As a result of the unprecedented 41 drone strikes into
Pakistan authorized by the Obama administration, aimed at Taliban and al Qaeda
networks based there, about a half-dozen leaders of militant organizations have
been killed--including two heads of Uzbek terrorist groups allied with al
Qaeda, and Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban--in addition
to hundreds of lower-level militants and civilians, according to our analysis.
The number of civilian deaths caused by the drones is an
important issue because in the charged political atmosphere of today's
Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is rampant, the drone program is a particular
cause of anger among those who see it as an infringement on Pakistan's
sovereignty. A Gallup poll
in August found that only 9 percent of Pakistanis favored the strikes, while
two-thirds opposed them.
An important factor in the controversy over the drones is
the widespread perception that they kill large numbers of Pakistani civilians.
Some commentators have asserted that the overwhelming majority of casualties
are civilians. Amir Mir, a leading Pakistani journalist, wrote in The
News in April that since January 2006,
American drone attacks had killed "687 innocent Pakistani civilians." A month
later, a similar claim was made in the New York Times by counterinsurgency experts David Kilcullen and
Andrew Exum, who wrote
that drone strikes had "killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for
every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent." In other words, in their
analysis, 98 percent of those killed in drone attacks were civilians. Kilcullen
and Exum advocated a moratorium on the strikes because of the "public outrage"
A very different picture was presented
earlier this month by the Long War Journal,
an American blog that closely tracks terrorist groups, in particular al Qaeda
and the Taliban. Bill Roggio, the editor of Long War Journal, concluded that according to his close analysis of
the drone strikes, only 10 percent of those killed were civilians.
Our analysis suggests quite different conclusions than those
of either Kilcullen and Exum or the Long War Journal.
But first, a word on our methodology. Our analysis of the
drone campaign is based only on accounts from reliable media organizations with
substantial reporting capabilities in Pakistan. We restricted our analysis to
reports in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal,
accounts by major news services and networks--the Associated Press, Reuters,
Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC--and reports in the leading
English-language newspapers in Pakistan--The Daily Times, Dawn,
and The News--as well as those
from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network. (Links to
all those individual reports can be found in Appendix 1 of this paper.)
The news organizations we relied upon collectively for our
data cover the drone strikes as accurately and aggressively as possible. And
though we don't pretend that our study is accurate down to the last civilian
death in every drone strike, we posit that our research has generated some
quite reliable data on the number of militant leaders killed, a fairly good
estimate of the number of lower-level militants killed, and a reliable sense of
the real civilian death rate.
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. (A list of their names, as
well as links to stories about the drone strikes that targeted them, can be
found in Appendix 1.)
It is not possible to differentiate precisely between
militant and civilian casualties because the militants live among the
population and don't wear uniforms, and because the militants have the
incentive to claim that all the casualties were civilians, while government
sources tend to claim the opposite. However, of those killed in drone attacks from
2006 through mid-October 2009, between 500 and 700 were described in reliable press
reports as militants, or some 66 to 68 percent.
Based on our count of the estimated number of militants
killed, the real total of civilian deaths since 2006 appears to be in the range
of 250 to 320, or between 31 and 33 percent.
That finding tracks with polling by the Aryana Institute for
Regional Research and Advocacy, a think tank that works in the Pakistani tribal
region along the Afghan border where the drone attacks have consistently taken
place. It found
that more than half the people surveyed in the winter of 2008 in this region,
which is known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, said the drone
strikes were accurate and were damaging the militant organizations based there.
Under President Obama, the strikes have taken out at most a
half-dozen militant leaders while also killing as many as 530 others. Of those,
around 250 to 400 are reported to have been lower-level militants, about three
quarters, and about a quarter appear to have been civilians. The strikes appear
to have killed a slightly lower percentage of civilians in the past nine months
than during the earlier years of the American drone campaign in Pakistan.
Obama, far from curtailing the drone program he inherited
from President George W. Bush, has instead dramatically increased the number of U.S. Predator and Reaper drone
strikes. There have been 43 strikes in Pakistan this year (two while Bush was
still in office), compared to 34 in all of 2008. None of the strikes under
either Bush or Obama has targeted Osama bin Laden, who seems to have vanished
like a wraith. U.S. intelligence officials say they have not had a solid lead
on the whereabouts of the al Qaeda leader since the battle of Tora Bora in
eastern Afghanistan in December 2001.
The leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, the
mastermind of Benazir Bhutto's December 2007 assassination and many of the
suicide bombings in Afghanistan, was a frequent target of the drone attacks.
Under Obama, according to our analysis, 15 drone strikes specifically targeted
But he still didn't see it coming. On August 5, Mehsud, a
diabetic former gym instructor, was receiving a leg massage on the roof of a
house in South Waziristan when a drone slammed into his hideout, killing one of
his wives, her father, and the terrorist chief himself.
The Pakistani press was jubilant. "Good Riddance, Killer
Baitullah" was the lead
headline in the quality Dawn
newspaper. Much of the previous coverage in Pakistan of U.S. drone strikes in
the tribal region had ranged from critical to downright hostile. But in the
case of Mehsud, U.S. strategic interests and Pakistani interests were closely
aligned because the Pakistani Taliban's victims included not only Bhutto, the
country's most popular politician, but also hundreds of
Pakistani policemen, soldiers, and civilians.
By July 2008, Bush administration officials had tired of
Pakistan's unwillingness or inability to capture or kill the ever-expanding
number of militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). So they
decided to ramp up the CIA's drone program targeting al Qaeda and Taliban
leaders in the tribal regions.
What had particularly alarmed Bush administration officials over the
previous three years was the mounting evidence that al Qaeda and affiliated
groups were using the FATA to train Westerners for attacks on American and
European targets. For instance, the masterminds of the July 7, 2005, transit
system attacks in London, which killed 52 people, had trained in the tribal
regions. So too had two Germans and a Turk who were planning to bomb the U.S.
Air Force base in Ramstein, Germany, in 2007. And, during this period, both
Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who are generally
presumed to be living in or around the FATA, continued to release a stream of
audio- and videotapes demonstrating that al Qaeda's leadership was very much
Over the summer of 2008, the Bush
administration authorized a sharp increase in the number of drone attacks. In
the first six months of the year there were six such strikes, while in the
second half there were 28.
According to Pakistani and U.S. officials and media
accounts, drone strikes in 2008 killed about a dozen senior or mid-level
leaders of al Qaeda or the Taliban. They included Abu Laith al-Libi, who orchestrated
a 2007 suicide attack at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan during a visit by Vice
President Dick Cheney. Al Qaeda's resident authority on weapons of mass destruction, Abu Khabab al-Masri, was
killed by a strike in South Waziristan in late July, and Abu Haris, al Qaeda's
chief in Pakistan, was felled in September in North Waziristan.
The drone campaign certainly has hurt al Qaeda's leadership,
which increasingly has had to worry about self-preservation rather than
planning attacks or training recruits. One measure of the pain is the number of
audio- and videotapes that the terrorist group has released through its
propaganda arm, As Sahab ("the clouds"
in Arabic). Al Qaeda takes its propaganda operations seriously and in 2007 As
Sahab had a banner year, releasing almost
100 tapes. But the number dropped by half in 2008, indicating that the group's
leaders were more concerned with survival than public relations. This year,
however, As Sahab has already
released 60 communiqués, according to IntelCenter, a government contractor that
tracks jihadist propaganda, indicating that al Qaeda's propaganda machine has
As the drone attacks have put al Qaeda and allied groups under increased
pressure, law enforcement authorities have uncovered few serious plots against
U.S. or European targets that are traceable back to militants who had trained
in Pakistan's tribal regions since the summer of 2008, when the drone program
was first expanded.
A major exception is Najibullah Zazi, a onetime coffee cart operator on Wall
Street who later worked as a shuttle van driver at the Denver airport. Zazi, an
Afghan immigrant, was allegedly planning to launch this fall what could have
been the deadliest terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11. He had
traveled in late August 2008 to Pakistan, where by his own admission he was
trained in explosives by al Qaeda members in a tribal area along the Afghan
border. The FBI found pages of handwritten notes on Zazi's laptop computer
about the manufacture and initiation of explosives and the components of
various detonators and fusing systems--technical know-how he had picked up at
one of al Qaeda's training facilities between late summer 2008 and January
2009, a period of intensified drone attacks.
Although the drone campaign has certainly killed terrorist leaders, it also
presents a number of tactical and strategic problems that must be part of the
debate about its efficacy.
The first is that the strikes, which almost inevitably kill
civilians, may be on shaky legal ground. Columbia Law School professor Matthew
Waxman points out that this is a tricky judgment call: "The principle of
proportionality says that a military target may not be attacked if doing so is
likely to cause incidental civilian casualties or damage that would be
excessive in relation to the expected military advantage of the attack.... But
there is no consensus on how to calculate these values (how do you compare the
value of civilian lives versus the value of disrupting high-level terrorist
operational planning?) Nor is there consensus on what imbalance is
‘excessive.' It's very hard to draw definitive conclusions because it
requires assessments about such things as the expected military gain from
neutralizing the target, the likely civilian harm, and the availability of alternative
means of attacking that could save innocent lives."
Second, conscious that the drone attacks are generally
unpopular with the Pakistani public, militants have used them as an excuse to
strike government targets in the country's Punjabi heartland. The Taliban's
March attack on a Lahore police academy, in which 18 people were killed, was
"in retaliation for the continued drone strikes by the U.S. in collaboration
with Pakistan on our people," Baitullah Mehsud said at the time. Several
weeks later, Hakimullah Mehsud, Baitullah Mehsud's deputy and now reportedly
his successor, told
reporters, "We will continue to launch suicide attacks until U.S. drone attacks
Third, the strikes no longer have the element of surprise.
It is highly unlikely that the drone program will be expanded from FATA into
other, non-tribal regions of Pakistan because of intense Pakistani opposition
to such a move. Understanding that fact, some militants have undoubtedly moved
out of FATA and into safer parts of Pakistan, potentially further destabilizing
the fragile Pakistani state.
Fourth, although drone attacks often kill low-level
militants, they also destroy the computers, cell phones, documents, and "pocket
litter" that can provide myriad other leads to investigators. Dan Byman of
Georgetown University has correctly observed
that drone strikes are a "poor second to arrests [because] dead men tell no
Fifth, the drone program is a tactic, not a strategy. Bruce Hoffman, a
Georgetown University professor widely regarded as the dean of terrorism
studies, says, "We are deluding ourselves if we think in and of itself the
drone program is going to be the answer." He points out that the 2006 U.S.
airstrike that killed the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, did
not exactly shut down the organization. Following Zarqawi's death, violence in
Sixth, while there islittle doubt that the strikes have
disrupted al Qaeda's operations, the larger question is to what extent they may
have increased the appeal of militant groups and undermined the Pakistani
state. This is ultimately a lot more worrisome than anything that could happen
in Afghanistan, given that Pakistan has dozens of nuclear weapons and is one of
the world's most populous countries.
Drone strikes will remain an important tool to disrupt al
Qaeda and Taliban operations and to kill the leaders of these organizations,
but they also consistently kill Pakistani civilians, angering the population
and prompting violent acts of revenge from the Pakistani Taliban.
For the time being, however, they appear to be the least bad
option the United States has for reducing the threat from Pakistan's militants, given
that an American ground assault into Pakistan's tribal regions is out of the
question, and that U.S. and Pakistani strategic interests are more closely
aligned today than they have been in years because of the two countries' shared
interest in attacking the Pakistani Taliban and their al Qaeda allies.
information is accurate as of October 19, 2009.