

Drone opposition rising

US-Pakistan relations came under strain when a democratically-elected government replaced a military regime in 2008.

The military, which has been in actual control of Pakistan's policy of raising proxies to fight regional wars, publicly opposed US financial assistance to that government.

Relations hit rock-bottom when the Americans killed the fugitive al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, in a Pakistani garrison town.

Since then, while there have been indications of co-operation on the ground, opposition to drone strikes, and to relations with the US in general, has been on the rise.

This anti-US campaign has been spearheaded by the right-wing Islamist groups with tacit support from elements within the country's military intelligence apparatus.

The common narrative of these groups consists in opposition to the drones, repatriation of Aafia Siddiqui - a US citizen of Pakistani origin jailed in the US for alleged links to al-Qaeda - and portraying education activist Malala Yousufzai as a puppet of the West.

Large parts of the Pakistani urban middle class who adhere to this narrative constitute the main support base of Prime Minister Sharif.

This largely explains why Mr Sharif's government espoused the cause of ending drone strikes and holding peace talks with the Taliban militants immediately after it came to power in June.

Subsequent attacks by the Taliban in Pakistan have probably led to a realisation within government circles that peace with the militants may not be a viable option.

And the government's downward revision of civilian deaths in drone strikes may well be an attempt by it not to fall for exaggeration or lose sight of the reality in Pakistan's tribal areas.

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