In May 2013, faced with persistent reports of drones killing civilians, President Obama announced that no strike would be authorised unless there was: “near certainty that no civilians would be killed or injured.” It was, he said, “the highest standard we can set.”
The new rule seemed to make a difference. Before the speech the US had, according to Bureau of Investigative
Journalism data, mounted 371 strikes in Pakistan that killed between 416 and 953 civilians.
Since the speech, 42 strikes have killed between 0 and six civilians. Or, put another way, there has been no confirmed civilian death as a result of a drone strike in Pakistan since the speech.
The drop in the number of strikes is not solely explained by the near-certainty standard constraining drone operators. The Pakistan government’s attitude has also affected the frequency of drone attacks.
In late 2013, for example, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif complained that US drone strikes had ruined his attempt to open up a dialogue with the Taliban.
Accepting Sharif’s demand for a ceasefire so that he could try to negotiate a settlement, the US suspended its strikes for several months.
As for the sharp drop in the number of civilians killed per strike, improved technology is making a difference. Drones can now stay airborne longer and their missiles have smaller explosive yields.
There is also speculation about new methods of marking targets. According to the rumour mill in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, the US now has some kind of dust that can be sprayed or brushed onto a vehicle. Invisible to the human eye, the dust can be seen by drones that can then fire on the vehicle once it is in an isolated area away from civilians.