No Innocent Pakistanis Killed by Drones in 2012 Still Untrustworthy Summation of Incomplete Data


The always dependable Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic noted weeks ago that CNN's early July report that no innocent Pakistanis have been killed by U.S. drones in 2012 cannot be fully trusted. Now, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirms that at the very least, this is not something that can be reported with any certainty, so journalistic ethics demand a little less certainty than this handy chart.

The July 4 CNN report from security analyst Peter Bergen used the following:

Bergen, who works for the New America Foundation, who have done some good work in cataloging strikes, reported:

Over a third of these strikes have reportedly targeted members of the Taliban, with at least 10 of the strikes killing senior Taliban commanders, as well as hundreds of lower-level fighters.

The United States' aggressive drone campaign in Pakistan slowed considerably in 2011. There were 70 drone strikes in the tribal regions that year, down from 118 in 2010, which saw the peak number of strikes since the program began.

But, writes the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Bergen is grasping at straws because there are things about which he is just not certain:

Up to July 16 for example, between three and 27 civilians have been reported killed in Pakistan this year, out of 148 – 220 deaths. Some were actively defined as civilians by news organisations including Reuters and AFP. But these are not necessarily the only civilian deaths. Ambivalent reports might sometimes refer only to 'people' or 'local tribesmen' killed. More research is needed. And of the remaining alleged militants killed, we have so far been able to name just 13 individuals

ergen's claim of zero reported civilian casualties this year is therefore factually inaccurate.

To be so categoric is also problematic. The Bureau's own data shows that of at least 2,500 people killed by the CIA in Pakistan since 2004, we publicly only know the identities of around 500. Most of the others were reported to be alleged militants by local and international media. We can say no more than that.

It is not just in NAF's 2012 data that credible reports of civilian deaths have been missed or ignored. NAF's Pakistan data also contains many other inaccuracies. A number of confirmed strikes are omitted, for instance, and its overall estimates of those killed are significantly below even the CIA's own count. The consequence is a skewed picture of drone activity which continues to inform many opinion-makers.

This aversion to a simple "we don't know" is not uncommon. And Bergen still claims that he was accurate in his graph. But, writes the Bureau, the NAF is slow on their updates of information, so much so that their estimate of the total number of individuals killed in Pakistan drone strikes "400 below the CIA's own numbers." Basically, says the Bureau, the NAF offers useful snapshots, but a misleading entire picture of the whole of operations. Their full refuting of Bergen is well worth reading, because it at least casts serious doubt on his narrative and the narrative of nearly flawless terrorist-hunting intelligence. 

Undoubtedly strikes in Pakistan are becoming less frequent, but that is not the same thing as being dead-certain that the only people killed are militants. When we know that any male of military age is posthumously declared a militant, and simply considering the history of fuzziness in realingve drone strike details, it seems dubious indeed to trust such hopeful-sounding analysis as zero innocents dead.

Meanwhile, a security writer for The New York Times recently noted that in spite of all the critiques that drones receive, compared to the warfare tactics of not so very long ago, they are very humanitarian and very accurate. The Times quotes a the former deputy security chief for the CIA, Henry A. Crumpton, ending the article with a quote:

"Look at the firebombing of Dresden, and compare what we're doing today," Mr. Crumpton said. "The public's expectations have been raised dramatically around the world, and that's good news."

That is both a really good point, and a really dangerous one. Yes, ideally (and mostly in actuality) the public tolerance for bloodshed is getting lower and lower. Iraq's body count of maybe 100,000 is bad, but it killed fewer than 10,000 Americans and it took eight long years.

Vietnam killed 60,000 Americans and something like two million Vietnamese over the course of about a decade. And World War II killed 60 million in six years. But in that case, the good side was the side that firebombed Dresden and killed 35,000+ civilians in two days.

Would the public tolerate that today? It's nice to think not, but the reputation of World War II as a just cause remains. And the sins of the Allies — Dresden, Hiroshima, the Japanese Internment, Operation Keelhaul, and the fact of the good guys having included Josef Stalin — is not exactly the first thing taught in the history books. Yes, drones are "better" but there's something disturbing about the way people approach that issue — often it's Obama apologists, refusing to give to the truth about their guy. And drones aren't exactly unpopular with the left or right.

Maybe in a few years, the violation of sovereignty and the 3, 10 or 20-odd percent innocents casualty rates of drones will be as shocking and strange as Dresden and other tragedies now seem to millennials. Or, if the cause seems worthy enough, maybe the public would, with no so much difficulty, be convinced that scores of thousands dead in an afternoon is acceptable if it's really "necessary." Regardless, to critique drones now, even while admitting they're some kind of improvement over all of previous human history, is the only moral thing to do if you have qualms with the program.

Reason on drones and war