Drone Attacks Up Along Afghan-Pakistan Border

Pakistani officials say there have been roughly 20 U.S. drone strikes along the Afghan border this month. That's a significant increase in a secret war that was already growing under the Obama administration. The U.S. won't confirm the attacks. Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation talks to Ari Shapiro about the analysis he has done by compiling local reports.

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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Pakistani officials say that the U.S. has staged roughly 20 drone strikes along the Afghan border this month. That's a significant increase in a secret war that was already growing under the Obama administration. The U.S. won't confirm that these attacks are happening, let alone publish statistics.

But Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation has compiled local reports for an analysis of drone attacks that may be as comprehensive as any that exists right now. He joins us on the line.

Welcome.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (Senior Fellow, New America Foundation): Good morning.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us a sense of why these attacks have recently increased?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, yeah. The program's highly classified, so it's tough to say why the sudden increase. You know, one possibility is the flood seemed to have interrupted the drone program, to some degree, in very late July, early August. So maybe this is making up for lost time. These may be targets of opportunity. But since no one in the government will talk about this on the record, it's hard to assess exactly why.

SHAPIRO: Now, you say the floods may have put some of these attacks on hold, but the flooding was not in the same part of Pakistan that these attacks are taking place in, right?

Mr. BERGEN: That's right. But one of the places that's been identified as where the drones fly out of is in an area that was affected by the floods. But, you know, the fact that there have been something like 20 already this month is really part of a more general pattern, which is the Obama administration's ramped up this program up dramatically.

Part of the reasoning here is that intelligence has become better. The drones themselves, the bombs they carry are smaller, more accurate. And according to government officials, the civilian casualty rate has dropped to something like 2 percent. We think it's around 10 percent. Whether it's 10 percent or 2 percent, the fact is is that there was and impression about a year ago that most of the victims were civilians. Now, that is incorrect.

However, you know, this is the world's worst-kept secret, and if indeed the civilian casualty rate is so low and many of the people being killed in these attacks are people the Pakistani - that were attacking the Pakistani state, isn't it time for this program to have more transparency?

SHAPIRO: Well, to the extent that the U.S. government ever talks about these attacks - they say that they are aimed at terrorists - can you be any more specific? Tell us about who's being targeted, especially recently, within the last month.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, many of these attacks are in North Waziristan, which is home to the Haqqani Network, which is arguably the most dangerous and also efficient element of the Taliban. They're the group responsible for attacking major targets in Kabul. They are also providing a lot of the fighters that go into eastern Afghanistan.

Last year, many of these attacks were in southern Waziristan, where the Pakistani Taliban is located. Clearly, those were done with some coordination with the Pakistani military. It's very unpopular in Pakistan. About only 9 percent of the Pakistanis support it. That's because not only the issue of the perceived high rate of civilian casualties, but also, more fundamentally, the notion that this is, you know, an infringement to Pakistani national sovereignty, which is a pretty sensitive issue.

SHAPIRO: We hear a lot about American troops in Afghanistan taking on a counterinsurgency strategy to fight militants there. These drone attacks in the Afghan-Pakistan border region sound like the exact opposite of a counterinsurgency. It's an unmanned plane flying in, dropping a bomb and then disappearing.

Mr. BERGEN: Indeed. And it's a tactic, not a strategy, and I think everybody agrees on that. But as Leon Panetta said, it's sort of the least-bad option out there.

The United States, when it did send in special forces in a cross-border raid in the summer of '08, there was tremendous pushback from General Kayani - he's, in fact, I think, the most important officer in the Pakistani military and arguably the most important person in the country - who essentially said that's a red line and there are, you know, large numbers of American boots on the grounds coming across. It's almost an act of war.

And so then we just, you know, the United States defaulted to the drone program, as that's the only tool in the toolkit. But I have noticed in the last year or so, having covered this story for some period of time, the amount of Pakistani government pushback on this is close to zero.

If you go back to late '08, Prime Minister Gilani was publicly saying this is terrible and there was a lot of political discussion of this. But as so many of the attacks then started being directed enemies of the Pakistani state, the pushback from the Pakistani side has been much, much, much lower.

And so I think, as an issue, it's not as rancorous as it was even 18 months ago.

SHAPIRO: That's Peter Bergen of the New America Foundation. Thank you very much.

Mr. BERGEN: Thanks.

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