Up to 320 Civilians Killed in Pakistan Drone War: Report

WIRED | October 19, 2009
By Noah Shachtman

How many civilians have been killed in the U.S. drone war in Pakistan? The number could be as high as 320 innocents, according to an analysis released today by the New America Foundation. That’s about a third of the 1,000 or so people slain in the robotic aircraft attacks since 2006.

Reliable information from the drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas is incredibly hard to come by. The government not only keeps news organizations out, it also blocks aid groups, like Doctors Without Borders. So analysts are forces to rely only press reports, which are themselves relying on second-hand accounts. The result: wildly different estimates of who has died in the attacks. In April, the News of Pakistan claimed that Predator and Reaper attacks had only killed 14 militants; the rest were bystanders. Last month, the Long War Journal estimated that about 10 percent of the casualties were civilian. The New America study, lead by long-time terrorism researcher Peter Bergen, comes down somewhere in between.

CIA director Leon Panetta told an audience last May that the drones were “the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the Al Qaeda leadership.” But the New America study contends that the terror group’s chieftains make up just a tiny percentage of the unmanned aircraft’s victims. “Since 2006, our analysis indicates, 82 U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have killed between 750 and 1,000 people. Among them were about 20 leaders of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups, all of whom have been killed since January 2008.” The rest have been footsoldiers in the militant organizations, or civilians.

Perhaps the most frequent target of the drone strikes was Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. Since President Obama took office, 15 of the 41 reported attacks were specifically aimed at Mehsud.He was finally killed on August 5th, along with one of his wives and her father.

All of which leads Jane Mayer, the New Yorker reporter who revealed so much of what we know about the abusive treatment of detainees, to take aim at the drone program. “The embrace of the Predator program has occurred with remarkably little public discussion, given that it represents a radicall new and geographically unbounded use of state-sanctioned lethal force. And, because of the CIA program’s secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war,” she writes in the magazine’s current issue.

In July 2001… the U.S. denounced Israel’s use of target killing against Palestinian terrorists… The CIA, which had been chastened by past assassination scandals, refused to deploy the Predator for anything other than surveillance purposes… George Tenet, then the agency’s director, argued that it would be a ‘terrible mistake’ for ‘the Director of Central Intelligence to fire a weapon like this.’

…Seven years later, there is no longer any doubt that targeted killing has become official U.S. policy.