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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, what does 30 dead really mean?

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Keith Eastman tends to an Apache helicopter that has landed for refueling after a firefight with insurgents. Photo: U.S. Navy/MC2 Walter M. Wayman

This past weekend, western troops based in Afghanistan launched a series of air strikes against militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area, killing more than 30 people. While this ordinarily wouldn’t be major news — after all, there has been a massive escalation in the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan — what made these two air strikes so important is who carried them out: pilots.

Most of the U.S.-sponsored military activity in Pakistan is performed by drones firing missiles at compounds where militants are believed to be hiding. The strikes this weekend were carried out by helicopter gunships based in the restive border province of Khost. ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) spokespeople claim the helicopters were responding to attacks from militants based inside Pakistani territory, and on Monday invoked the cause of self-defense and the concept of “hot pursuit,” in which troops have the right to pursue attackers outside their area of responsibility, to justify the strikes.

There’s nothing outrageous about the claim. Since almost the beginning of the war, the U.S. has complained about militants using Pakistan’s uncontrolled northwest territories as “safe havens” to plan and recoup after attacks. And it’s not the first time U.S. and NATO troops have killed suspected militants inside Pakistan — in September 2008, for example, helicopters carried U.S. and Afghan commandos into Pakistan to conduct a search-and-kill operation. These search-and-kill operations seem to happen with a strange regularity: the last time troops directly fired on Pakistan, in 2008, was similarly justified with the hot-pursuit concept; before that, a hot-pursuit operation in 2006 saw several special operations soldiers inside Pakistan, tracking militants who had conducted attacks on their base.

But what do we really know about these raids? As the Long War Journal reports, about 30 fighters associated with the Haqqani Network — an insurgent group based in North Waziristan that has close ties to Al-Qaida and received substantial support from Pakistan’s intelligence service — were killed in the raids. The English-language Pakistani newspaper Dawn repeats the number: 30 militants dead in the air strikes.

As a rule, when the military claims to have killed 30 people, you should be skeptical. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, militants seem to die or get arrested or gather in groups of 30 so often it’s almost become a joke. Just last week, Pakistani police claim to have arrested 30 militants in the Khyber tribal area. Earlier this month, the Pakistani military killed another 30 militants in the same area. In July, the U.S. launched a drone missile at a compound where 30 militants were hiding out. In June, the Pakistani military again killed 30 militants in a battle in Orakzai district. In April, the Pakistani military struck a compound and claimed to have killed 30 militants, though it later admitted some were probably innocent civilians. Earlier that same month, another battle claimed 30 dead militants. In March, too, Pakistani militants seemed to die in groups of 30 again and again and again. Don’t get me started on how the Taliban died in February or January. And that’s just this year.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to Pakistan, either. In Afghanistan, Taliban and other militants seem to die in groups of 30 with bizarre regularity. This month, ISAF killed 30 Taliban in Herat Province. In August, they got another group of 30 Taliban, though other forces also killed 50 Taliban that same day in separate operations. July saw NATO kill 30 Taliban in Helmand Province. In May, ISAF killed 30 Taliban in sweeps across the country. Last December, they got another 30 militants in Kunar.

I’m sure you get the point. There is obviously something of a selection bias at work here: NATO and Pakistan kill militants in groups other than 30 just as often as they claim to do so in groups of 30. There’s probably nothing nefarious behind it — I suspect it is a shorthand for “we think we got more than a few bad guys at once.” But the sheer ubiquity of that number in battle reports is astonishing, so much so that I don’t even pay attention to a story anymore when they use that magic number 30. It is another way of saying officials really have no idea who got killed or hurt, but it’s probably a lot.

Which brings us back to this most recent cross-border raid: We know those happen routinely, and we can infer from the presence of the magic number of 30 dead bad guys that we probably don’t know what really happened. We do know the war inside Pakistan is escalating in many ways: Katherine Tiedemann, who manages a database of drone attacks inside Pakistan, noted today that September has been the “busiest month on record” for the number and fatality of drone strikes.

What we don’t know is how effective these strikes are. There is an old story on The Onion, a satirical newspaper, which notes the U.S. has killed off 80 percent of al-Qaida’s #2 men. Unfortunately, that’s not entirely satirical: by all counts, al-Qaida has been “stressed” or “degraded” by these drone strikes, and its institutional capacity has been severely diminished. The U.S. has killed several versions of al-Qaida’s senior leadership, whether Abu Laith al-Libi or Mustafa Ahmed Muhammad Uthman Abu al-Yazid or Shaikh al-Fateh — but, despite CIA director Leon Panetta’s insistence that these killings will “flush out” al-Qaida’s senior leadership, there’s no evidence it’s actually affecting the war. Even as the estimates of the number of al-Qaida actually in Afghanistan decrease, the violence of the war there climbs steadily higher.

Determining the effectiveness of specific policies in a complex environment like an insurgency is terribly difficult, if not practically impossible. But right now there seems to be a disconnect within the U.S. policy establishment, which insists its methods are effective even while the fighting spirals more and more out of control. Clearly, we’re missing something. The question is, what is it?