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The AP’s Investigation on Drone Strikes & the Covert War in Pakistan

US Air Force General Atomics MQ-1 Predator Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) (photo: james_gordon_los_angeles)

The Associated Press has published an investigation into the number of civilians killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan that shows “far fewer civilians than many in the country are led to believe” are being killed. The findings come from a “rare on-the-ground investigation by The Associated Press of 10 of the deadliest attacks in the past 18 months.”

The AP‘s news story explains the methodology for the investigation:

…[An] AP reporter who spoke to about 80 villagers at the sites of the 10 attacks in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militants in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region along the Afghan border, was told that a significant majority of the dead were combatants.

Indeed, the AP was told by the villagers that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent — at least 138 — were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, and 38 of them were killed in a single attack on March 17, 2011.

Excluding that strike, which inflicted one of the worst civilian death tolls since the drone program started in Pakistan, nearly 90 percent of the people killed were militants, villagers said…

The findings are being revealed just as news is breaking that the Taliban claims it shot down a US drone. They also are being revealed days after it became known that the US recently resumed drone strikes in Pakistan despite Pakistani objections.

What is the significance of the AP‘s findings? Does the fact that the AP found the number of civilian deaths are being exaggerated by Pakistanis make the covert drone war being perpetrated by the US in Pakistan acceptable? And how do these findings square with recent work done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) on drone attacks in Pakistan?

The AP story cites the figures that the Bureau has published on those killed by drone attacks.

One London-based group, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, has published drone casualty figures based on media reports, witness testimony and other information. It said strikes have killed between 2,383 and 3,109 people, of whom 464 to 815 were civilians. That implies the percentage of militants killed was roughly 70 to 80 percent. The group said an unidentified U.S. counterterrorism official insisted its civilian casualty figures were much too high.

The TBIJ‘s findings on militants killed are not too different from the AP‘s. Thus, one can presume the investigation was fairly conducted.

The AP‘s story makes no mention of the charge put forth by the TBIJ earlier this month that drone strikes are targeting rescuers and funerals.

…The Bureau has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.  A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts…

Perhaps, the biggest takeaway may be that no matter what US counterterrorism officials are shown in the way of evidence that civilian deaths occurred as a result of a drone strike the officials refuse to concede that drone attacks kill civilians. As the AP states:

U.S. officials who were shown the AP’s findings rejected the accounts of any civilian casualties but declined to be quoted by name or make their own information public.

These officials “disputed the death tolls and other details of some of the strikes, including the exact locations.” An official granted anonymity said there was “no reliable evidence” that civilians were killed in any of the strikes examined and questioned the reliability of villagers’ accounts.” Such an indifference toward these “villagers” virtually guarantees any counterinsurgency effort is doomed to fail. Drone strikes will not simply kill “militants” but continue to radicalize people who feel the attacks violate their country’s sovereignty.

A lawyer for the Open Society Foundations, Christopher Rogers, is quoted saying rightfully, “regardless of casualty tolls, the US still needed to make the program more transparent to prove it is complying with international laws on who may be targeted and measures to minimize the loss of innocent lives.” No matter what percentage of deaths are militants, the “bigger issue” is the “covert nature of the program, the complete lack of any transparency and accountability and the lack of information about how the US distinguishes a militant from a civilian.”

The AP does not try to use the findings to downplay the significance of the legal and moral issues created by the US’ covert drone war in Pakistan.


Fascinatingly, senior US officials who refuse to talk about the drone program because it is classified spoke to the Washington Post about a top secret cable that features warnings from the US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker on the “persistence of enemy havens in Pakistan.” These havens are exactly what drones in Pakistan would target and, while none of the senior US officials say anything about drones to the Post, the senior US officials are selectively leaking this information to help ramp up support for covert and military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The senior US officials reveal information on Haqqani network targets. The information indicates the CIA is trying to kill another “mujahheddin fighter” it helped empower when it backed “mujaheddin fighters” in the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It also indicates that a son of this fighter has a $5 million bounty on his head and he is using a “prominent religious school” as a base and the CIA is afraid to strike because of possible civilian casualties.

This, of course, is all information that if released by Pfc. Bradley Manning or WikiLeaks would have had the Pentagon crying wolf about how much blood was going to be shed now and how national security is now at risk.

Manning was just arraigned on February 23. He is charged with releasing classified information to WikiLeaks, including US State Embassy cables. All were confidential, secret, or unclassified. None were top secret. And, here we are talking about unnamed senior US officials sharing information on the contents of a top secret cable.

The world wants to know when there will be an investigation into possible espionage opened. Citizens of the world would like the US to clarify how it can prosecute a soldier for releasing confidential, secret and unclassified cables and yet, simultaneously, ignore senior US officials releasing information in top secret cables. The world wants to know if it is really an unstated rule that any and all classified information can be improperly declassified by anyone if it helps the war effort while information that will make it difficult to project American power must be kept secret and anyone who releases the information improperly will be prosecuted.

Finally, the secrecy surrounding the covert drone war in Pakistan and the callow nature with which US officials refuse to address the fury of Pakistanis toward the war is far more outrageous than the fact that Pakistani “opinion-shapers” are exaggerating civilian death tolls.

The US government is mendaciously executing a war in a manner that gives it maximum impunity. The Obama Administration is doing everything possible to shield the players involved from accountability. And that is why a portion of the Pakistani population is protesting any and all strikes even if almost all of those killed are militants.


Here is David Rohrde on Reuters TV discussing the covert drone war in Pakistan. Rohrde points out many of the reasons why Pakistanis are outraged and attempts to help Americans understand why their outrage is understandable and valid.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."