U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal regions are an ineffective solution to the problems they try to address, a new report by the International Crisis Group concludes.
Since 2004, the U.S. has used drones to target militants in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a restive semi-autonomous region on the country's border with Afghanistan. According to an Obama administration official, at least 20 of al Qaeda's 30 top leaders were killed by CIA-led drone strikes in the region.
In its report, the International Crisis Group argues, however, that while the drone policy has yielded short-term successes, it fails to deter militant groups in the long-term. According to the organization, as long as FATA remains "an ungoverned no-man's land," the region will be a hot-bed for jihadis.
Drone strikes may disrupt FATA-based militant groups’ capacity to plan and execute cross-border attacks on NATO troops and to plot attacks against the U.S. homeland, but they cannot solve the fundamental problem. The ability of those groups to regroup, rearm and recruit will remain intact so long as they enjoy safe havens on Pakistani territory and efforts to incorporate FATA into the constitutional mainstream are stifled.
ICG explains that FATA's semi-autonomous status created a situation in which state forces are unable to act against security threats, while civilians lack rights and protection. The absence of rule of law, a lack of economic opportunities and support by the Pakistani military for some jihadis contribute to the popularity of militant groups in the area. Drone strikes, the report argues, only address the problem on a surface level. "The hive will always produce more bees," CIA analyst Bruce Riedel is quoted in the study.
ICG also takes issue with the Obama administration's lack of transparency on the strikes. "The debate on the legality of the program has been hampered by the Obama administration's consistent refusal to answer even the most basic questions about drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere," the report notes.
The first American strike in FATA dates from 2004. The U.S. is believed to have executed 350 strikes in the region since then, though definitive information on the number of strikes and the number of casualties is hard to come by.
The report notes that according to Pakistan's foreign ministry, there have been 330 drone strikes between 2004 and March 2013 that killed 2,200 people and injured 600. The foreign ministry adds that 400 victims were civilians and 200 non-combatants -- what the ministry meant by that distinction is unclear.
The U.S. has not released casualty numbers, as the Obama administration has not officially acknowledged the CIA strikes. Comments by Washington officials range from "no more than 10 civilian victims between 2009 and mid-2012" to "30 civilians between August 2009 and August 2010" to "not a single non-combatant."
The administration's lack of transparency extends to its refusal to disclose its legal basis for the killings. Particularly problematic is the administration's designation of all military-aged men targeted in a strike as combatants unless evidence attests their innocence posthumously. The designation fails to adequately distinguish between civilians and lawful targets, the report notes.
The questions raised by the International Group are reminiscent of concerns raised in a report by Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations called "Reforming Drone Strike Policy."
According to the report:
Drones are not without their drawbacks, especially with regard to targeted killings. Like any tool, drones are only as useful as the information guiding them, and for this they are heavily reliant on local military and intelligence cooperation. More important, significant questions exist about who constitutes a legitimate target and under what circumstances it is acceptable to strike. There is also the question of net utility: To what extent are the specific benefits derived from drone strikes offset by the reality that the strikes often alienate the local government and population?
President Obama is set to address the legality of the drone program in a speech on Thursday. The Associated Press reports that with the remarks, Obama will attempt to live up to promises made during the State of the Union to increase transparency on the use of drone strikes.