A recent move by the Pakistani government to curtail U.S. drone attacks highlights their problematic nature.
Yes, the Pakistani establishment has for a long time been engaged in a double game of publicly condemning the attacks while privately condoning them. Plus, its credibility on any terrorism-related issue is questionable due to its ongoing support of the Taliban and other assorted extremist groups.
Still, there is the central moral issue of civilian casualties from these drone attacks, which President Obama has escalated sharply. Comprehensive reliable numbers are frustratingly hard to come by, but those that are available show a startlingly high proportion of innocents killed.
"Of the sixty cross-border predator strikes carried out by the Afghanistan-based American drones in Pakistan between January 14, 2006 and April 8, 2009, only ten were able to hit their actual targets, killing fourteen wanted Al Qaeda leaders, besides perishing 687 innocent Pakistani civilians," reported the Pakistani newspaper The News in 2009.
Don't believe the Pakistani media? How about the Brookings Institution?
"More than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks," the extremely cautious establishmentarian think tank stated two years ago. "That number suggests that for every militant killed, ten or so civilians also died."
That's an incredible ratio that would be considered unacceptable anywhere in the West.
More recent numbers are also troubling. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a highly respected group, just this week came out with a tally of more than 900 people killed in American drone attacks in 2010. It cites the impossibility of knowing with certainty how many of this total are civilians.
"U.S. drones launched 134 attacks in the tribal areas of Pakistan in 2010, killing at least 957 people and injuring another 383," the report states. "There was no way of independently verifying claims of killing of militants in these attacks. Several media reports stated that women and children were also among those killed in the drone strikes."
The drone program has drawn attention and disapproval from the United Nations.
"This strongly asserted but ill-defined license to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions," said the U.N.'s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston, who issued a report on the drone program last June. He added, "It is clear that many hundreds of people have been killed, and that this number includes some innocent civilians."
And counterinsurgency experts have testified before Congress about the unintended consequences of the program.
"The drone strikes are highly unpopular," David Kilcullen, who helped plan strategy in Iraq, stated in 2009. "They are deeply aggravating to the population. And they've given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around the extremists and leads to spikes of extremism."
Three times as many Pakistanis now consider the United States the biggest threat to their country as they do India! The drones program isn't the only reason, but it is the biggest factor.
The Obama Administration seems determined not to stop the drone attacks, in spite of the Pakistani rebuke. That's a big mistake, morally and strategically.
If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Middle East Nonviolent Uprisings Need a Bit More Time."
Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter.