Three US researchers, Matthew Fricker, Avery Plaw, and Brian Glyn Williams have written a paper on US drone attacks in Fata. It contradicts the widely held view in the media and academia that the attacks lead to large-scale civilian casualties. Their paper titled ‘New Light on the Accuracy of the CIA’s Predator Drone Campaign in Pakistan’ will be published in the Sentinel, the magazine of the US Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Centre.
The authors analysed media reports from a multitude of sources on the US drone strikes in Fata over the last 10 months and compared the coverage of each attack. Where the reported numbers of fatalities differed, the authors favoured the most detailed and updated accounts. Where questions remained, they favoured newspapers of record, always using the lowest plausible count of militants reported slain. All women and children under 13 were assumed to be civilian. In case it became impossible to determine whether a person killed was a militant or a civilian, they assigned that person to the category ‘unknown’. By systematically applying these simple rules to the available information, the authors concluded that as of April 1 this year, there have been a total of 127 confirmed CIA drone strikes in Fata, killing a total of 1,247 people. Of those killed only 44 (or 3.5 per cent) could be confirmed as civilians, while 963 (or 77.2 per cent) were reported to be militants or suspected militants.
The identities of the remaining 240 individuals who died in these strikes could not be ascertained, and consequently they were placed in the ‘unknown’ category. Even if every single victim placed in the ‘unknown’ category was assumed to be a civilian, the vast majority of fatalities would still be of militants. To be precise, the researchers arrived at a ratio of 3.4 militants for every civilian. The report is revealing because it leads to the conclusion that much of the reporting on these attacks in the Pakistani media and perception created among the general public as a result of such reporting is based on false assumptions — the main being that innocent civilians far outnumbered the militants who died as a result of the drone attacks.
Media reports say the attacks lead to large-scale civilian causalities and public opinion in Fata is against the attacks. The fact is that many understand that the attacks are needed to target the militants and that in most cases they manage to reach the intended target with great accuracy.
I have been questioning misleading reports about the drone strikes through my newspapers columns. But the misinformation continues to come out from both think tanks and media outlets. One recent example is a research report called ‘The Year of the Drone’ produced by a US think tank, called the New America Foundation. The report claims that 32 per cent of those who have died in drone attacks since 2004 have been innocent civilians. The report has been quoted extensively in the media often but is far from the truth, as the one that is to appear in the Sentinel clearly suggests. Furthermore, in a forthcoming research paper I intend to challenge and question the New America Foundation claim.
My hope is that this new report will caution researchers around the world against the ‘conventional wisdom’ that drone attacks lead to large-scale civilian casualties and instant anti-Americanism in Fata, and encourage them to interact directly with local people.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 28th, 2010.