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U.S. Drone Program Needs to Be Accompanied by Hard Facts on Civilian Deaths

U.S. Drone Program Needs to Be Accompanied by Hard Facts on Civilian Deaths

Last week, the New York Times and other outlets ran a bit of head-scratching newsabout drone strikes. Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense had released new figures that sharply revised downward previous estimates of civilian casualties caused by the unmanned strikes. In a report to Pakistan’s parliament, the ministry said that out of 2,227 people killed in 317 drone strikes since the start of 2008, 67 of them, or 3 percent of the total, were civilians.

The new numbers were far lower than even the most conservative estimates by human rights groups and other organizations that closely track non-combatant deaths that result from the U.S. drone campaign. During the same period, the new America Foundation estimated that 176 civilians were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Long War Journal put the number at 133. And Ben Emmerson, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, told the Times that the new numbers were “strikingly at odds” with the numbers he had received from Pakistan’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For years Pakistan had publicly railed against the U.S. strikes, which it said violated the country’s sovereignty and killed far too many civilians. And now officials there seemed to be lowballing the casualty numbers. What was going on?

Human rights organizations and journalists immediately began speculating on a multitude of Pakistani agendas. Was it just a coincidence that the new numbers were released only days after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met in Washington with President Obama in a highly publicized effort to get the frayed U.S.-Pakistani relationship back on track?  Perhaps the release of casualty estimates much more in line with U.S. numbers was a gesture of good will.

Or was it meant to push back against a flurry of recently released reports from human rights organizations that harshly criticized the American drone offensive for violating international law and indiscriminately targeting civilians. One theory suggested that the move was meant to blunt damage from a recent Washington Post story, citing classified CIA documents, that Pakistan had quietly acquiesced to the attacks and had repeatedly received detailed briefings from the CIA on casualty counts. If Pakistani complicity in the program was exposed, the theory went, why not at least try to downplay its negative fallout.

But then, underscoring the hall-of-mirrors quality of Pakistani actions, the government abruptly backed away from its latest estimates. The Pakistani newspaper The News quoted a Defense Ministry official calling the casualty figures “wrong and fabricated.” Accurate figures would be forthcoming, the ministry said.

The episode in some ways was just another blip in the ever-contentions dispute over casualty stats in the covert drone war. The U.S. government, which has never made public its own figures on civilian casualties, disagrees with Pakistan (except when, as in the case with the recent downward revisions, it agrees with them); human rights organizations and other NGOs disagree among each other; and news organizations often take issue with all of the estimates, pointing out that there is no way of knowing the truth, since it’s impossible for government or non-governmental agencies to thoroughly investigate the attacks on the ground in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

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