22 Dec 2010

Pakistan drone strikes: the CIA’s secret war

The number of drone strikes in Pakistan, believed to be led by the CIA, has doubled under the Obama administration in 2010 – leading to hundreds of deaths. Channel 4 News maps a secret war.

In the last 12 months there have been at least 113 attacks by secret US drones in Pakistan‘s mountainous Waziristan region.

It is double the number of strikes in 2009, which itself saw a dramatic spike, bringing the total number of attacks under President Obama to an estimated figure of 166. That marks an increase of nearly 300 per cent compared with the last four years of the Bush presidency.

In the sights of these unmanned spy planes (UAVs) are Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders held responsible for unrest and attacks on coalition troops in the long-running Afghanistan war.

As a result of the 2010 drone surge, there have been 500-900 known deaths. Of these, media reports suggest the majority were militant fighters.

It’s almost certain that US drone strikes are causing more civilian casualties than the US has thus far admitted. Christopher Rogers, Civic

But Channel 4 News has found that women and children – some with alleged links to militants – have also perished while the sheer number of drone flights have caused “panic and terror” among ordinary tribespeople. It is clear that a changing strategy has often put villages rather than remote hideouts in the firing line.

In a recent study by the Campaign for Innocent Victims of Conflict (CIVIC), report author Christopher Rogers said: “It’s almost certain that US drone strikes are causing more civilian casualties than the US has thus far admitted”.

He told Channel 4 News “faulty intelligence” could be leading to civilian deaths.

He said: “In our research… in a number of instances there was no doubt that faulty ‘intel’ was to blame – hitting a pro-government peace committee member’s house, for instance. In other cases, though victims stated that militants were indeed killed in the strike, non-combatant civilians were hit collaterally. i.e. a militant car passing by a house that collapsed from the blast.”

He added: “In the end, it’s for the US and Pakistan to demonstrate and prove that such low civilian casualty rates are indeed being achieved – the responsibility is on them.”

Channel 4 News special report - interactive map and analysis from Jonathan Rugman: Pakistan drone warfare
Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Mehsud is seen after a meeting with security forces in Sara Rogha, located in Pakistan's South Waziristan. (Reuters)

Unmanned war

It is the warfare of George Orwell and science fiction: unmanned craft loaded with deadly laser-guided missiles, sent into action via a joystick thousands of miles away.

Nicknamed “wasps” or “mosquitoes” drone aircraft have quietly become the US weapon of choice in the war on terror. In his first year in office President Obama oversaw more US drone deployments in Pakistan than George W Bush did during his entire administration.

These “covert” drone strikes over the border in Pakistan are believed to be controlled by the Central Intelligence agency (CIA) – although this is not openly stated by the US government.

Peter Singer from the Brookings Institute told Channel 4 News: “You have people outside the military chain of command, making decisions about the use of force in a way that would have previously been done inside the military.”

Are CIA drone strikes in Pakistan a legal war? Channel 4 News investigates. 

He adds: “The general counsels at the CIA are very serious professional men and women, but they are not military JAG officers – military lawyers trained for questions surrounding use of force and rules of engagement in air strikes.”

People who argue that any secrets or covert operations are terrible… have never operated in the real world. Mike Baker

But speaking to Channel 4 News, former CIA officer Mike Baker said the drone surge has taken place “basically because they work”.

He explained: “They have been effective in taking out both leadership targets and in creating an unstable environment for extremists.

“People who argue that any secrets or covert operations are terrible and must be exposed have never operated in the real world.”

Rise of the drone

2010 has been highly active for the drone operators targeting Pakistan’s mountainous Waziristan region. US air force drones fly from Creech Air Force base in Nevada. There is also a base in Tucson, Arizona.

A detailed study by Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann for the New America Foundation, The Year of the Drone, lists 113 drone strikes in 2010 (correct on 22 December).

The New America Foundation study estimates that between 2004 and 2010 drones have killed between 1,267 and 1,945 individuals. They based their research on “reliable media accounts” – sourcing casualty data from Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC. They calculate that the “non-militant” fatality rate since 2004 is approximately 28 per cent.

But Channel 4 News has learnt that in many cases the true cost in lives to “non-militants”, or civilians, may be significantly higher.

Residents stand near the coffins of victims of a missile attack in Mir Ali on the outskirts of Miranshah near the Afghan border in January 2009 following a suspected US droneb attack. (Reuters)

‘Bodies of tribespeople’

On 21 March US drones fired Hellfire missiles on a house and car in the Lowera Mandi area of Datta Khel, North Waziristan. The New America Foundation analysis counted the deaths of four to 13 militants following the operation targeting Taliban leaders. The number of civilians harmed in the attack was recorded in the study as “unknown”.

A Channel 4 News team on the ground returned with information which suggested the initial strike had caused the deaths of five local tribespeople and the destruction of two homes.

There is a huge US military camp on the other side of the border and it was not clear as to why the drone targeted this house on our side of the frontier. Pakistani security officer

A local security officer, who did not want to be named, said: “There is a huge US military camp on the other side of the border and it was not clear as to why the drone targeted this house on our side of the frontier.”

He added that a further three villagers were killed in a second drone strike which came half an hour later.

It is clear from witnesses on the ground that US military strategy has shifted from pinpointed strikes on known targets, beginning with the killing of Pakistan Taliban leader Nek Mohammad in 2004, to multiple bombardments involving numerous drones and follow-up attacks.

Kareem Khan, a tribesman who says his brother and son were killed by a US drone in North Waziristan, has told CIVIC that there are “two or three attacks almost every day” and that “innocent people are being killed”.

A pilot's display in a ground control station shows a truck from the view of a camera on an MQ-9 Reaper during a training mission. The Reaper is the Air Force's first
'Is it a bit like playing a video game?'
You don't have to be a qualified fighter jet pilot anymore to be allowed to fly these things - or an officer. Thousands of young enlisted soldiers - many as young as 18 - are being trained to fly these aerial vehicles and the US military just can't get enough of them.

"Is it a bit like playing a video game?" I asked as I handled the joystick. It is they admitted - although everyone was at pains to stress that doesn't mean they don't take their job seriously. Even the trainer admitted it's easier to teach the "video game generation" and told me that all those hours they'd spent in their bedrooms - being nagged by their mothers to do something more productive - was now paying off.

More from Channel 4 News Washington Correspondent Sarah Smith: Drones - tools of modern warfare

‘Never seen drones in such large numbers’

September saw a notable upsurge in drone activity in Pakistan, with at least 22 separate strikes and two militant leaders – al-Qaeda chief Dheikh al-Fateh and Taliban commander Saifullah – reportedly killed. There were increasing cases of multiple strikes in the same area within hours, sometimes minutes.

On 15 September it is reported that the village of Dargah Mandi in North Waziristan came under fire twice in 15 minutes. Official sources told Channel 4 News a dawn raid saw a drone fire eight missiles at a suspected militant hideout of the Taliban-linked Haqqani network. Witnesses said the spy plane first fired four missiles at the building before a further four missiles were deployed as efforts were made to retrieve bodies from the rubble. Twelve people died, among them villagers.

An unnamed official said it “seemed someone had provided wrong information to the American military in Afghanistan about the presence of a high value target (HVT) in the village” as 11 spy planes were seen flying overhead.

Local tribespeople told Channel 4 News they had “never seen the US spy planes in such a large number”. They added that the sight of multiple drones approaching caused widespread panic among women and children.

In the same day came the 13th attack of September. The New America Foundation suggests the target was a military compound at Payekhel village in Dattakhel district. Media reports show three to seven fighters linked to regional Taliban chief Hafiz Gul Bahadur were killed, with civilian deaths unknown.

Gul Bahadur has branded US strategy “open aggression”. Prior to the Dattakhel attack he had signed a peace agreement promising not to attack security forces or government installations.

Single vehicle attacks

Another ten people were killed in an strike on 26 September, at the end of a month which saw a sharp upsurge in the number of drone attacks. The strike took place at Dattakhel in North Waziristan.

Local villagers claimed all the victims were local tribespeople travelling from a nearby village to Madakhel town, a hometown of Taliban commander, Hafiz Gul Bahadur.

To support their claim, a tribesman, Habib Khan, said that after suffering losses in continuous drone attacks militants had stopped travelling in a single vehicle or living in one room in a large number.

The tribesman also hit out at the media for calling innocent tribespeople militants. He said: “Allah Almighty will ask you people for your taking sides with these worldly big powers against these hapless tribespeople.”

Channel 4 News has approached the CIA and US Embassy in London for a response but both declined to comment.

How long have these drones been around? Unmanned drones have actually been used for about 30 years. They were first used for surveillance.
When did drones start to be used in attacks? The first test of an armed drone was in 2001 by the CIA. They put Hellfire missiles on a Predator drone, which was previously used for spying. These are the missiles they still use today.
When was the armed drone first used on a "real" target? The first deployment was in Yemen in 2002, again by the CIA. They used it to blow up a sports utility vehicle in the middle of the desert. They claimed it killed an al-Qaeda member, and five of his associates.
Who "flies" them? At the moment the drones in Afghanistan are controlled from Creech air force base in the Nevada desert. In the US you can just take a course to learn how to control these aircraft, while at the moment the British stipulate that you must have been a combat pilot to control them. Pakistan drones are said to be controlled by the CIA, but this activity is neither confirmed nor denied by US authorities.
How are they controlled? It's a bit like a console games controller. These people are sat in front of a big screen. It is actually called a "man in the loop" system. It has high-resolution cameras and sensors to see things on the ground. It does have heat sensors to work out whether people are in a building or not.
Who makes the decision to fire the missiles, the drone or the human? The pilot does, although in a lot of instances they won't have that much time - the drone will identify a target and ask them whether to shoot: yes or no? A lot of the time the pilot is vetoing targets rather than finding them.
Are other countries developing these armed drones? Yes, at the moment there are 43 countries developing these programmes. Russia alone has 18 programmes, while the Chinese have a drone known as the Invisible Sword.
Why have they proved so popular with military forces? Firstly you don't have to worry about your pilot getting fatigued or shot down. If they want to go to the toilet during a shift they can and someone else can take over. After work than can go home to their families. There's also the cost: a drone can cost $40m, whereas a fighter plane can cost $350m.