The recent announcement by President Obama that the CIA accidentally killed an American and Italian hostage in a drone strike carried out in mid January on a Taliban compound in Pakistan's remote tribal region where they were being held captive has caused a firestorm of controversy vis a vis the Agency's murky drone campaign. Critics have cited the fact that the CIA fired on the compound where the hostages were being held, seemingly without knowing exactly who was inside it, as evidence that the program is indiscriminate and creates widespread "collateral damage" among civilian bystanders. Lost in the furor is an objective analysis of who is actually being killed in the covert drone campaign and what sort of intelligence and tactics/weapons are being deployed by the CIA and JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command) in drone operations. Instead, anti-drone voices seem to dominate the debate with wild claims that the majority of those who are killed by the drones are innocent civilian bystanders.
There are, however, studies that refute this conventional wisdom among the anti-drone activists. Most notably, the New America Foundation has systematically analyzed the drone campaign since its origins in 2002 and has found that in the 396 drone strikes carried out to date in Pakistan, a maximum of 3,612 people have been killed, and of them a maximum of 307 (roughly 10 percent) were civilians. According to this study, the drone campaign has gotten more accurate over time and for the last three years the only civilians to die in drone strikes were the two foreign hostages killed while being held in the Taliban compound.
This level of precision is a result of several recent developments in the drone campaign. Namely, the use of smaller and smaller mini-missiles, such as the Scorpion, which create smaller blast radiuses and thus spread less shrapnel to un-intended victims. The drones also increasingly target moving vehicles in order to kill their clearly defined targets when they leave civilian-packed areas. And the drones are guided by on-the-ground "humint" (human intelligence) in the form of a vast spy network which uses such technology as "prathrais" (homing beacons) to direct Scorpion and Hellfire missiles directly to their designated targets. In addition, the CIA eavesdrops on the Talibans' phone conversations via their drones and thus uses a combination of "techint" and "humint" to launch a strike operation.
Contrary to the notion being propagated by the anti-drone movement that "every male in the Pakistani tribal regions is a potential target," the CIA and JSOC must have overlapping sources of intelligence to call forth a drone strike. Intel to support a strike usually comes from the Predators or Reapers. These fly over their targets for over twenty four hours at a time patiently monitoring their "pattern of life movements" with their high resolution cameras, from intercepted phone conversations, or from spies who monitor Taliban and Al Qaeda hujras (guest houses) and bases.
Where the criticism comes in is when the CIA launches a strike on a target based on such information without actually knowing the targets' identity in a so-called "signature strike." Obama has given the Agency the mandate to carry out strikes on targets whose identity is not known (i.e. they are not "nominated" for a "kill list" created by the CIA or White House), but whose "signature" would seem to indicate they are Taliban or Al Qaeda. A signature that draws attention can range from a suspicious act like moving at night with weapons across the Afghan border to being located at a known Taliban compound.
Clearly the strike that killed the two hostages on January 15th was not a random drone attack on an innocent Pashtun tribesman's house. The CIA had come to the correct conclusion via spies, eavesdropping and or surveillance that Taliban terrorists were holed up in the compound and launched a "signature strike" on it. Four Taliban were killed in the strike in addition to the two hostages they were holding. The fact that two other American terrorists were killed by drones in Pakistan at roughly the same time (Al Qaeda's chief English language propagandist, Adam Gadahn and Al Qaeda's number two operative for India, Ahmed Farouq) has been overshadowed by the killing of the two hostages. But the deaths of Gadahn and Farooq in signature strikes, combined with the fact that the strike killed the two hostages while they were being held in a compound by the Taliban, would all seem to indicate that far from being indiscriminate, the signature strike campaign is hitting its intended targets.
While Obama has promised that there will be no strikes unless there is a "near certainty" that there are no civilians in the target zone, aerial bombing (even by high tech drones), is rarely defined by total certainty. There will continue to be civilian casualties in the drone campaign (often direct family members of targets), but these are clearly the exception to the rule and even drone strikes based on "pattern of life" movements or suspicious "signature" lead to the killing of terrorists like Gadahn and Farooq and the Taliban who held the two hostages.
Brian Glyn Williams is author of Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda based on his fieldwork in Pakistan's remote tribal zones and The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime.