A rare U.S. drone strike on an Islamic seminary outside Pakistan’s tribal areas — where most past strikes have occurred — is fueling a heated international debate on the Obama administration’s commitment to limiting civilian casualties.
Thursday’s strike on the seminary, which reportedly served as a safe haven for Afghan refugees and suspected terrorists, came just two weeks after the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence secretly voted to begin requiring U.S. spy agencies to publicize statistics on the number of innocent people killed and injured by such strikes.
The requirement is pending as part of the 2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, but it is likely to receive a new push after Thursday’s strike, which is believed to have killed at least five people in Pakistan’s northwestern region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. News reports cited a local police officer as saying three rockets fired from a drone just before sunrise resulted in the deaths of two teachers and three students at the seminary.
U.S. officials have not announced whether they deemed the strike successful, and it remains unclear who was being targeted. According to a Reuters report that cites an unnamed intelligence source, Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network, had been spotted at the seminary earlier this week.
With Washington’s drone program operating under secrecy, accurate statistics on civilian casualties are difficult to pin down. Human rights groups say as many as 900 civilians have been killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan since 2004.
But last month, Pakistan’s government reported that 67 civilians had been killed by drone strikes in the past five years but no civilians since 2011.
Estimating that fewer than 3 percent of all people killed by drone strikes have been civilians, the report contradicts earlier claims by Pakistani authorities that the civilian death count has been significantly higher — most likely more than 400 people since 2008.
It also exposes divisions in Islamabad, where the Foreign Ministry has since claimed that the Defense Ministry underestimated civilian casualties. The Foreign Ministry has said it plans to revise the numbers in its own report, but it is not known what the new figures will or when they will be released.
Some analysts have speculated that the Obama administration, which has faced criticism from human rights groups and the U.N. over the drone program’s secrecy, may have pressured the Defense Ministry to publicize the lower numbers as a condition for receiving U.S. aid.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden told The Washington Times on Thursday evening that such speculation would be “an absurd suggestion with no basis in truth.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty International and other human rights groups are calling on the Obama administration to clarify how it defines who is a combatant and who is a civilian, saying the lack of clarity about the terms may have contributed to the differing civilian casualty statistics.
U.S. officials refuse to discuss the drone program publicly and do not publish estimates on casualty rates. As a result, assessments by the human rights community are often used and reported by the media.
While it has stopped short of offering an alternative, the Obama administration has argued that the human rights community’s assessment of civilian casualties is grossly inaccurate. The administration also has asserted that nongovernmental groups, such as Amnesty International and the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism do not have a complete picture of the situation.
“There’s a wide gap between U.S. assessments and, in general, nongovernmental reports about civilian casualties,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters on Oct. 22.
Some analysts suggest that the U.S. government itself may not have a clear picture of how many people have been killed by drones.