This morning, after turning off the interminable NPR coverage of the Republican primaries, I saw that The Morning News recently linked to this ABC News story about the case of Tariq Khan, a 16 year old Pakistani killed in a US drone attack.
In late October, he accompanied a group of tribal elders when they traveled down to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the anti-drone conference. There, he sat with dozens of foreign lawyers and journalists and displayed no signs of hatred or animosity at them or the government, according to the people who spoke with him. According to family and associates, he said he wanted to refute Washington’s claim that the drone program had killed zero civilians in the last few years.
I was struck by the wide range of civilian deaths in various reports compared to the CIA’s claim of zero civilian deaths. From Wikipedia:
Daniel L. Byman from the Brookings Institution suggests that drone strikes may kill “10 or so civilians” for every militant killed. In contrast, the New America Foundation has estimated that 80 percent of those killed in the attacks were militants. The Pakistani military has stated that most of those killed were hardcore Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants. The CIA believes that the strikes conducted since May 2010 have killed over 600 militants and have not caused any civilian fatalities, a claim that experts disputed and have called absurd. Based on extensive research, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that between 391 - 780 civilians were killed out of a total of between 1,658 and 2,597 and that 160 children are reported among the deaths.
Zero civilians is a pretty bold claim that I can only come up with two explanations of. Either each attack is backed up by thoroughly documented research or the CIA simply designates anyone they kill as a de facto terrorist. Perhaps it’s a mix of both, but without any public accountability we’ll probably never see evidence that it’s the former case.
If accurate, this description of drone tactics contradicts the “heavy research” explanation, and is eerily reminiscent of the follow-up bombing tactic used by Iraqi insurgents:
Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed’s deaths, [the attorney for Tariq’s family] did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack.
It’s maybe no surprise then that two thirds of Pakistani journalists regard US drones attacks as acts of terrorism.
At least for now these attacks have been suspended.
Drone strikes were halted in November 2011 after NATO forces killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in the Salala incident.
Update: this NY Times article offers a more nuanced discussion of the "zero civilian deaths" claim. It sounds like John Brennan simply overstated drone effectiveness and offered a more evasive explanation that "the U.S. government has not found credible evidence of collateral deaths."
Update #2: I'm coming back to this post after several months, and thinking I might have underplayed this a little. Just to spell it out more clearly: an anti-drone activist, who was trying to draw attention to Pakistani civilian deaths, was himself killed by a drone. This would be kind of funny and ironic, if it wasn't so not funny.
Strangely, the coverage of this incident on Democracy Now has his name as Tariq Aziz.