The number of civilian casualties caused by drone attacks in Pakistan is increasingly hard to determine. Analysts disagree on a great deal, including:

  • The reliable sources for casualty figures;

  • How to distinguish between militants and civilians; and

  • Whether steps taken by the Obama administration to lessen civilian casualties have worked.

The New America Foundation’s (NAF) drone database, an initiative spearheaded by national security analyst Peter Bergen to gather information on drone attacks over the last three years, recently came under scrutiny by the Atlantic for understating the number of civilian casualties from American drone attacks in 2012.

In a CNN column on July 4, 2012, Bergen claimed that between 2008 and 2012, civilian casualties per drone strike went from 144 to zero.

Subsequently, on July 14, Bergen claimed the civilian death rate was “at or close to zero” due to several measures that came into effect after Obama became president:

  • The White House issued a directive to tighten up the CIA’s processes for selecting drone targets and carrying out strikes. Bergen claimed that Obama “wanted to evaluate and sign off personally on any strike if the agency did not have a ‘near certainty’ that it would result in zero civilian casualties.”

  • The CIA began using smaller munitions to carry out “pinpoint strikes” that were allegedly more precise, allowing drones to linger longer over targets and to determine whether civilians were nearby. This is also known as the “Whack-A-Mole” approach to counterterrorism.

  • The drone program has come under increasing congressional oversight “—members of the Senate and House intelligence committees now hold monthly meetings at CIA headquarters to review the intelligence upon which CIA agents on the ground in Pakistan base their target selection. So far the committee staff has held 28 of these oversight meetings.”

Bergen claimed that “all these factors have contributed to the steep decline in civilian deaths in drone strikes in Pakistan.”

According to a New York Times piece on Obama’s top-secret “Kill List,” the CIA’s selected drone targets must first be vetted by the White House and receive the President’s approval. President Obama signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia. However, in the case of Pakistan, he only signs off on  “the more complex and risky strikes,” which comprise only a third of the total number of attacks.

A piece from Power Players suggests that Obama initially set strict standards for drone strikes in Pakistan, but gradually loosened those standards and became more willing to risk collateral damage in pursuit of high profile targets like Osama Bin Laden.

Despite Obama’s attempts to lessen the devastating consequences of drone attacks for civilians, the program has many problematic aspects, such as its formula for counting all military aged males in a strike zone as combatants, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” According to the New York Times, a top-official confirmed the program’s use of this approach, stating that “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization—innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs.”

This way of counting militants and civilians may explain Bergen’s claims about the drone program’s extraordinarily low collateral death count.

While he has stated that NAF does not use the U.S. government definition of militants to come up with its figures, the methodology being used by the organization remains unclear.

Based on the Atlantic article, whatever its methods, NAF’s numbers appear to be unreliable. The magazine cites to a report by New York University’s Global Justice Clinic and Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, which presents a very different picture from the NAF database. Analyzing stories cited by NAF’s 2012 publication on drone strikes, the report finds:

  • Out of 86 articles that were analyzed from a total of 13 different news sources, 74 percent of the articles cited anonymous government officials, or “unnamed Pakistani officials” as sources for the numbers of militants killed.

  • The New America Foundation documented 27 separate drone strikes in 2012. In more than half of them, all information about the number of militants killed came from unnamed Pakistani government officials.

  • In 15 articles cited by the New America Foundation, sources claimed that the identities of those killed could not be identified.

  • In 18 articles, the attacked compound had been destroyed, calling into question estimates about numbers of casualties and the identities of the dead.

All of this should not detract from the contributions made by NAF and Bergen to understanding the role of drones in Pakistan’s war on terror.  Their work remains important given the difficulties in collecting reliable casualty figures from drone strikes in Pakistan’s northwest. Yet, at times, a lack of data is better than inaccurate data, which often justifies policies that do more harm than good.




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