Report: One-Third of People Killed in Pakistan Drone Strikes Are Civilians

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Monday, October 19, 2009 at 3:44 pm

The New America Foundation’s Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have a new report out tallying how many civilians have died in the Pakistani tribal areas thanks to the CIA’s drone strikes. Their conclusion: the strikes have killed, since 2006, between 750 and 1000 people; 20 of them have been “leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups”; and “the real total of civilian deaths since 2006 appears to be in the range of 250 to 320, or between 31 and 33 percent.” That low?

Bergen and Tiedemann got their report by tallying up media reports on the drone strikes. They explain:

Our analysis of the drone campaign is based only on accounts from reliable media organizations with substantial reporting capabilities in Pakistan. We restricted our analysis to reports in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, accounts by major news services and networks–the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC–and reports in the leading English-language newspapers in Pakistan–The Daily Times, Dawn, and The News–as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network. (Links to all those individual reports can be found in Appendix 1 of this paper.)

They don’t pretend their material is “accurate down to the last civilian death in every drone strike.” And they’re probably right that this is the best that can be compiled through open-source material. (I would go so far as to suggest that the CIA probably doesn’t have much better methodology, either.) But how to account for the variance in what a “militant” is? A lot of times, the way these press reports generate their descriptions of “militants” are through phone calls made from stringers to people in the vicinity of a strike. “[O]f those killed in drone attacks from 2006 through mid-October 2009, between 500 and 700 were described in reliable press reports as militants, or some 66 to 68 percent,” the authors write. Not the most precise measurement.

After all, who’s a “militant”? A cook in a village known to be swarming with Taliban? Someone who pays taxes to a shadow government? How do we judge the complicity of a given population? There’s a spectrum here, running from insurgent to civilian effectively held hostage. As a result, it’s probably fair and sensible to read Bergen and Tiedemann’s report as a low estimate for civilian deaths from the drones.

I asked the CIA about the report, even though it typically doesn’t comment on anything Pakistan-drone-related. To my surprise, agency spokesman George Little responded, “The CIA employs lawful, highly precise, battle-tested tactics and tools against al-Qaeda and its violent allies.  Al-Qaeda and its sympathizers, though still very dangerous and determined, have seen both their leadership and their fighting capabilities eroded.” So nothing specifically on the New America report one way or the other — I can’t tell if that quote supports it or undermines it, truth be told.

Update: I mistakenly called Katherine Tiedemann “Kathleen” in an earlier draft of this post and for that I beg forgiveness.

Follow Spencer Ackerman on Twitter


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17 Comments

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One way to turn a population against the US « Later On
Pingback posted October 19, 2009 @ 4:14 pm

[...] in Afghanistan War, Daily life, Military at 1:13 pm by LeisureGuy Spencer Ackerman in the Washington Independent: he New America Foundation’s Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann have a new report out tallying [...]


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[...] want us to bring the same bombing accuracy to Iran as we’ve brought to Pakistan and 1/3 think that the problem with our previous two Middle Eastern adventures was that we [...]


yehaskel
Comment posted October 19, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

“After all, who’s a “militant”? …. As a result, it’s probably fair and sensible to read Bergen and Tiedemann’s report as a low estimate for civilian deaths from the drones.”

On the other hand, it's quite possible for a few reasons, for a militant to be labeled as a civilian. Due to the asymmetric nature of this particular war, it works to the militants' advantage to appear as civilians. “Civilian casualty” counts rise, lending them support, and it's also just plain easier to get around if you look like a civilian instead of a militant.

So those numbers may also be a high estimate. Just saying.


Ronbo
Comment posted October 19, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

From a tactical point of view (as opposed to a moral one), it doesn't matter whether someone is a militant or a civilian. Foot soldiers are easily replaced, and every civilian killed likely generates multiple recruits. What matters are the number of leaders killed, because they aren't so easily replaced, especially in a largely illiterate population where few have much background in the issues of logistics and military strategy.
About twenty leaders, out of a thousand deaths and a whole lot of ill will generated. Not a winning strategy. Whether you measure it by time (about three per year), dollars (how many millions per leader fatality), kill vs replacement rate, or any other metric – it adds up to failure.


spencerackerman
Comment posted October 19, 2009 @ 10:27 pm

Fair enough. We'd have to know more about the media methodology. But which do you think is the more prudent read from the perspective of U.S. interests?


Links of the Day - 10/20/2009 | Heretical Ideas Blog
Pingback posted October 20, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

[...] * One-third of people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan are civilians. [...]


» ACLU Files FOIA on CIA Drone Attacks NEGOTIATION IS OVER!
Pingback posted January 15, 2010 @ 2:00 am

[...] Thanks, Spencer Ackerman, for noticing, with everything else going on, that the ACLU has filed a “Freedom of Information Act request with the CIA and the Departments of State, Justice and Defense for documentation establishing the legal basis for the drone strikes.” Additionally, the civil liberties group wants to see the government’s estimates for how many civilians the drone program is responsible for killing. A recent New America Foundation report arguing that most drone critics overstate overstate civilian casualties still found that one in every three Pakistanis killed by the drones is a civilian, not a combatant. [...]


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CIA Drone Guy Becomes New Top Spy | Gizmodo Australia
Pingback posted July 21, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

[...] rely on media accounts of civilian deaths that may or may not be accurate. New America says around a third of drone deaths are civilians. A different study, by the University of Massachusetts’s Brian Glyn Williams, found a far [...]


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Pingback posted July 22, 2010 @ 12:00 am

[...] rely on media accounts of civilian deaths that may or may not be accurate. New America says around a third of drone deaths are civilians. A different study, by the University of Massachusetts’s Brian Glyn Williams, found a far [...]


NewsReload
Pingback posted July 23, 2010 @ 2:21 am

[...] rely on media accounts of civilian deaths that may or may not be accurate. New America says around a third of drone deaths are civilians. A different study, by the University of Massachusetts’s Brian Glyn Williams, found a far lower [...]


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Pingback posted July 23, 2010 @ 2:34 am

[...] rely on media accounts of civilian deaths that may or may not be accurate. New America says around a third of drone deaths are civilians. A different study, by the University of Massachusetts’s Brian Glyn Williams, found a far [...]


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Under Obama, America’s Military Empire Continues to Expand « AcidRayn.com
Pingback posted September 3, 2010 @ 2:05 am

[...] Report: One-Third of People Killed in Pakistan Drone Strikes Are Civilians http://washingtonindependent.com/64353/report-one-third-of-people-killed-in-pakistan-drone-strikes-a…  [...]


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