For the past nine years, CIA drones have struck militant commanders in Pakistan’s tribal areas with deadly frequency, decimating the leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban. But those very same strikes have also resulted in an untold number of civilian casualties. Because of the danger in travelling to these areas, the exact number of civilians killed in CIA strikes has remained something of a mystery.
Now, a new report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism provides as close as we’ve come to an on-the-ground account of the full civilian toll of the CIA’s strikes. That report, relying on figures compiled by officials in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, shows that civilian casualties may be far higher than officials in the Obama administration have so far been willing to admit.
According to that report, which covers the period from Jan. 1, 2006, to Oct. 24, 2009, CIA drone strikes have left at least 746 people dead. Among those casualties, Pakistani officials describe at least 147 civilians, 94 of whom were children. If anything, these figures are probably low-ball estimates. In some cases, the report, which covers strikes during the tail end of the Bush administration and the first nine months of the Obama administration, doesn’t make entirely clear the exact number of civilians killed, only that civilians were among those dead.
The actual number of civilians killed is certainly higher. A tally of civilian deaths in Pakistan from drone strikes compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that relies largely on media reports estimates the total number of civilian casualties at somewhere between 411 and 890.
Unique among the reports thus far available of drone strikes in Pakistan, the bureau’s latest finding relies on an internal Pakistani government report that draws on a network of local agents and informants in Pakistan’s tribal areas to compile information about the strikes. Despite the fact that the CIA’s use of drones in prosecuting the war on terror has generated intense media scrutiny, journalists have struggled reaching the tribal areas to investigate drone strikes. Volatile security conditions and a rampant risk of kidnapping make travel there impossible, which has allowed the CIA to largely shield its actions from public view. But those constraints are not a factor for local Pakistani officials, making this latest report of the CIA’s shadow war one of the most reliable yet to emerge.
For defenders of the drone program, the report should make for uncomfortable reading. During the February confirmation hearing for CIA Director John Brennan, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, claimed that civilian casualties of drone strikes each year have "typically been in the single digits." That’s a claim that Pakistani government reporting manifestly contradicts.
The question of how to count civilian casualties is itself an issue of some controversy. In arguing that CIA drone strikes result in a minimal number of civilian casualties, the Obama administration has relied on a definition of who qualifies as a "combatant" that more or less classifies all military aged men killed in a strike as militants. While that definition that has been in effect immediately following the time covered by the report, it gives a sense of the semantic debates that underlie the Obama administration’s claims on civilian casualties stemming from its program of covert drone strikes.
This latest report also illustrates how Pakistan has often served as a willing co-conspirator in the CIA’s tribal area campaign. Though Pakistani officials — including the newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif — have loudly objected to U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory, the country’s officials have also played both sides of the issue, privately welcoming when strikes take out military leaders that the country is none too fond of. In the document, tribal area officials at one point refer to an August 2009 strike by writing that "17 miscreants were killed." And in private conversations with U.S. officials, Pakistani officials have been even more duplicitous. "I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people," Interior Minister Rehman Malik said in August 2008, according to a leaked diplomatic cable. "We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it."
Apparently, Malik was also ignoring his government’s own reports about civilian casualties.