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

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.

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