Study Suggests Majority of Those Killed in Pakistan Drone Strikes Are Militants

February 27, 2012

In this Thursday, June 16, 2011 file photo, Pakistani villagers offer funeral prayers for people who were reportedly killed by a U.S. drone attack in Miranshah, capital of Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan along the Afghanistan border. American drone strikes inside Pakistan are killing far fewer civilians than many in the country are led to believe, according to a rare on-the-ground investigation by The Associated Press of 10 of the deadliest attacks in the past 18 months. (AP Photo/Hasbunullah)

“I spent more than half a decade tracking this most secret of wars across northern Pakistan,” writes Pakistani journalist Pir Zubair Shah in Foreign Policy Magazine about covering the CIA’s covert drone war, “taking late-night calls from intelligence agents, sorting through missile fragments at attack sites, counting bodies and graves, interviewing militants and victims. I dodged bullets and, once, an improvised explosive device. At various times I found myself imprisoned by the Taliban and detained by the Pakistani military. Yet even I can say very little for certain about what has happened.”

Shah’s riveting account highlights the difficulties and the dangers of trying to determine who is being killed by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s isolated and hard-to-access tribal areas.

But a nearly-six-month-long investigation recently published by Sebastian Abbot of the Associated Press suggests that the majority of those killed in the strikes are militants.

An AP reporter talked to about 80 villagers in areas of North Waziristan where 10 of the most deadly drone attacks in the past year and a half took place, and found that about 70 percent of those killed were militants. Notably, villagers reported that militants were killed in each of the 10 strikes; four of the strikes also killed civilians.

U.S. counterterrorism officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told the AP the U.S. “had no reliable evidence” that civilians were killed in any of the 10 strikes, and contested the credibility of the villagers’ accounts.

But the AP’s findings roughly match those of the British-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which also tracks the strikes and calculated that roughly 70-80 percent of those killed are militants. The New America Foundation’s drones database, which relies on “accounts from reliable media organizations with deep reporting capabilities” in Pakistan, calculated a 17 percent non-militant casualty rate since 2004.

The majority of civilian deaths in the strikes studied by the AP occurred in one controversial attack on March 17, 2011, one day after the release of Raymond Davis, a CIA security officer who shot two Pakistanis dead on a crowded Lahore street and was held in a jail there for seven weeks.

U.S. officials say “a large group of heavily armed men, some of whom were clearly connected to Al Qaeda,” were killed in the strike, but others, including the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, have said the strike targeted a jirga meeting of tribesmen loyal to the government. The AP study found 42 people were killed, including four 42 people, including four Pakistani Taliban militants, six tribal policemen and 32 other tribesmen. (Read contradictory accounts about the targets of the March strike here.)

In addition to enraging Pakistani civil and military leadership, the timing of the March strike exacerbated a rift between the CIA and State Department over the covert program. According to the Associated Press, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter had appealed to then-CIA director Leon Panetta to stop the attack, but “U.S. officials said Leon Panetta’s decision was driven by anger at Pakistan for imprisoning Raymond Davis for so long and a belief that the militants being targeted were too important to pass up.”

That airstrike fueled a debate in Washington that led to tightened restrictions on drone policy, according to The Wall Street Journal:

Among the changes: The State Department won greater sway in strike decisions; Pakistani leaders got advance notice about more operations; and the CIA agreed to suspend operations when Pakistani officials visit the U.S.

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