21 Feb 2011

US drone attacks ‘failing to kill many militant leaders’

US drones in Pakistan are failing to kill many militant leaders, according to analyst Peter Bergen who tells Channel 4 News only two per cent of deaths are senior Taliban or al-Qaeda figures.

It is claimed American drone attacks in Pakistan are failing to kill 'many militant leaders' (Reuters)

The New America Foundation estimates there were 118 drone attacks in Pakistan in 2010 – up from 53 the previous year.

The number of people killed in 2010 is thought to be between 607 and 993. Of those, the foundation suggests only two per cent were senior Taliban or al-Qaeda figures.

Director Peter Bergen told Channel 4 News: “The rate of civilian casualties is actually dropping, fairly precipitously – it was probably 25 per cent at the start of the programme but not it’s down to six per cent.

“Most victims of the attacks are low level militants. Do those people represent a threat to the United States or its allies? In my opinion they don’t.” Peter Bergen

“But the programme is not killing that many militant leaders. By our calculations about two per cent of the victims are leaders of al-Qaeda or the Taliban.

“Most victims of the attacks are low level militants so the question is, do those people really represent a threat to the United States or its allies, and in my opinion they don’t.

“That said, some of the people who have been killed in these attacks like Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, was probably responsible for hundreds and hundreds of deaths of Pakistani civilians in Pakistan.”

Channel 4 News special report: Pakistan - drone warfare

President Obama

Drones have become the US weapon of choice in the war on terror in Pakistan since 2010. President Obama has so far authorised four times the number of drone attacks in Pakistan compared to President George W Bush during his eight years in office.

Peter Bergen told Channel 4 News: “I think this is kind of surprising for people who voted for Obama that he would take this programme and amp it up very dramatically.”

“These drone attacks are done with the Pakistani government’s say-so.” Peter Bergen

The 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.

The CIA does not admit nor deny that it conducts drone attacks on Pakistan or any other country, but it is widely suggested that these “covert” drone strikes in the tribal areas are controlled by the CIA from bases in America, 8,000 miles from the target.

The view from Pakistan

Drone attacks are very unpopular with the Pakistani people despite the Pakistani government being complicit in their use.

The perception on the ground is that the majority of victims are civilian. The drone attacks are also seen as an infringement of Pakistani national sovereignty.

Peter Bergen told Channel 4 News: “These attacks are done with the Pakistani government’s say-so.

The Sunday Times for instance published Google pictures of American drones at their Pakistani base.

“Quite a lot of the intelligence that is used in the drone strikes is provided by the Pakistanis.

“After all, the Pakistani Taliban is at war with the Pakistani state, so the Pakistani government has a strong desire to get rid of the Pakistani Taliban, as much as the United States does.”

Peter Bergen is director of the New America Foundation and also author of The Longest War.