Did US Drones Really Kill Zero Pakistani Civilians in 2013?



An annual report from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), a London-based nonprofit, states that "there were no confirmed reports of civilian casualties" caused by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan in 2013, though it leaves some wiggle room.

Last year, the U.S. ally was subject to 27 drone bombings conducted by the CIA. Between 112 and 193 people were killed, while an additional 41 to 81 were injured. Among the casualties, the bureau lists "0-4" as civilians, one of which may have been a child. This makes 2013 the least deadly year for U.S.-Pakistani relations since the Bush Administration. The nonprofit makes estimates based on media reports and data it receives from governments. 

TBIJ provides additional numbers to give context to the past year's surprisingly low death toll. The U.S. carried out a total of 381 strikes in the country from 2004 to 2013, killing as many as 3,646 people. A wide range of these, between 416 and 951, are calculated to have been civilians. Attacks peaked in 2010, when the Obama administration conducted nearly 40 percent of it's total attacks so far. Almost 200 civilians and over 1,000 total people were estimated killed that year.

What accounts for the dramatic decrease since 2010? TBIJ suggests that "improvements in technology since the early years of Bush's covert drone strikes, rising tensions between Pakistan and the US over the drone campaign, and increasing scrutiny of the covert drone campaign by the international community as well as Washington and Islamabad" are among the possible causes.

A more important issue, though, is whether or not the civilian casualty count is accurate.

This is not easy to determine. As Reuters points out, "The United States releases no information about individual strikes." Likewise, Obama and CIA Director John Brennan embrace a notoriously loose definition of "militant." As Reason's Scott Shackford pointed out last year, leaked documents indicate that the American government itself may not actually know who it is killing in Pakistan. 

Pakistan's government is no more reliable, as the prime minister publicly condemns the attacks while covertly endorsing them.

For years, organizations like the Stanford International Human Rights & Conflict Resolution Clinic and Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute have taken skeptical approaches to the available information about innocent victims of drone strikes.

Although it lauds TBIJ's work, the Stanford clinic states that for a target to be considered a militant, a "fundamental set of legal tests must be satisfied." This often does not happen, and the clinic suggests that the current reporting on the dead "reflects and reinforces a widespread assumption and misunderstanding that all "militants" are legitimate targets for the use of lethal force."

In a press release, Naureen Shah of Columbia Law School, said "These are good faith efforts to count civilian deaths," but the failure to provide accurate numbers "may provide false assurance to the public and policymakers that drone strikes do not harm civilians." She added that "it's the U.S. government that owes the public an accounting of who is being killed, especially as it continues expanding secret drone operations in new places around the world."