Study Rebuts US Claims of ‘No Civilian Deaths’ in Pakistan Drone Strikes

As the Pakistani public grows increasingly outraged at the United States’ drone attacks in the northwest region of the country, a recent study by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism is contradicting U.S. officials’ insistence that "not a single civilian life" has been claimed in the covert war.

Led by British investigative journalist Chris Woods and Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, the study found that at least 45 civilians, including six children, have been killed in 10 drone strikes since August 2010 alone, while another 15 attacks between then and June 2011 likely killed many more.

According to the study, civilians die in one out of every five Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-operated drone attacks in the tribal region, located on the border with Afghanistan, a statistic that the Bureau says can no longer be denied by the U.S. government.

The Woods-Yusufzai investigation was born in response to a statement made by the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor and President Barack Obama’s assistant on counterterrorism, John Brennan, who told a press conference here last month that "the types of operations… that the U.S. has been involved in hasn’t [resulted in] a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop."

The Bureau’s investigation reveals Brennan’s statement to be baseless.

"What the study has done is show the public irrefutable proof of civilian casualties," Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a Pakistani sociologist at the University of Strathclyde who has frequently blasted the U.S.’s low body counts in Pakistan, told IPS.

"We know who died – we know their names, know some are children, we have their ID cards," he added. "The CIA’s claims are totally false."

Among the civilians killed is Naeem Ullah, a 10-year old who was hit by a piece of flying shrapnel from a neighboring house destroyed by a drone, the investigation found.

In another case, the body of a 17-year-old named Sanaullah Jan, who was traveling in a car struck by a drone, was so charred that it could only be identified by the remains of a burnt identification card.

The Bureau says most of the media reports about Sanaullah described him as a Taliban fighter. However, his family says he was simply an engineering student and is now attempting to sue the CIA for wrongful death, along with the families of other victims.

Other recorded civilian deaths include prisoners held by suspected militants who were the target of aerial assaults, Pakistanis who came to the rescue of those harmed in an initial round of strikes, members of families who said they fear the Taliban, and other innocent bystanders, the investigation found.

Though the report will likely cause a stir in the U.S., many Pakistani experts and human rights organizations say that the Bureau’s findings are nothing new.

Tom Parker, policy director for terrorism, counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International, called the investigation’s findings "unsurprising", adding that, while Amnesty does not conduct its own body count of innocents killed in the U.S.’s drone strikes, the government’s claims of zero civilian casualties are "highly implausible".

"It flies in the face of our experience in every previous case where drones have been used," Parker told IPS.

"You can extrapolate from [aerial] strikes in places like Kosovo and Gaza that civilian casualties are extremely likely… the technology hasn’t changed so vastly from then as to render killing civilians a minimal risk," he said.

The Bureau identified the civilians killed in drone strikes by reviewing thousands of media reports, liaising with lawyers representing families of alleged victims, and employing a team of Pakistani researchers to analyze a total of 116 attacks over the 10- month period.

It sent its findings to the White House and Brennan’s office on Jun. 15, but both declined to comment.

However, a senior U.S. official who wished to remain anonymous reaffirmed the government’s "no civilian deaths" mantra.

According to the Bureau, he added that "the most accurate information on counter-terror operations resides within the United States, and this list is wildly inaccurate," but did not offer evidence to substantiate these claims.

Some Pakistan experts believe that, though the Woods-Yusufzai investigation discredited the government’s claims, it might also have underestimated civilian deaths.

"Only 45 civilians [killed in 10 strikes] in nearly a year by an increasing number of drone strikes is too conservative by my estimate," Ahmad told IPS, while acknowledging that the Bureau is "simply trying to show a minimum of casualties… to prove the CIA wrong".

The Bureau interviewed Anatol Lieven, a professor of International Relations and Terrorism Studies at King’s College in London and the author of "Pakistan: A Hard Country", on Jun. 18 as part of its ongoing investigation.

Asked about the estimate of civilians dying in one in five strikes, he said, "I’m surprised it’s not higher."

"These [Taliban and Al-Qaeda] commanders don’t live in separate military headquarters or barracks; they live very often in their houses, with their own families. If you’re going to hit these people in their own houses at their headquarters you’re virtually bound to kill women and children, because they’re in the same complex.

"Unless you could design munitions that will hit one room and not the compound in general, the drone strategy does not permit you to be discriminating," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Naseema Noor

Naseema Noor writes for Inter Press Service.