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June 13, 2010

US Expected to Continue Drone Strikes in Pakistan, Despite Criticism

by David Dyar

A recent UN report called on the Obama administration to stop unmanned drone strikes against terrorists along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.   The human rights group, Amnesty International, says the United States must clarify rules for using drones and monitor the impact on civilians.  Critics say U.S. drone attacks have killed hundreds of civilians over last few years. Despite criticism, analysts say the U.S. is not likely to change its tactics and will continue using drones.

Drone attacks targeting alleged terrorists in Pakistan have become an increasingly common tool used by the United States.  The program is being condemned by critics who say it may constitute assassination and violates international law.

The third highest leader in al-Qaida, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was reported killed by a missile from a drone in a tribal region in Pakistan -- the day before the UN report was issued.

The report calls on the U.S. to use restraint in using drones outside of war zones, such as Pakistan.  Peter Singer follows defense issues at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "I think this really comes down to the fundamental difference between the use of this technology in clear war zones, like Afghanistan, by the military versus the murkier area of a counter terrorism campaign, a targeted killing campaign, by an intelligence agency," he said.

The Obama administration does not acknowledge the program by the Central Intelligence Agency.  Pakistan has publicly objected to the killings but its military is said to provide information on the targets.  

"The strikes, of course, are happening. The CIA may deny they're happening.   The Pakistani government, not only knows they're playing out, they're facilitating it.  For example, it was revealed about a year ago, the planes, contrary to violating Pakistani sovereignty, were actually taking off from Pakistani airforce bases," he said.

"If the people most directly involved in this - the Pakistanis - really want it to stop, then I think you would see the elected government of Pakistan become quite vocal in opposition and would shut this down," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, an intelligence analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.

During a visit to Pakistan last October, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she refused to discuss the drones.  But in March, a State Department legal advisor defended drone killings as lawful because of the conflict with al-Qaida.   

The UN report says the U.S. should release figures on civilian casualties caused by the strikes.  The report also expresses concern that targeted killings are becoming easier  and more frequent because the drones are controlled by computers and audio feeds far from the battlefield.

Singer says more than 40 countries have drones. He supports using them in Pakistan.  "There are terrorist leaders who have done very bad things and are planning very bad things, who are deliberately hiding out in areas that are inaccessible. You can't capture them, you can't get the local government to go in, and the only way to get them is from these strikes from afar," he said.

The UN report proposes a summit of key military powers to clarify limits on killings by armed drones.