ISLAMABAD - US drone strikes inside Pakistan are killing far fewer civilians than many in the country are led to believe, according to a rare on-the-ground investigation by the Associated Press of 10 of the deadliest attacks in the past 18 months.
The widespread perception in Pakistan that civilians, not militants, are the principal victims - a view that is fostered by leading right-wing politicians, clerics, and fighters themselves - fuels pervasive anti-American sentiment and, some argue, has swelled the ranks of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
But a reporter who spoke to about 80 villagers at the sites of the 10 attacks in North Waziristan, the sanctuary for militants in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region along the Afghan border, was told that a significant majority of the dead were combatants.
Indeed, the villagers said that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent - at least 138 - were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single attack March 17, 2011.
Excluding that strike, which inflicted one of the worst civilian death tolls since the drone program began in Pakistan, nearly 90 percent of the people killed were militants, villagers said.
But the civilian deaths in the covert CIA-run program raise legal and ethical concerns, especially given Washington’s reluctance to speak openly about the strikes.
US officials who were shown the findings rejected the accounts of civilian casualties but declined to be quoted by name or make their information public.
The United States has carried out at least 280 attacks since 2004 in Pakistan’s tribal region. The area is dangerous and off-limits to most reporters, and death tolls from the strikes usually rely on reports from Pakistani intelligence agents speaking on condition of anonymity.
The numbers gathered by the AP were very close to those given by Pakistani intelligence on the day of each strike, the main difference being that the officials often did not distinguish between militants and civilians.
The AP breakdown paints a much different picture from that advanced by important Pakistani opinion-shapers.
Syed Munawar Hasan, head of the country’s most powerful Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, recently said on TV that the strikes “are killing nearly 100 percent innocent people.’’
Some analysts have been skeptical about doing on-the-ground investigations, assuming villagers would follow the militants’ narrative of high civilian death tolls to avoid reprisals. But the AP study showed otherwise. While some villagers spoke on condition of anonymity saying they feared for their safety, others let their names be published.
Many knew the dead civilians personally. They also said one way to distinguish civilians from militants was by counting funerals, because bodies of dead militants would usually be whisked away for burial elsewhere.
An attack near Miran Shah before dawn Aug. 10, 2011, was one of six on AP’s list in which villagers said no civilians died.
A drone fired missiles at a large brick compound, killing at least 20 Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fighters, said Sajjad Ali, a local driver. The compound hit was known as a rest house for militants run by the Haqqani network, an Afghan group focused on fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan, he said.
The charred bodies were hastily buried in a graveyard more than a mile away, said Ali, who spoke to several people who attended the burial. Those who attended were not allowed to see the victims’ faces, he said.
A second man who spoke to people who attended the burial confirmed Ali’s account. He requested anonymity.
Before dawn April 22, 2011, a drone fired missiles at the guest room of a compound in Hasan Khel, a village in mountains dominated by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Pakistani militant fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The strike killed 25 people, including 20 militants, three children and two women, said Mamrez Gul, who owns a shop near the site of the attack. The militants were staying in the guest room, and the civilians were sleeping in a nearby room that was also destroyed by the blasts. A funeral was held for the women and children, but the bodies of the militants were taken away, said Mamrez Gul.
A US counterterrorism official in Washington said no women and children were seen in the compound before the strike. But Mamrez Gul, taxidriver Noor Habib Wazir and farmer Gul Paenda Khan said they attended the funeral of the women and children.