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

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  1. rotfl, yeah right, we will jsut take the US politicians word for it, rotfl, too funny. Those COWARD drone pilots kill anything that moves!


  2. ...but the reputation of World War II as a just cause remains.

    Are we suggesting otherwise? That's hardcore pacifism right there.

    I'm not sure drones are better. Once you try to separate out the human element from your side of conflict, it makes it that much easier to wage war, and war shouldn't be easy. A righteous man once taught us that war needs to be messy.

  3. Well, if there's one thing I don't give two shits about, it's "sovereignty." That goes double in tribal regions that aren't realistically part of any nation at all.

    If Osama Bin Laden had been in a known location in Switzerland, with Swiss government assistance, I wouldn't give two shits about Swiss sovereignty if we took him out using drones, SEALs, or whatever.

    Of course, we might opt against it because doing that was against our own best interests, and that I would support. But the principle of sovereignty? Please.

    Dead civilians are a different concern, although the definition of "civilian" can be pretty fluid, too, when one is dealing with the Taliban, terrorist groups, etc.

    Barring additional real, detailed information, it's as hard to get worked up about this, as it is to condone it without reservations, I think.

  4. If they run they are VC if they stand still they are well trained VC.

    Pretty cool that the Obama administration has gotten around to portraying itself as a fictional character from a Kubrick movie.

  5. What the fuck was wrong with Hiroshima?
    We were taking Japan unconditionally and they weren't going to quit. If the A-bomb only saved American lives that would be justification enough but it saved millions of Japanese lives. Haven't you seen the documentary films of Japanese school girls in sailor suits drilling with pikes? That wasn't just some patriotic morale-boosting exercise. They were going to defend the home islands just as we would defend our home soil, to the death.

    The only criticism I have of Hiroshima is we should have dropped the first bomb right on the Emperors palace.

    1. Quasi-pacifists like Lucy think in very Disney-esque terms about war. The 'good guy' for them isn't so much the one fighting for a good cause as the one that fights 'nicely'. It is this kind of altruistic garbage that has hobbled our war-fighting capability.

      1. There are plenty of things in the conduct of war that merit criticism, particularly in hindsight. The atomic bombing of Japan is not one of them. The revisionist notion we should have let Japan dictate the terms of surrender is absurd.

    2. The only criticism I have of Hiroshima is we should have dropped the first bomb right on the Emperors palace.

      It was the Emperor who got the nation to surrender. In fact the military attempted a coup when he indicated that he was going to surrender.


  6. The good news is that it isn't America's job to avoid enemy civilian casualties. The USG's only job is to protect the rights of its citizens, and the Drone Wars are doing an amazingly good job of that for something run by government.

  7. Of course it's 0 dead civilians Lucy. Everyone of 'fighting age' found dead near a drone strike is obviously Al Ka-duh and deserved their fiery death. 12 years old? Fighting age. I should know. I fought a 12 year old and he kicked my ass (I was 7).

  8. OT:

    Broke down and started to watch Newsrooms 4th episode.

    Apparently the giant squid was thought to be a myth until 2004.

    Only 4 min in and Sorkin's weekly lecture about the evils of truthyness has decided to full on lie me.

    1. Apparently calling a woman a slut and dumb to get them to hook up and not hook up with one of the anointed newsroom staff is comedy gold.

      1. It is the GOP's fault that in 2009 and 2010 that the feds were unable to successfully prosecute bank executives because they cut the DOJ's budget....

        I guess in this Sorken alternative universe the GOP still controlled congress and more miraculously a budget for a fed government agency was actually cut....oh yeah and entire staff of the newsroom did not notice this....an "insider" had to tell them about the federal budget....

        1. On December 31rst of 2011 the US government is getting out lawyered by Lehman Brothers...yes the same Lehman Brothers that ceased to exist in 2008

          This is only 10 and half min into the episode.

          1. Gossip columns are a form of pollution and are destroying civilization.

            I would give this one a pass...i love hyperbole....but i think Sorken believes it actually is destroying civilization.

            1. Apparently no Democrat has ever pushed to outlaw guns.

              Hell I guess we should blame the GOP for that.

              1. 'Statistics' show that carrying a gun for protection will get you killed.

                1. 'People who lie to damage a person reputation like a registered sex offender should be required to come with that warming label for the rest of their lives.'

                  Does Sorken even realize he makes a living, like all fiction writers, by lying?

                  1. Jan 8 2011 - Giffards got shot...i am predicting Sorkin will claim something along the lines of the GOP killed her...will update.

                    1. Holy crap Sorkin didn't blame Gifffards shooting on the GOP.

                      Instead there was a bunch of people screaming "fuck" at one another....

                      Sadly this was the best bit of entertainment for the entire episode.

                      People yelling 'Fuck' at one another.


  9. He is too clever ans answer the questions very well with smart way like he did here.

  10. It's nice to think not, but the reputation of World War II as a just cause remains.

    The justness of the cause does not preclude atrocities committed by those who claim to be serving it.

    1. This is true. It's not even that I am blissfully certain it was unjust, but I still am disturbed that "our" bombing campaigns are accepted and that atrocities like Operation Keelhaul are almost completely ignored. It was not so black and white as it is made out to be, at the very least.

      1. Keelhaul aside, any 'atrocities' the allies committed was good and just and righteous so long as there was good reason to believe it was necessary to win with minimal casualties.

        1. Argue necessity if you like, but you lose me when you use "good" and you scare-quote atrocities.

          I am glad the allies won, of course, but it's not as easy as "the good war."

          Keelhaul aside? Yet NOBODY knows about it. Why? Because the good guys won, meaning that the really awful things are alright.

          1. There was nothing just or righteous about firebombing Dresden, let alone Keelhaul. Why is it so hard to say the good guys won, but some decisions were horribly wrong?

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