The South Asia Channel

About those civilian fatalities

About those civilian fatalities

By Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann

Scott Shane has a must-read in today’s New York Times about the possible expansion of the CIA’s program of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas to Baluchistan, the large and sparsely populated southern Pakistani province where the Afghan Taliban is headquartered.

Having written about the drones a bit ourselves, we read it with great interest and were struck by one of Shane’s anonymous sources, a government official who claims that the more than 80 drone strikes in less than two years have killed “more than 400” enemy fighters and “just over 20” civilians.

A study we conducted in mid-October, based on a careful analysis of the most accurate media counts of the strikes, found that between some 370 and 540 militants were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan since the start of 2008. There have been a few more strikes since the study was released, bringing the total of militants killed to between 384 and 578. So that’s close enough to be in the same range as the government official’s estimate of more than 400 militants killed.

What is troubling — and in our view, highly unlikely — is the official’s claim that only some 20 civilians have been killed by these drone strikes, a fatality rate of only around 5 percent. Given that one strike alone on the funeral of a suspected Taliban militant in South Waziristan in late June killed at least 18 people described as civilians, according to a report in the London Times, it seems implausible that only a handful more were killed in all of the 81 drone strikes that have occurred since the beginning of 2008.

The methodology by which the anonymous government official arrived at his conclusion of “just over 20” civilians and “more than 400” militants killed by drone strikes since the start of 2008 is unknown, but we worry that the official may be putting a good deal of spin on the figures about civilian casualties because of the unpopularity of the drone strikes in Pakistan; Pakistanis often complain that they not only violate national sovereignty but cause large numbers of civilian casualties.

Our own data shows that if we consider just the period from 2008 until the present, the average civilian fatality rate is between 35 and 40 percent; far more than the five percent claimed by the government official.

Peter Bergen, AfPak Channel editor, is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, where Katherine Tiedemann is a policy analyst.