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What's the Cost of America's Secret Drone War?

U.S. Forces in Afghanistan have been paying locals to target terrorist strongholds. But is it working?

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's refusal to share with other agencies even the most basic data on the bombing attacks by remote-controlled unmanned predator drones in Pakistan's northwestern tribal region, combined with recent revelations that CIA operatives have been paying Pakistanis to identify the targets, suggests that managers of the drone attacks programmes have been using the total secrecy surrounding the programme to hide abuses and high civilian casualties.

Intelligence analysts have been unable to obtain either the list of military targets of the drone strikes or the actual results in terms of al Qaeda or civilians killed, according to a Washington source familiar with internal discussion of the drone strike programme. The source insisted on not being identified because of the extreme sensitivity of the issue.

"They can't find out anything about the programme," the source told IPS. That has made it impossible for other government agencies to judge its real consequences, according to the source.

Since early 2009, Barack Obama administration officials have been claiming that the predator attacks in Pakistan have killed nine of 20 top al Qaeda officials, but they have refused to disclose how many civilians have been killed in the strikes.

In April, The News, a newspaper in Lahore, Pakistan, published figures provided by Pakistani officials indicating that 687 civilians have been killed along with 14 al Qaeda leaders in some 60 drone strikes since January 2008 - just over 50 civilians killed for every al Qaeda leader.

A paper published this week by the influential pro-military Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) criticising the Obama administration's use of drone attacks in Pakistan says U.S. officials "vehemently dispute" the Pakistani figures but offers no further data on the programme.

In an interview with IPS, Nathaniel C. Fick, the chief operating officer of CNAS, who coauthored the paper, said Pentagon officials claim privately that 300 al Qaeda fighters have been killed in the drone attacks. However, those officials refuse to stipulate further just who they have included under that rubric, according to Fick, and have not offered any figure on civilian deaths.

What is needed is "a strict definition of the target set - a definition of who is al Qaeda," said Fick.

Press reports that the CIA is paying Pakistani agents for identifying al Qaeda targets by placing electronic chips at farmhouses supposedly inhabited by al Qaeda officials, so they can be bombed by predator planes, has raised new questions about whether the CIA and the Obama administration have simply redefined al Qaeda in order to cover up an abusive system and justify the programme.

The initial story on the CIA payments for placing the chips by Carol Grisanti and Mushtaq Yusufzai of NBC News Apr. 17 was based on a confession by a 19-year-old in North Waziristan on a video released by the Taliban. In his confession, the young man says, "I was given 122 dollars to drop chips wrapped in a cigarette paper at al Qaida and Taliban houses. If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars."

He goes on to say, "I thought this was a very easy job. The money was so good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money."

The video shows the man being shot as a spy for the United States.

A U.S. official told NBC news that the video was "extremist propaganda," but a story in The Guardian May 31 said residents of Waziristan, including one student identified as Taj Muhammad Wazir, had confirmed that tribesman have been paid to lay the electronic devices to target drone strikes.

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