ISLAMABAD — American drone strikes inside Pakistan are killing far fewer civilians than many in the country are led to believe, according to a rare on-the-ground investigation by The Associated Press of 10 of the deadliest attacks in the past 18 months.
The widespread perception in Pakistan that civilians, not militants, are the principal victims — a view that is fostered by leading right-wing politicians, clerics and the fighters themselves — fuels pervasive anti-American sentiment and, some argue, has swelled the ranks of al-Qaida and the Taliban.
But an AP reporter who spoke to about 80 villagers at the sites of the 10 attacks in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militants in Pakistan's northwest tribal region along the Afghan border, was told that a significant majority of the dead were combatants.
Indeed, the AP was told by the villagers that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent — at least 138 — were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single attack on March 17, 2011.
Excluding that strike, which inflicted one of the worst civilian death tolls since the drone program started in Pakistan, nearly 90 percent of the people killed were militants, villagers said.
But the civilian deaths in the covert CIA-run program raise legal and ethical concerns, especially given Washington's reluctance to speak openly about the strikes or compensate the families of innocent victims.
U.S. officials who were shown the AP's findings rejected the accounts of any civilian casualties but declined to be quoted by name or make their own information public.
The U.S. has carried out at least 280 attacks since 2004 in Pakistan's tribal region. The area is dangerous and off-limits to most reporters, and death tolls from the strikes usually rely on reports from Pakistani intelligence agents speaking on condition of anonymity.
The numbers gathered by the AP turned out to be very close to those given by Pakistani intelligence on the day of each strike, the main difference being that the officials often did not distinguish between militants and civilians.
Drone attacks began during the Bush administration. President Barack Obama has ramped them up significantly since he took office but slowed them down in recent months because of increased tension between the U.S. and Pakistan caused by American airstrikes that accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November.
Pakistan responded by kicking the U.S. out of a base used to service American drones, but the move is not expected to affect the program significantly.
The AP study paints a much different picture from that advanced by important Pakistani opinion-shapers.
Syed Munawar Hasan, head of the country's most powerful Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, recently claimed on TV that the strikes "are killing nearly 100 percent innocent people."
Imran Khan, a popular opposition politician close to some right-wing Islamic groups, addressed a cheering crowd last April and said: "Those who lie to the nation after every drone attack and say terrorists were killed should be ashamed."
He called for journalists and activists to go to the tribal region to see that the strikes were killing civilians, not militants.
Some analysts have been skeptical about carrying out on-the-ground investigations, assuming villagers would follow the militants' narrative of high civilian death tolls to avoid reprisals. But the AP study showed otherwise. While some villagers spoke on condition of anonymity saying they feared for their safety, others let their names be published.
Many knew the dead civilians personally. They also said one way to distinguish civilians from militants was by counting funerals, because the bodies of dead militants would usually be whisked away for burial elsewhere.
An attack near Miran Shah before dawn on Aug. 10 was one of six on the AP's list in which villagers said no civilians died.
A drone fired missiles at a large brick compound, killing at least 20 Afghan and Pakistani Taliban fighters, said Sajjad Ali, a local driver. The compound hit was known as a rest house for militants run by the Haqqani network, an Afghan group focused on fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan, he said.
The charred bodies were hastily buried in a graveyard more than a mile (2 kilometers) away, said Ali, who spoke to several people who attended the burial. Those who attended were not allowed to see the victims' faces, he said.
A second man who spoke to people who attended the burial confirmed Ali's account. He requested anonymity.
Before dawn on April 22, a drone fired missiles at the guest room of a large compound in Hasan Khel, a village in the mountains dominated by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Pakistani militant commander fighting foreign troops in Afghanistan.
The strike killed 25 people, including 20 militants, three children and two women, said Mamrez Gul, who owns a shop near the site of the attack. The militants were staying in the guest room, and the civilians were sleeping in a nearby room that was also destroyed by the blasts. A funeral was held for the women and children, but the bodies of the militants were taken away, said Mamrez Gul.
He said the women and children were relatives of the compound's owner, Gul Sharif, a militant commander loyal to Bahadur. He survived the attack, said two villagers, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A U.S. counterterrorism official in Washington said no women and children were observed in the compound before the strike. But Mamrez Gul, taxi driver Noor Habib Wazir and farmer Gul Paenda Khan said they attended the funeral of the women and children.
A strike on August 14, 2010, on a compound in Issori Boikhel village also illustrated the danger to civilians who live close to militants. The attack killed seven Pakistani Taliban fighters and seven tribesmen, said Shera Deen, the owner of the compound that was hit. Safir Ullah, a student, corroborated the casualty count, as did a third villager who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Deen, who was not in the compound when it was attacked, said he lost two sons, a brother and three nephews, one of them 10 years old.
The seventh tribesman killed was 26-year-old Sohrab Khan, who was leading evening prayers for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan when the missiles struck, the villagers said. According to them, the Taliban fighters entered the compound to join the prayers, which would explain why they were bunched together with civilians.
The tribesmen were buried in a graveyard with a wooden headstone indicating they were victims of a drone attack, the villagers said. The Taliban fighters were buried in a different corner of the same graveyard in an unmarked grave, they said.
U.S. counterterrorism officials disputed the death tolls and other details of some of the strikes, including the exact locations. One said the U.S. "had no reliable evidence" that civilians were killed in any of the strikes examined and questioned the reliability of villagers' accounts.
The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified.
Regarding the March 17 strike on Shiga village, the bloodiest attack investigated by the AP, U.S. officials familiar with drone operations said the group targeted was heavily armed, some of its members were connected to al-Qaida, and all "acted in a manner consistent with AQ (al-Qaida)-linked militants."
But villagers and Pakistani officials said the missiles hit a community meeting, or jirga, held to resolve a mining dispute, killing four Pakistani Taliban fighters and 38 civilians and tribal police.
The militants were there because they controlled the area and any decision made would need their approval, said Gul Ahmed, a farmer.
Citing the number visible in the monitoring before and during the attack, U.S. officials said the total of dead was roughly half what villagers reported. But Ahmed said there were 42 caskets lined up at the funeral, and he provided the victims' names.
Christopher Rogers, a lawyer who has studied civilian casualties in Pakistan from drone attacks and other military action, said that regardless of casualty tolls, the U.S. still needed to make the program more transparent to prove it is complying with international laws on who may be targeted and measures to minimize the loss of innocent lives.
"The percentage of militants killed is an important piece of this, but it is one piece of a larger picture," said Rogers, who works at Open Society Foundations, an advocacy group in New York City. "The bigger issue here is the covert nature of the program, the complete lack of any transparency and accountability and the lack of information about how the U.S. distinguishes a militant from a civilian."
The drone program is so secretive that only last month did Obama publicly acknowledge its existence. He said the strikes "have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," but gave no details.
Rights organizations have been unable to verify the number of civilian casualties caused by drones because of the danger and difficulty of getting to sites.
One London-based group, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has published drone casualty figures based on media reports, witness testimony and other information. It said strikes have killed between 2,383 and 3,109 people, of whom 464 to 815 were civilians. That implies the percentage of militants killed was roughly 70 to 80 percent. The group said an unidentified U.S. counterterrorism official insisted its civilian casualty figures were much too high.
A poll conducted in May 2011 by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found that overwhelming majorities of Pakistanis who were aware of drone strikes said they were a bad thing and killed too many innocents. Pakistani officials regularly criticize the strikes as violations of the country's sovereignty, but there has long been some level of Pakistani acquiescence or help in the program.
Pakistani intelligence officials said a suspected U.S. drone crashed Saturday near Mir Ali, one of the main towns in North Waziristan, and caught fire after hitting the ground. The officials said the drone was believed to have crashed because of technical problems.
A U.S. official denied reports that the drone was shot down. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the classified program.