by DAVID AXE

American drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas—an estimated 350 of them since 2004—have killed between 400 and 900 innocent civilians and wounded even more. And besides the toll of dead and injured, there’s the uniquely traumatizing psychological impact of robotic strikes on the people below.

At least that’s what the advocacy group Amnesty International would have us believe. But some of the group’s claims are based on only the most cursory evidence and potentially unreliable eyewitness accounts.

That the U.S. government operates armed drones over Pakistan is not in doubt. That innocent civilians have died under their missile barrages is also certain. But the number of innocents who have died — and the impact of the drone campaign on everyday life in the tribal region—is still an open question.

Indeed, of all the methods the U.S. and Pakistan have used to fight insurgents and terrorists in the tribal areas, drones might actually be the safest for civilians.

Just not according to Amnesty.

In its latest investigation, published in mid-October, the rights group portrays robot strikes as uniquely damaging to innocent people in the target zone. “Everyone is scared and they can’t get out of their house without any tension and from the fear of drone attacks,” a resident of Esso Khel village told Amnesty. “People are mentally disturbed as a result of the drone flights.”

But just because Khel said his village is harassed by American drones doesn’t make it true. It’s not at all clear that pilotless warplanes were truly responsible for all the attacks Amnesty studied. The Pentagon and CIA declined to discuss the drone campaign with the rights group.

Some of the eyewitness accounts in the new report are inconsistent with known drone tactics and the well-understood limitations of unmanned aircraft in general. The attackers could have been manned warplanes, and Pakistani rather than American.

It seems that some Pakistanis in the tribal areas describe all warplanes and even helicopters as “drones”—and as American. They apparently just assume that explosives raining from the sky necessarily come from robotic planes flown by the U.S.

A Reaper drone. David Axe photo

Drone formations

“The drone planes were flying over our village all day and night, flying in pairs, sometimes three together,” Zubair Rehman, the grandson of an innocent 68-year-old woman allegedly killed in a drone attack in October 2012.

“Before her family’s eyes, Mamana Bibi was blown into pieces by at least two Hellfire missiles fired concurrently from a U.S. drone aircraft,” Amnesty asserts.

But the rights group doesn’t actually know for sure that the missiles were Hellfires, or that they were fired by a drone—or by an American aircraft at all. A photo published by Amnesty claims to depict debris from the Hellfires that killed Bibi, but the mangled metal pieces could just as easily have come from a TOW missile or another munition launched by a Pakistani military plane or helicopter.

There are other good reasons to believe that the aircraft that reportedly killed Bibi were something other than Predator or Reaper drones.

Eyewitness Rehman described drones flying in “pairs” or “three together.” But Predators and Reapers necessarily operate alone, because their pilots—sitting in trailers thousands of miles away in Nevada, monitoring their ‘bots’ flights through narrow camera lenses—lack the visibility to fly in close formation with other aircraft.

“Human beings can look around them so they don’t crash into things,” said Bruce Clough from the Air Force Research Laboratory. “How do you build a system that will do that [for drones]?”

The Air Force is working on so-called “sense and avoid” technology to allow drones to fly together. But the technology’s combination of sensors, processors and software algorithms is complex and expensive—and still in the experimental phase. A pair of Northrop Grumman Global Hawk drones flew a tentative close formation for the first time late last year.

So when Pakistani eyewitnesses such as Rehman—plus others cited in the recent Amnesty report—describe groups of several aircraft flying together, it’s unlikely what they were seeing were drones.

A Predator drone. Bryan William Jones photo

Buzz of death

“People are mentally disturbed as a result of the drone flights,” the Esso Khel villager told Amnesty. “We can’t sleep because of the planes’ loud sound.”

Problem is, Predators and Reapers spend most of their time at altitudes where they are generally inaudible. It’s for that reason that the U.S. Army used Predators in Iraq to orbit over insurgents’ meetings, striking them only after all the fighters had gathered together.

“Predator flies at about 10,000 feet,” Army Gen. Raymond Odierno told 60 Minutes. “It’s so high up [the insurgents] have trouble hearing it.”

So what are the Pakistanis in the tribal region seeing and hearing—and what’s killing them in cases when the drones aren’t overhead?

It’s worth recalling that the Pakistani government conducts its own operations against insurgents and terrorists in the tribal areas. The Pakistani air force alone launched more than 5,500 aerial sorties, dropped 10,600 bombs and struck 4,600 targets in the tribal areas in just the first two years of counter-insurgency operations starting in late 2008, according to Air Chief Marshal Rao Qamar Suleman.

Notably, it’s standard practice for Pakistan’s manned warplanes such as F-16s to fly in groups of two or four—and the same for manned helicopters such as Pakistan’s AH-1 Cobras. And both the jets and the copters are louder than any drone.

Amnesty’s report includes sidebars describing Pakistani military operations, but for some reason does not entertain the idea that the aerial attackers described by villagers might be Pakistani rather than American.

A British drone operator. David Axe photo

No drone refugees

Compared to the alternatives, drones are arguably a less damaging way to find and kill militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas. War is Boring’s own Josh Foust pointed out that a Pakistani army offensive in the Swat Valley north of Islamabad in 2009 displaced a million people.

By contrast, there are no reports of the drone war creating refugees on any meaningful scale.

“That’s not to say people love drones,” Foust wrote. “But both terror groups and the Pakistani military kill far more innocent civilians and leave far more physical devastation in their wake — what is the ‘least bad’ course for policymakers?”

Amnesty doesn’t attempt to answer this difficult question. Nor does the group make much effort to determine what its supposed eyewitnesses of drone strikes actually saw.

Sign up for a daily War is Boring email update here. Subscribe to WIB’s RSS feed here and follow the main page here.