Changing Opinion On Drone Strikes In Pakistan

Read the full report, "Revenge Of The Drones"

In "Revenge of the Drones," The New America Foundation's Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann tallied reports on how many civilians have been killed in Pakistan due to CIA drone strikes. Bergen talks about the report, civilian casualties and the efficacy of drone attacks.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Now, one of President Obama's first actions on the national security front was to order unmanned predator drone strikes along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan. Since then, unmanned drone attacks have increased dramatically. There have been 41 strikes since President Obama took office - compare that to 2008 when there were only 34 attacks in the entire year. These numbers come from a new study by Katherine Tiedemann and Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation, a centrist think-tank. Their paper is called "Revenge of the Drones."

Peter Bergen joins us here in Studio 3A to talk about whether these attacks are effective, whether they're legal and how many civilians they kill. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. PETER BERGEN, (Analyst, New America Foundation): Good afternoon, Ari.

SHAPIRO: We hear about drone strikes all the time. What exactly is a drone? What does it look like? How does it work?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, these are unmanned vehicles that are often piloted from remote locations, in places like Nevada. And they are operated largely by the Air Force, but there is a CIA component to these strikes because it's the CIA that's tasked with eliminating, you know, leaders of al-Qaida.

They are, you know, 24 feet in length. There are two different types, one is the rather larger one called the reaper, and one is the smaller one called the predator. They're armed with Hellfire missiles, and in the case of the predator, JDAM bombs. And if you're on the receiving end of a JDAM bomb, you're going to regret it.

SHAPIRO: Do they look like a typical airplane with a cockpit? Does somebody sit with a joystick as though they're using an old Atari?

Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, I've - you know, the - it's like flying a plane except it's, you know, not really a plane. It's flown remotely. My understanding is that they do make some noise, certainly the older models, that you can sometimes hear them coming. But now, they may be able to fly at higher levels that suppresses the noise.

SHAPIRO: And let's talk about the number of civilians killed in these attacks. In these papers - in this paper that you've written, you cite two different studies, one of which said more than 90 percent of the people killed in these strikes are civilians. Another study said 10 percent of the people killed in these strikes are civilians. You come down somewhere in the middle, and tell us how you reach the number you reached, and what the number was.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, we concluded that since 2006, about 30 percent or a third of the strikes have killed civilians. And we did a pretty careful assessment of that based on using only reliable accounts of news organizations that have substantial reporting capabilities in Pakistan, for instance, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the BBC, the Associated Press, some of the better-quality Pakistani language newspapers. There's a very good paper called The News, DAWN, Daily Times - these are papers that cover these strikes pretty aggressively. We don't claim that we - you know, down to the last iota couldn't tell you exactly how many civilians died. But, this is a pretty precise, at least, estimate and it's very different from some of the ominous numbers that have been floating around which really - there was a report in the Pakistani press that was picked up by the New York Times in an article by David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, who are counterinsurgency experts. And, you know, that number seemed to be up in the 90 percent. Another - a blog, quite a good blog called The Long War Journal, which tracks al-Qaida and the Taliban, came up with a 10 percent number. We didn't come down in the middle because we wanted to come down in the middle.

SHAPIRO: Right.

Mr. BERGEN: We came down in the middle because that's what the numbers seemed to say. And, to be honest with you, our intent wasn't - not so much to take a position on whether the drones are good or bad thing. People can draw their own conclusions. I think a lot of people will say, well, 30 percent civilian casualty rate - that's absolutely unacceptable. Other people may say, well, these are killing leaders of the Taliban, they're killing lower-level militants as well, you know, that's acceptable.

SHAPIRO: Who decides what the acceptable level of civilian casualties is?

Mr. BERGEN: This is an area of - this is a highly classified program, so believe me no one's going to tell you. Or me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHAPIRO: We have agreed on 29 percent - no.

Mr. BERGEN: You know, we quote Matthew Waxman who is a Columbia law professor, essentially saying…

SHAPIRO: He handled these affairs at the Pentagon during President Bush's administration.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, he was in charge of detaining operations, and he's certainly, you know, familiar with some of these issues. And it's a question of a proportionality, it's a question of what event might you have put off by killing a terrorist leader and - there are a lot of very difficult questions. And, you know, Jane Mayer has a piece in the New Yorker this week, which goes into this in more detail. She used our study as one of the things that she based her piece on. It's very tricky, but - go ahead.

SHAPIRO: So I suppose if Osama bin Laden is killed in a given drone strike, that may make more civilian deaths acceptable than if it's some low-level terrorist leader, according to the government's thinking?

Mr. BERGEN: I - as I understand it, and again, it's hard to get at this. As I understand it, you know, the United States cannot assassinate people and, obviously, this is an assassination program. But their exceptions are leaders of groups that are at war with the United States, you know, that's one of the exceptions. So it gets trickier certainly when you're killing more and more lower-level militants. I think that's one problem. And, obviously, it's much trickier when you're killing civilians.

But there's another wrinkle in this, Ari, which is the Pakistani government used to go bananas and scream and say these were bad, but now you may notice that they've tended not to really protest so much because, you know, it's suiting their strategic interest for the Pakistani Taliban to taking a lot of these attacks and the - for instance, one of the drone attacks killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. Back in August, a guy who'd kill Benazir Bhutto, the most popular politician of the country, killed hundreds of people across Pakistan. So what's unusual right now is American strategic interest and Pakistani strategic interest, which are often very divergent, are kind of coming together.

SHAPIRO: Well, that's the view of the Pakistani government. But then there's also the Pakistani citizens that you have to look at. And I suppose that if we alienate them, taking out a bunch of top-level terrorist group leaders may not be worth it if we alienate the entire populace of Pakistan. How does that evaluation play out?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, it turns out, from the data that we have, probably the further you are away from the drone strikes, the more you're opposed to them. So if you actually live in the tribal regions, one poll indicates, that people don't mind, you know, mysterious pieces of metal falling out of the sky.

SHAPIRO: Even though they're the people most likely to be accidentally killed in these attacks.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, they also know that these attacks are pretty accurate and are taking out, you know, heavily-armed religious nutcases who've taken over their neighborhoods. And so, you know, that - you know, polling data in the Pakistani tribal regions is open to question, but it seems that if you're living, you know, for a lot of Pakistanis, this very - this program is very unpopular.

But, you know, the mood in Pakistan is shifting against the militants anyway. And we've got, right now in Waziristan, a major Pakistani military operation, which is also going to put a lot of pressure on these militants. That's done, I think, for the very - in the last year or so, the Pakistani public has really changed its minds about the Taliban, al-Qaida. What - the operations the Pakistani military are undertaking are no longer seen as, well, this is just doing something America wants. Now, it's seen as this isn't Pakistan's national interests.

SHAPIRO: As you write, President Obama has increased the use of these drone strikes over President Bush. Why? What is the strategy there?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I think it's sort of least-bad-option strategy. I mean, there's going to be - you can't send the 82nd Airborne into Pakistan, you know, to go after al-Qaida. It would provoke perhaps a war with Pakistan. You can't - there are a very, very limited number of American soldiers, intel officers in Pakistan, you know? So this is a relatively safe way for the United States to pursue leaders of al-Qaida and the Taliban without provoking, you know, really a massive reaction from the Pakistani government, military, and public.

SHAPIRO: But presumably, some of the people being killed in these strikes could provide valuable intelligence information if we were to capture them instead.

Mr. BERGEN: Indeed, and that is one of the many caveats about this. I mean, you know, dead men don't talk, so there's no one to interrogate. There's no one to - there's no computers to do the forensics on to find other leads or look at cell phone analysis, and this kind of stuff. So, you know, that is certainly a very valid critique.

SHAPIRO: I suppose we've also had trouble detaining people in Guantanamo, Bagram and third countries, and I wonder whether part of the calculus here is that it is so difficult to detain people in a way that the Obama administration is happy with, that they go this route instead.

Mr. BERGEN: That is way above my pay grade in terms of…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BERGEN: I mean, certainly, you know, that would be a very cynical view of this to take. I'm not - I just don't know the answer.

SHAPIRO: You write in this paper that drone attacks are a tactic and not a strategy. Tell me what you mean by that.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, clearly, you know, when we killed - when the United States killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, that was not the end of al-Qaida in Iraq. In fact, the violence in Iraq went up. The leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, you know, just taking out one person is not sufficient to end a militant organization. You want people to lay down their arms. You want people to, you know, do peace deals. You want people to be captured. I mean, there are a lot of other - this is - you want to bring, you know, potentially political and economic development to an area that it is producing these kinds of people. You want to, you know, there are lots of other dimensions than just hitting people with a drone strike.

SHAPIRO: You know, you talked about the extent to which these strikes are killing civilians, or people that the US believes to be terrorists. Is there another good measure of whether this is working, whether it is actually disabling the terrorist networks that the United States wants to disable?

Mr. BERGEN: One measure that we looked at was al-Qaida takes its propaganda operations very seriously, and 2007, it released 100 videotapes and audio tapes. In 2008, it went down to about 50. This year, it's back up to 60. To us that indicator - Katherine Tiedemann and I - my co-author - that indicated the al-Qaida was more worried about survival than public relations when the drone program amped up. That's one indicator.

Another indicator would be a declining number of terrorist plots in the West, traceable back to this region. And that seems to have happened except there's a huge exception to this, which is Najibullah Zazi, the guy in Denver, Colorado, who was buying all this hydrogen peroxide and appears to have wanted to launch, you know, a serious wave of bombing attacks in the New York area. He trained in the federally ministered tribal region after the drone attack got amped up. So, you know, even with the heavy pressure of the drone attacks, al-Qaida is still able to train somebody from the United States how to make bombs.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, are there people who argue that these drone attacks are totally illegal and have no place?

Mr. BERGEN: I'm sure there are, you know, I'm sure there are. But, I mean, this is sort of the future warfare. I don't think this - well, look at it - you know, drones were almost unknown until the Iraq war and now, you know, there are - I mean, I don't know many hundreds or thousands are, you know, are involved in the Iraq War at any given moment, but this is the future of warfare.

SHAPIRO: And I suppose the increasing use of them shows that the Obama administration does indeed believe that this is a global war against terrorists around the world, otherwise they would be targeted assassinations, by legal definition.

Mr. BERGEN: Right. And in fact, these drones have also being used in other countries.

SHAPIRO: Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and he joined us in our studios here in Washington. Thanks a lot.

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