Phantom Drone Strikes

The New York Times has an interesting story today about drone strikes in Pakistan, specifically about two drone strikes carried out in February, one in North Waziristan and one in South Waziristan, which according to my own reporting killed 10 suspected militants….

Yet there was one problem, according to three American officials with knowledge of the program: The United States did not carry out those attacks.

“They were not ours,” said one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the drone program’s secrecy. “We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.”

The American position is that the two attacks may well have been carried out by Pakistan, which has then conveniently laid the blame on the CIA’s covert programme.

I don’t want to get into the rights and wrongs of using drones. There’s plenty of that stuff around. For me, what this story shows is the difficulty journalists have of covering – and confirming – drone strikes. Here are a few points:

  1. They happen in areas that are remote and inaccessible
  2. Witnesses may actually have witnessed nothing but a house or car exploding – cause may not always be clear
  3. Reaper drones operate at something like 25,000 feet. At that height can anyone be sure what it is?
  4. Pakistan is a country where rumour is frequently presented as fact
  5. A recent drone strike I was looking into turned out actually to be an IED
  6. Locals – or security officials – may have their own reasons for obscuring the facts
  7. They happen in areas that are remote and inaccessible (did I say that?)

The idea that two reported drone strikes turned out to be nothing of the sort just highlights how difficult it is for anyone to nail down the facts. Whether or not the Pakistani military is using the idea of drone strikes as cover for its own efforts, I suspect that there are many, many more phantom strikes buried in the stats.

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