NEW DELHI: The White House said that two hostages, an American and an Italian, were killed in a United States drone strike in Pakistan earlier this year, that also killed two US citizens involved with Al-Qaeda.

“It is with tremendous sorrow that we recently concluded that a US government counterterrorism operation in January killed two innocent hostages held by Al-Qaeda since 2011,” says a statement issued by the White House press office on Thursday morning.

The deaths prompted US President Barack Obama to take full responsibility. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government I offer our deepest apologies to their families,” he said at the White House.

The hostages’ families, however, said that they were disappointed and heartbroken. “We were so hopeful that those in the U.S. and Pakistani governments with the power to take action and secure his release would have done everything possible to do so, and there are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through,” said Elaine Weinstein, the American hostage’s widow (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal).

US officials and lawmakers admitted that the intelligence that underpinned the attack was tragically incomplete -- sparking a debate on the use of controversial unmanned aerial vehicles or drones.

Whilst this attack has sparked new questions on the use of drones owing to the fact that western, particularly American, civilian casualties were involved, those who face the brunt of drone strikes -- namely those in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, have repeatedly raised concerns on the risks associated with use of drones.

While President Bush started the “war on terror”, the Obama administration, although publicly declaring its intentions to end the war, has covertly continued it using drone strikes, special operations and sophisticated surveillance. The use of drones has increased significantly under President Obama’s two terms, with Obama launching more than six times the number of drone strikes in his first term in office than Bush did throughout his eight years.

As will become evident from the myths demonstrated below, the use of drone strikes is a lot more problematic than the White House has previously let on.

Myth #1: Drone strikes are effective in killing terrorist operatives without causing significant civilian casualties.

This is perhaps the most widespread myth, with the official position claiming that drone strikes are the most efficient way of targeting terrorists in remote and inaccessible regions. However, where is the data that supports this claim? The US government has not publicly provided a definite tally of strikes and casualties, and the numbers arrived at by independent outfits using newspaper and intelligence sources have significant variations.

The New American Foundation records 334 drone strikes in Pakistan between June 2004 and October 2012 (of which, 86 percent was under the Obama administration). There is no precise number of casualties, but the Foundation places the range between 1886 and 3191 people; that is, an average of 5.6 to 9.5 people killed per strike. This is a lower estimate than the numbers tallied by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) which has recorded 346 drone strikes in Pakistan between June 2004 and October 2012, with between 2570 and 3337 people killed, arriving at an average of 7.4 to 9.6 per strike. The discrepancies extend to the two estimates of the number of militants killed, with the New American Foundation placing the figure at 86 percent whilst TBIJ places it at between 74 to 82 percent.

Things are further complicated when we turn our attention to the definition of “militant.” The US administration assumes that military age males in strike zones are militants, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Further, the local population is considered “guilty by association” and will be defined as a “militant” if they are seen in the company or in the association of a terrorist operative. In February 2012, TBIJ reported that 50 civilians had been killed in strikes during efforts to rescue victims of a previous drone attack; these family members and associates were considered “guilty by association” by the US administration.

“Signature strikes” are also another example of indiscriminate killings being ratified as official policy. Individuals are targeted without any knowledge of their identity, if they are seen in engaging in what is deemed as “suspicious activity.” Suspicious activity is itself very loosely defined, prompting a senior State Department official to note that when the CIA sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp.

This points to the fact that the number of civilian casualties are probably far higher than any of the estimates arrived at above, as many are defined as “militants” without adequately clear evidence to support that claim.

Myth #2: The strikes target High Value Terrorists (HVTs)

High Value Terrorists (HVTs) are defined as senior leaders and key operatives of the Al-Qaeda and related terrorist groups. The US administration maintains that drone strikes are particularly efficient at targeting these individuals, while keeping civilian casualties low. We have already debunked the second part of this claim in Myth#1, and the first part is equally dubious. Data shows that far more lower ranked operatives and civilians are killed by drone strikes than HVTs. Research by Peter Bergan pegged the ratio at 1:49; i.e for every one key operative killed, 49 others have been killed.

This has immense consequences and is one of the main reasons why the governments of the countries where drone strikes are taking place have to continue opposing them. The local population, members of which have familial and tribal ties to those killed, have exerted pressure on the government to call for an end to drone strikes - citing civilian casualties as key reasons. These strikes further undermine the stability and legitimacy of the government, as the continuance of strikes is seen as a signal of the establishment’s complicity with and subservience to an increasingly unpopular United States.

Myth #3: Drone strikes are a better alternative to airstrikes and troops on the ground

While this myth may hold some weight when applied to war theatres such as Afghanistan, where air strikes and troops on the ground may lead to even more civilian casualties, its veracity can be questioned in reference to Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia - the three other countries where the US is using drones. In the case of the latter, the drone strikes are part of a CIA-led operation as the US is not “formally” at war with any of the three countries. The alternatives in these countries range from capacity building to covert operations targeting HVTs. Instead, drone strikes are undermining the legitimacy of a government that the US expects assistance from in counter-terrorism operations. The governments of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia could benefit greatly from capacity building assistance - especially in policing and intelligence - that can build long-term measures to counter terrorism networks in the region.

In conclusion, the entire argument on the effectiveness of drone strikes is based on short-term success while accentuating long-term costs. It focuses on the numbers of “militants” killed while obfuscating the reality of many more who join terrorist ranks because of increasing anti-Americanism and the perception of an illegitimate and subservient home government.