Drone strike on sem­i­nary safe haven reignites de­bate

Obama promised ef­forts to limit civil­ian ca­su­al­ties

The Washington Times Daily - - World - GUY TAY­LOR BY KRISTINA WONG

A rare U.S. drone strike on an Is­lamic sem­i­nary out­side Pak­istan’s tribal ar­eas — where most past strikes have oc­curred — is fu­el­ing a heated in­ter­na­tional de­bate on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s com­mit­ment to lim­it­ing civil­ian ca­su­al­ties.

Thurs­day’s strike on the sem­i­nary, which re­port­edly served as a safe haven for Afghan refugees and sus­pected ter­ror­ists, came just two weeks af­ter the Se­nate Se­lect Com­mit­tee on In­tel­li­gence se­cretly voted to be­gin re­quir­ing U.S. spy agen­cies to pub­li­cize sta­tis­tics on the num­ber of in­no­cent peo­ple killed and in­jured by such strikes.

The re­quire­ment is pend­ing as part of the 2014 In­tel­li­gence Au­tho­riza­tion Act, but it is likely to re­ceive a new push af­ter Thurs­day’s strike, which is be­lieved to have killed at least five peo­ple in Pak­istan’s north­west­ern re­gion of Khy­ber Pakhtunkhwa. News re­ports cited a lo­cal po­lice of­fi­cer as say­ing three rock­ets fired from a drone just be­fore sun­rise re­sulted in the deaths of two teach­ers and three stu­dents at the sem­i­nary.

U.S. of­fi­cials have not an­nounced whether they deemed the strike suc­cess­ful, and it re­mains un­clear who was be­ing tar­geted. Ac­cord­ing to a Reuters re­port that cites an un­named in­tel­li­gence source, Si­ra­jud­din Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Net­work, had been spot­ted at the sem­i­nary ear­lier this week.

With Wash­ing­ton’s drone pro­gram op­er­at­ing un­der se­crecy, ac­cu­rate sta­tis­tics on civil­ian ca­su­al­ties are dif­fi­cult to pin down. Hu­man rights groups say as many as 900 civil­ians have been killed by U.S. drones in Pak­istan since 2004.

But last month, Pak­istan’s gov­ern­ment re­ported that 67 civil­ians had been killed by drone strikes in the past five years but no civil­ians since 2011.

Es­ti­mat­ing that fewer than 3 per­cent of all peo­ple killed by drone strikes have been civil­ians, the re­port con­tra­dicts ear­lier claims by Pak­istani au­thor­i­ties that the civil­ian death count has been sig­nif­i­cantly higher — most likely more than 400 peo­ple since 2008.

It also ex­poses di­vi­sions in Is­lam­abad, where the For­eign Min­istry has since claimed that the De­fense Min­istry un­der­es­ti­mated civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. The For­eign Min­istry has said it plans to re­vise the num­bers in its own re­port, but it is not known what the new fig­ures will or when they will be re­leased.

Some an­a­lysts have spec­u­lated that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has faced crit­i­cism from hu­man rights groups and the U.N. over the drone pro­gram’s se­crecy, may have pres­sured the De­fense Min­istry to pub­li­cize the lower num­bers as a con­di­tion for re­ceiv­ing U.S. aid.

Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil spokes­woman Caitlin Hay­den told The Wash­ing­ton Times on Thurs­day evening that such spec­u­la­tion would be “an ab­surd sug­ges­tion with no ba­sis in truth.”

Mean­while, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and other hu­man rights groups are call­ing on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to clar­ify how it de­fines who is a com­bat­ant and who is a civil­ian, say­ing the lack of clar­ity about the terms may have con­trib­uted to the dif­fer­ing civil­ian ca­su­alty sta­tis­tics.

U.S. of­fi­cials refuse to dis­cuss the drone pro­gram pub­licly and do not pub­lish es­ti­mates on ca­su­alty rates. As a re­sult, as­sess­ments by the hu­man rights com­mu­nity are of­ten used and re­ported by the me­dia.

While it has stopped short of of­fer­ing an al­ter­na­tive, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has ar­gued that the hu­man rights com­mu­nity’s as­sess­ment of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties is grossly in­ac­cu­rate. The ad­min­is­tra­tion also has as­serted that non­govern­men­tal groups, such as Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and the Lon­don-based Bureau of In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism do not have a com­plete pic­ture of the sit­u­a­tion.

“There’s a wide gap be­tween U.S. as­sess­ments and, in gen­eral, non­govern­men­tal re­ports about civil­ian ca­su­al­ties,” State Depart­ment spokes­woman Marie Harf told re­porters on Oct. 22.

Some an­a­lysts sug­gest that the U.S. gov­ern­ment it­self may not have a clear pic­ture of how many peo­ple have been killed by drones.

“They’re all us­ing dif­fer­ent mea­sure­ments, so you’re go­ing to have a dif­fer­ent num­ber,” said Sarah Holewin­ski, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for Civil­ians in Con­flict. “There is no com­mon un­der­stand­ing be­tween Pak­istan and the U.S. gov­ern­ment on who is a civil­ian.”

Rights groups ar­gue that the White House crit­i­cizes or praises their re­ports based on how that serve the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s agenda. For ex­am­ple, they note how the State Depart­ment’s cit­ing of a re­port last sum­mer by Hu­man Rights Watch as the ba­sis for call­ing on Rwanda to stop sup­port­ing a Con­golese rebel group.

“We bring the same cred­i­bil­ity and care and cau­tion to re­port­ing on hu­man rights abuses by the U.S. as to any other gov­ern­ment in the world,” said Nau­reen Shah, ad­vo­cacy ad­viser at Amnesty In­ter­na­tional USA. “We treat ev­ery gov­ern­ment the same. The U.S. doesn’t get a free pass, nor does it get an es­pe­cially hard time.”

Letta Tayler, who wrote a Hu­man Rights Watch re­port on U.S. drone strikes in Ye­men, said the “Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has erected an un­rea­son­able wall of se­crecy around th­ese strikes, and it makes it next to im­pos­si­ble to know whether it’s abid­ing by the law.”

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