The truth about drone attack fatalities

Published: May 27, 2010
The writer is currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban (

The writer is currently writing a book, Taliban and Anti-Taliban ([email protected])

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.

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Reader Comments (31)

  • May 28, 2010 - 12:27AM

    I hope you are right. The less civilian casualties and the more accurate targeting the better. But did the Sentinel report also mention the names of militants who had been killed? Are those names that can be verified as militants by independent sources? These are questions you have asked of the Pakistani military in your earlier columns, as you should, but why not ask the same questions of the US military? Not too long ago, we heard that Fazlullah had been killed by a drone attack, only to hear weeks later that it was a mistake and that he had merely been injured. In fact, according to ET today he has been killed finally in Afghanistan now. What does that tell us about the claims made about the success of the drone attacks?Recommend

  • May 28, 2010 - 12:28AM

    The state is at fault for limiting journalists and humanitarian organizations access to FATA. In doing so it promotes rumour-mongering and hinders the free flow of information. There is no doubt that drone attacks is a sensitive issue, but at the same time there is no way to verify death tolls and record local sentiments.

    These attacks have gone on for way to long for them to be viewed as “attacks of opportunities”. Our military actively supports and shares intelligence with the US, which cannot be gathered without the systematic support of local sympathisers.

    Either way, until the veil of secrecy is not lifted, we will never trust what the government says and neither will we believe studies that claim that “collateral damage” is negligible due to these strikes.

    The government seems to be encouraging this ambiguity as it too can hide behind fudged and unverifiable figures to suit its political ends. If one is to follow ISPR releases, its seems as if 100s of militants are killed in the wake of military operations with no civilian deaths. Are we so naive that we believe that at face value? Recommend

  • Muhammad Ziad
    May 28, 2010 - 1:06AM

    Firstly, even 1% of the civilians killed counts. Where has this utilitarian concept started to embed in the matter of National Interest?? Drones kill Civilians or Militants , no one has the right to judge anyone. There is no research to prove the identity of the militants killed except for what the official source claims.

    I have heard hate speeches from both sides, similarly on taliban accounts they can give every statistics of their attacks which can describe 30% civilians killed but 70% were military personal.

    The contradiction can be found right here “963 (or 77.2 per cent) were reported to be militants or suspected militants” Suspected militants…they can be 50% of this figure or 10%, it is not possible to determine as every figure is coming from an Official Source. How are the suspected militants be labelled under the category of ‘militants’.

    Very Subjective point of view this is , a biased research indeed. Recommend

  • Aziz Akhmad
    May 28, 2010 - 1:36AM

    @Ayesha Ijaz Khan: I hope the news of Fazlullah’s death is not exaggerated.Recommend

  • May 28, 2010 - 1:44AM

    @Ayesha – Fazlullah was based in Swat then allegedly Chitral. It was Hakimullah Mehsud that they had claimed to have killed in a drone attack, not Fazlullah. Recommend

  • faraz
    May 28, 2010 - 2:16AM

    Civilian casualties from drone strikes cant be more than those resulting from army operations which mainly involve unguided ammunition like howlitzer fire, mortars, rockets, strafing etc. The artillery fire is indirect; imagine shells supposed to hit a militant position located 20 kilometers away! In the heat of battle, soldiers are justified to fire at everything that moves; similarly there is no observable difference betweeen a militant and a local. Army operations can only clear those areas, they cant kill high profile targets; Special operation units are only effective in Hollywood movies. South Waziristan operation involved around 30,000 troops but few hundred militants got killed. So drones are more effective than army operations. Drone strikes are being carried out with our permission and accurate local intelligence can reduce civilian casualties.Recommend

  • Nasir
    May 28, 2010 - 2:27AM


    That tells much if you just think a bit. When there were claims that Hakemullah is killed, he was at least targetted. That means that maybe the final claim of US regarding drone attacks may not be right but at least the attacks are real while on the other hand Pakistan has not even targetted even a single High value target till datae. Mangal Bagh, Fazlullah, Faqir Muhammad and anyone else are still at large. I think, it is not only the relative less damage by drone attacks but also the frustration of Pashtuns of Pakistani state, who are using their land for their proxy wars. Pakistani state has brought terrorists from all over the world to Pashtun areas and Pashtuns are fed-up of Pakistani State. They want anyone including US, India and any ABC to come and get them rid of these global terrorists, and that is why locals help in providing intellegence.Recommend

  • Ayesha Ijaz Khan
    May 28, 2010 - 4:12AM

    @Nadir–my mistake. It was indeed Hakimullah and not Fazlullah. Nevertheless, the question would still stand.
    @Aziz Akhmad—agreed.
    @Nasir–I don’t think your view is shared by all Pakhtuns. In fact, I have heard a plethora of different views–a case in point is Ayaz Wazir from Waziristan (printed in this paper). Also, though I do think that the policy of bringing jihadis from all over the world and stationing them in our tribal areas was a faulty one, how can you absolve America in this role? And how are you so willing to be deferential to it now given that its historical role in this, including printing jihadi texts in Nebraska, is quite dubious. There have also been reports in The Guardian which have stated that the US military has been paying off Taliban commanders in order to keep their supplies going, which in turn are used by Taliban to fund their operations, including those against US soldiers. How is that for dual policy? Also, don’t you think that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is to blame in all this—perhaps the Afghans were too trusting of the Soviets?Recommend

  • Yusaf Khan
    May 28, 2010 - 4:41AM

    The USA has no legal right to be killing what it claims are “alleged militants”. Even if no civilian is killed there is no legal justification. On the other hand, the Pakistani Army, even with a much higher count of collateral damage has the legal justification provided by the constitution of Pakistan to challenge the Taliban in the tribal areas. The Taliban reside in Pakistan and the Pakistani government apparatus has the right to challenge anyone taking up arms against its writ. Hence, the argument that the drone attacks cause fewer civilian deaths is moot. The drones should be given to Pakistan as only they have the legal authority to deploy them within Pakistan.Recommend

  • M. Roddy
    May 28, 2010 - 5:43AM

    As a native of FATA, I find Ms. Taj’s perspective far more reliable than any Pakistani government report. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have been terrorizing the civilians of NWFP and FATA for years now.

    Alas, I believe the perspective of the New America Foundation is also unreliable. There are think tanks in the U.S. which loudly call for “troops out,” because they are of the mindset that America is always the bad guy, and the less American involvement, the better for all concerned. But this is a poorly thought out position, based on that most worn out of paradigms, Viet Nam, and it does not take into account the true nature of the aggressor in Afghanistan and the Pashtun territories of Pakistan, nor the devastating consequences to civilians on both side of that contentious border, if the U.S. and NATO leave prematurely.

    I applaud Farhat Taj for being an honest voice for her people. Recommend

  • Jehanzeb Leghari
    May 28, 2010 - 6:26AM

    Good Op-Ed. That is great news indeed but at least be impartial. When some civilians were killed inadvertently by the Pakistani army, the same writer wrote a scathing piece in another newspaper, in which she all but accused the Pakistani army of deliberately killing the civilians. Why don’t we see Miss Taj, whom I hold in high esteem, writing a few words, for a change, honoring our brave soldiers, thousands of whom have died in the last few years ridding Swat and the tribal areas of terrorists?

    Having said that, I think we need articles like these, especially in Urdu newspapers, to dispel the caustic myth, espoused by mullahs and their cronies, that drones are some sort evil incarnate. At the same time we must also acknowledge the sacrifices of our foot soldiers, who have played a pivotal role in helping us achieve our collective goal of ridding the lawless tribal areas of terror. The fact of the matter is that both drone attacks and ground military action will unfortnately but inevitably lead to at least some civilian casualties. That, however, is no reason why either should be opposed because the opportunity cost of not taking action is so immense and potentially catastrophic. Recommend

  • Adnan
    May 28, 2010 - 9:03AM

    Are journalists allowed to venture inside the territories prone to drone attacks? North Waziristan for example?Recommend

  • May 28, 2010 - 10:44AM

    By contrast to the findings reported in this article, one of the oldest American think tanks, the vastly more respectable, Brookings Institution finds that:

    “more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.” (Emphasis added; as quoted in Dawn, 21 July 2009.)

    As a result there are grave misgivings in America about these attacks, not only among civilian critics of the war but also among the military. Counter-terrorism expert, David Kilcullen, has been quoted famously as saying that: “When we intervene in people’s countries to chase small cells of bad guys, we end up alienating the whole country and turning them against us.”

    The U.S. Army is conducting a wide-ranging propaganda campaign in America — what Pakistanis think is only marginally important — to deflect this kind of criticism, to minimise collateral damage, and to hype up the precision of their deadly toys. This article, no doubt unintentionally, furthers that effort.

    The magazine it cites, the CTC Sentinel, was started in December 2007 as part of the effort to shore up morale among soldiers and support the civilian war lobby in the United States. It would not be surprising if the “researchers” cited were linked to U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

    I would place about as much faith in these numbers as I would on findings, were they to exist, by “researchers” at the al Qaeda Militant Academy Counter Imperialism Centre, that claimed that of those killed on “9/11” only 3.5 per cent could be confirmed as civilians, while 77.2 per cent were reported to be imperialists or suspected imperialists.

    The American-Afghan War should not be conducted on Pakistan’s soil; and we should condemn the killing of all innocents, without exception.Recommend

  • Hasham Baber
    May 28, 2010 - 11:38AM

    There would have been no attacks and hence no cause of complaint against the US for their drone attacks in Pakistani territory if foreign militants and terrorists had not been provided safe havens by the Pakistani ‘Establishment’ to interfere with the sovereignty of of other countries. The fact is that when the Afghan Taliban were driven out of Afghanistan during US attack soon after the 9/11 episode, Gen. Musharraf provided them safe havens in FATA for the sole purpose to perpetuate proxy wars on Afghanistan including US interests. The Taliban and al- Qaeda are in a state of war with the whole democratic world, and, indeed, their epicenter is Pakistan. The Pakistani militant groups were also brought under the same umbrella to increase and unify. Therefore, one surely needs to provide moral justification for harbouring terrorists against other states before questioning the legality of drone attacks. The US and NATO forces have entered Afghanistan under a UN Resolution to which Pakistan itself is a signatory.Besides, we are in a state of war. We cannot deny the application of Geneva convention and the right of other sovereign states to protect their national security against any attack. Regards.Recommend

  • Aroob Akbar
    May 28, 2010 - 3:23PM

    Contrary to the ridiculous claims of Mr. Baber, it is the Afghans who have repeatedly turned down Pakistan’s proposals to fence the Durrand line, which is vital to stem to infiltration of Afghan and foreign terrorists into Pakistan.

    I think there are few more reliable sources than the regularly updated CIA World Factbook.

    “…by 2005 Pakistan, with UN assistance, repatriated 2.3 million Afghan refugees leaving slightly more than a million, many of whom remain at their own choosing; Pakistan has proposed and Afghanistan protests construction of a fence and laying of mines along portions of their porous border; Pakistan has sent troops into remote tribal areas to monitor and control the border with Afghanistan and to stem terrorist or other illegal activities.”
    Page last Edited: May 5 2010Recommend

  • Mansoor Khalid
    May 28, 2010 - 3:35PM

    Drone technology has been exceptional in hunting down terrorists and surveillance. It’s the misleading reports in media which have created the ambiguity that drones are a threat to our national security.Recommend

  • Sadia Hussain
    May 28, 2010 - 5:33PM

    The issue of drone attacks has long been manipulated as civilian casualties are fabricated and the figures are exaggerated. One such attempt is which as per which the success rate of drone attack is merely 2.5%
    The lack of access of reporters to these areas compels them to use militants as source which is why the reporting is often biased. The effectiveness of drone attacks cannot be undermined and the attacks are endorsed by the state and the Army though not acknowledged! Recommend

  • Helmand Khan
    May 28, 2010 - 5:38PM

    Yes You are right. We suspected all along that Pakistan by not giving access to these areas, actually want to disguise the reality of accurate losses and puts pressure on the US as if too many civilians have been killed so it should stop these attacks.
    But by the looks of it , drone attacks are pretty accurate.Recommend

  • May 28, 2010 - 10:42PM

    I think we don’t know the meaning of sovereignty.If there are Jihadis in those areas,it doesn’t mean that every country have a right to attack on pakistani territories.If we allow america to attack there then why don’t we allow India to fight against terrorism within our borders.India also claims that they are the victim of cross border terrorism.What Americans are doing with minorities in America they don’t show anything about the discrimination people are facing over there.It is our war.We are the victims.Govt should say that we won’t let anyone to attack on our people.It is our matter and we’ll resolve it through dialogues.Recommend

  • Hasham Baber
    May 29, 2010 - 9:51AM

    Mr. Aroob Akbar,
    I do not wish to generate a new debate on Pakistan’s proposal to barbed wire the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan has a historical border dispute with Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan. In fact this is the only sore point between the two countries which Pakistan could not resolve even with their own erstwhile client government when the Taliban were ruling in Afghanistan. On the other hand, if I may say, General Musharraf stealthily allowed a side door to the fleeing Afghan Taliban at North Waziristan border despite assurances under the war operation plan with the US forces that they will be trapped and disabled with the Pakistan army manning the border on their side. Treachery and duplicity of the Musharraf regime have brought us to the present day situation, now that the US drones are chasing the same very fugitives whom we allowed to reside,recruit,train and perpetuate assaults inside Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. Recommend

  • Sara Naqvi
    May 29, 2010 - 5:22PM

    regardless of the counts and different reports from both side on the percentage of civilins killed. Would USA allow a drone attack in downtown Miami if there is a probability that a “taliban” is roaming around that area? (given all of the said perfect accuracy of drone attacks).Recommend

  • Muhammad Ziad
    May 29, 2010 - 7:44PM

    @ SARA,
    ‘roaming’ ?? lol…you make taliban sound like boys from the hood driving around downtown miami getting glimpses of girls at the beach. It is Us territory and in it they can easily grab the suspected terrorist through ground forces without the need of a drone.

    Nevertheless, when the Pakistanis have allowed Us to use the drones why will they not utilize it then ? Indeed the Pakistani Intelligence actively provides coordinates for the strike.

    It doesn’t matter to the Pakistani Intelligence if 40 dies (even innocents) to protect the ‘national interest’ . So moving to your question , will Us allow the use of drone on its own territory , the answer is No . Simply because the lawmakers and the government won’t authorize it.

    In our case, we are sold out. Recommend

  • Spinkane
    May 29, 2010 - 10:32PM

    Drones are the most effective weapon against terrorists.Except for two strikes,the collateral damage in all other, has been minimum, as compared to artillery and mortar shells.After every attack the Taliban cordon the area,do not let anyone to see the site,and than a propaganda is unleashed through jihadi anchors and columnists about the civilian casualties.The tribal,directly affected by these strikes, are not protesting,but urban middle class of Central Punjab and “GHAIRAT GROUP” creates a media hype.Why don’t these people protest about sovereignty, once foreign nationals ,without any travel documents, use our soil for terrorist activities?Recommend

  • Farrukh Siddiqui
    May 30, 2010 - 12:12AM

    It is ridiculous to think that terrorists can be eliminated through a drone war,,, counter insurgency needs a radically different approach. the truth is the US Army needs the Talibans to continue to fight so that it can stay in Afghanistan longer. Ask Karzai!

  • S.Alam
    May 30, 2010 - 10:02AM

    No doubt that Drones are very successful in hard area like Fata. Killing Baithullah Masood was not so easy by any other means. But it will be more fruitful if USA provides the same tecknology to Pakistan. Efforts should also be made to eliminate civilian casualties.Recommend

  • Hidayat
    May 30, 2010 - 12:43PM

    i am from Waziristan and we know well that here people provide false information to the US just to settle scores and here we go a drone comes and bomb the civilians. Recommend

  • Aroob Akbar
    May 31, 2010 - 9:46AM

    Mr. Hasham Baber
    India has a historical border dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir since the creation of Pakistan. That does not mean there is not a fence along the line of control to stem the infiltration of terrorists to India. The proposals by Pakistan to fence the Durand line were made of late and not in the heyday of peace in Afghanistan. It is true that such a fence would hinder travel of civilians as well but legitimate travel is always possible for people with proper documentation through a limited entry point. In any case the fencing needs not be permanent and when the situation stabilizes in Afghanistan the barrier could be removed once again. That Afghanistan protests the construction of a fence despite the extraordinary situation in Afghanistan and the security challenges confronting both Afghanistan and Pakistan seems bizarre and is the reason why the CIA Factbook takes a note of it.

    I agree with you that Musharaff was a disaster for Pakistan in many respects. However, as far as the war on terror is concerned, he was and remains a darling of the west, and is unlikely to be extradited to Pakistan any time soon to face trial for directly ordering the assassination of one leader and quite possibly complicity in that of another.

    On a different note, I would like to add that the hullabaloo over drones is unwarranted. And not a little puzzling considering how effective they have been in eradicating terrorists like Baitullah Mahsud without incurring either casualties of army personnel or civilians as Fricker et al. note in their upcoming paper in Sentinel. Recommend

  • Srinivas
    Jun 1, 2010 - 2:58PM

    In the current war, Drone hits have been most effective. Current Pakistan policy indicates a strong “NO” for American boots. Pakistan’s ISI or Army cannot be trusted to go after these targets due to vested interest. No attack in a war can be 100% collateral damage proof. By this view, the drone attacks offers the best means. Also, it helps pin the responsibility for a botched up attack on the operator, for the drone is releasing its missile against a single target. This target is carefully selected, surveillance is mounted, decision is made for the attack. This whole process helps in reducing the collateral damage.

    The current disinformation campaign about the effectiveness of drone attacks is conducted by vested interest groups within the Pak Armed forces.Recommend

  • sahil
    Jun 1, 2010 - 11:36PM

    americans are making us fool…their target is only to kill muslims..but our leaders are not understanding whats going on…alla’s…Recommend

  • jahaneb khan
    Jun 2, 2010 - 1:16PM

    Pakhtuns support drone attacks. However, US should directly talk to Pakhtuns on both sides of the disputed Durand line and disassociate themselves from the Pakistan’s military agencies on collecting intelligence and clean the area from militants and their supporters. Pakhtuns know that US is partially responsible to use Pakhuns’ land against Kafir Soviet Union — now it is their turn to pay back, otherwise the US will be under the potential threat by Al-Qaida. The security of New York is directly related to peace in Pakhtunkwa. Pakhtuns are praying for peace!Recommend

  • Angelos
    Oct 20, 2010 - 6:45PM

    Like Muhammad Ziad said: “The contradiction can be found right here “963 (or 77.2 per cent) were reported to be militants or suspected militants” Suspected militants”Recommend

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