Drone Strike in Pakistan Kills 16 People and Two Sets of New Drone 'Rules'

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A drone strike on a compound in northwestern Pakistan early this morning killed at least 16 people. The attack suggests that President Obama isn't paying too much attention to the demands of two world leaders: the prime minister of Pakistan or the president of the United States.

CNN reports on the strike:

The officials said the attack early Wednesday struck a compound of the Haqqani Network, a group that carries out attacks against NATO forces in Afghanistan and travels back and forth across the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. ... It wasn't immediately clear if any high-profile insurgent figures had been killed in the attack. The militants in the compound were from both Pakistan and Afghanistan, the officials said.

The attack is one of the deadliest in recent history in the country. In January, according to data compiled by the New America Foundation, a strike may have killed about as many.

Pakistan's government was quick to condemn the attack, issuing a statement that it has "consistently maintained that drone strikes are counter-productive, entail loss of innocent civilian lives and have human rights and humanitarian implications." When the new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, assumed office last month, he declared that the country should not allow such strikes. "We respect the sovereignty of others and they should also respect our sovereignty and independence," Sharif told his parliament. "This campaign should come to an end." (Within days of his saying that, a U.S. strike killed seven.)

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To be fair, the United States didn't exactly agree to Sharif's stated goal. But today's strike also didn't comport with Obama's declared intent to revise how the U.S. conducts such strikes. In a widely hailed speech in May, the president outlined new standards for conducting such attacks. We made a simple flowchart detailing the criteria that need to exist under our new guidelines: there must be a legal basis for the strike, the target must be an imminent threat to the U.S., we must be confident that no non-terrorists will be killed, the person must not be able to be captured. And so on. Suggesting that one of the following things was the case:

  • The United States knew that all of those 16 (or, as early reports indicated, 17) people were terrorists, at least one of whom posed an imminent threat to our country and who we and our allies could not possibly capture.
  • The new rules are more like "guidelines," and/or aren't completely in effect yet.

As it turns out, drone strikes might not even be the best way to ensure the United States is meeting its new rules. Earlier this week, a researcher with government security access released his analysis of the effectiveness of such strikes at minimizing unintentional casualties. His discovery? Drone strikes are ten times more likely to result in innocent casualties than strikes from manned aircraft. NBC News reports:

[Researcher Lawrence] Lewis' findings affirmed that many innocent people have been caught in the drone crossfire, or misidentified as terrorists. But because the researcher was reviewing and reporting on classified documents, he was unable to reveal exactly how many civilians died in drone attacks in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, [Center for Civilians in Conflict's Sarah] Holewinksi said. ...

“If this finding can be so contradictory to what we inherently believe about drones in Afghanistan, well then certainly the administration has an interest in knowing if this is also the case in a place like Pakistan,” Holewinksi said.

Government officials pointed out that suggesting its simply "a choice between the two platforms grossly oversimplifies the issue," which is valid. Nonetheless, the data are suggestive, and can't help but raise additional questions about the presumptive guilt of the 16 people killed this morning.

The Bangkok Post suggests an additional level of irony to today's attack.

Wednesday's attack came as the BBC broadcast an interview with the Afghan army chief of staff in which he claimed US drone strikes are "never used against Haqqani or Afghan Taliban".

That army chief may not have gotten the updated strike rules either.

Photo: Pakistanis protest drone strikes in 2010. (AP)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.