Thursday, April 25, 2013

Drones, Statistics, Pakistan and Yemen

 Peter Bergen, Director of the National Security Studies Program
April 23, 2013 
Testimony presented before the U.S. Senate 

The drop in the number of civilian and unknown casualties in Pakistan since 2009 came as a result of several developments, one of which was a directive issued from the White House just days after President Obama took office tightening up the way the CIA selected targets and carried out strikes. Specifically, Obama wanted to evaluate and personally sign off on any strike if the agency did not have a "near certainty" that it would result in zero civilian casualties. 

The CIA also began utilizing smaller munitions for more pinpoint strikes.16

Also drones can now linger for longer periods of time over targets—ascertaining whether civilians are around the target area—than was the case several years ago. 

Additionally, the drone program has come under increasing congressional oversight in the past couple of years, a layer of accountability that one former CIA official said was unheard of when he left the agency in 2009.17

Since early 2010, members of the Senate and House intelligence committees have held monthly meetings at CIA headquarters to watch video recordings of specific drone strikes, as well as to review the intelligence upon which CIA agents on the ground in Pakistan based their target selection. 

According to data generated by the New America Foundation, by averaging the high and low casualty estimates of militant and non-militant deaths published in a wide range of reliable media outlets, the estimated civilian death rate in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan has declined dramatically since 2006, when—due to two large-scale strikes—it was almost 100%. 

U.S. government officials have asserted that the civilian casualty rate is zero. And it has been reported that the Obama administration considers any military-age male in the strike target area as a "militant".10 The New America data is not based on the U.S. official definition of a militant and does not rely on any U.S. official counting of the strikes. Rather, New America records as a militant only those people identified in credible news reports as a militant or a “suspected militant.” The media outlets used by New America in its database of drone strikes are the Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France Presse; The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal; the British newspapers The Telegraph and The Guardian; and the Pakistani news outlets The Express Tribune, Dawn, The Daily Times, Geo TV, and The News; as well as the BBC and CNN. The majority of these sources get information on CIA drone strikes in Pakistan from Pakistani intelligence, security, and local government officials, as well as local villagers. 

The New America Foundation’s casualty counts also differentiate between individuals identified as “militants” and those identified as “civilians.” The murkiness of some reporting in the tribal regions of Pakistan and in Yemen led New America researchers to designate another category for “unknown” casualties. If two or more media reports refer to those killed as militants, they are labeled as militants in the New America data. Similarly, if two or more media reports refer to those killed as civilians, they go under the civilian column in the New America database. And if the different media reports on a single strike are so contradictory that researchers do not feel comfortable placing either label on those killed, they are listed as “unknown.”11 
Over the life of the drone program in Pakistan, the estimated non-militant (civilian and unknown) death rate is 20 percent according to the New America data. Under President Bush, it was about 47 percent while under President Obama it has been about 16 percent. In 2012, the proportion of total civilians (2 percent) and unknowns (9 percent) killed was 11 percent. The New America data shows that between 454 and 637 non-militant (civilian and unknown) individuals were killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and mid-April 2013. New America estimates that the confirmed number of Pakistani civilians who have been killed by drone strikes during the same time frames is between 258 to 307, or 10.6 percent of the total number of casualties. 

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) and the D.C.-based Long War Journal also maintain counts of drone casualties in Pakistan. BIJ reports that between 411 and 884 Pakistani civilians have been killed in U.S. drone strikes, representing 16 to 25 percent of the total casualties BIJ has counted. On the low end, the Long War Journal reports that 153 Pakistani civilians have been killed, representing just 5.8 percent of the 2,660 deaths it has recorded over the life of the drone campaign. 
All three databases report relatively low civilian casualty figures for 2012: New America reported 5 (as well as 23 to 29 unknowns), BIJ reported 7 to 42 civilian deaths, and the Long War Journal reported 4. 

In March 2013, following a visit to Pakistan, Ben Emmerson, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, emailed the Associated Press that the Pakistani government had told him it had confirmed at least 400 civilian deaths by U.S. drones. This number is in the range of the low estimate of 411 civilian deaths by the BIJ and also computes with the New America figures estimating between 258 and 307 civilians and a further 196 to 330 unknowns have been killed. 

However, Pakistani security officials acknowledged during background interviews with the Washington Post in mid-2010 that, in fact, better technology, a deeper network of on-the-ground informants, and better coordination between U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials had all contributed to a significant drop in civilian deaths in drone strikes.14

And Major General Ghayur Mahmood, a commander of Pakistani troops in North Waziristan where the majority of drone strikes take place, conceded publicly in March 2011 that "myths and rumors about U.S. Predator strikes and the casualty figures are many, but it's a reality that many of those killed in these strikes are hardcore elements, a sizeable number of them foreigners."15 The general went on to say that drone strikes had killed some one thousand militants in North Waziristan. 


Early in his administration, President Obama took it upon himself to act as the chief decision-maker on whether individuals were added to the U.S. drone “kill list” or not. He would reportedly gather with a small group of his top national security advisors every Tuesday to pour over intelligence gathered on suggested new targets, “determined to keep the tether [on the drone program] pretty short,” according to National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon.7 It was reported in October 2012 that the administration had been working for at least two years on a secret “disposition matrix” to replace the “kill list.” With the matrix, officials sought to lay out all of the U.S. resources being used to track down and build a case against terrorist suspects who may be either in the reach of drones or outside established drone theaters.

Geographically speaking, of all the U.S. drone strikes reported in Pakistan’s tribal regions, over 70 percent have struck North Waziristan, home to factions of the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which has often launched operations in Kabul against civilian targets. 

The year 2010, with a record 122 strikes in Pakistan, marked the most intense period of the Obama drone campaign in Pakistan. This, combined with the May 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad and the killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers in a NATO air strike in November 2011, severely damaged the relationship between the United States and Pakistan and resulted in the eviction of CIA-controlled drones from Shamsi Air Base in Baluchistan.3 At the same time, Cameron Munter, the then-U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, was urging that there be more judicious targeting of the drone strikes as well as increased consultation with the Pakistanis about them.
Some combination of U.S. Department of State pushback, increased congressional oversight, the closure of the CIA drone base in Pakistan (and, perhaps, a declining number of targets in the tribal regions), and a greater desire to heed Pakistani sensitivities about drone attacks led to a sharp fall in the number of strikes in 2011. The number of drone strikes in Pakistan in 2011 fell by 40 percent from the record number of strikes in 2010. 

5. The Impact of Drones on Militant Groups 
Osama bin Laden himself recognized the devastation that the drones were inflicting on his organization, writing a lengthy memo about the issue that was later recovered in the Abbottabad compound where he was killed. In the October 2010 memo to a lieutenant, bin Laden advised his men to leave the Pakistani tribal regions, where the drone strikes have been overwhelmingly concentrated, and head to a remote part of Afghanistan. He also suggested that his son Hamza decamp for the tiny, rich Persian Gulf kingdom of Qatar.18 
Evidence of the drone strikes' impact can be found in the description provided by David Rohde, the former New York Times reporter held by the Taliban Haqqani Network for months in 2009, who called the drones "a terrifying presence" in South Waziristan. Key Taliban commanders reportedly started sleeping outside under trees to avoid being targeted and regularly executed suspected "spies" accused of providing information to the United States, suggesting they feared betrayal from within. 
The drone attacks in Pakistan have undoubtedly hindered some of the Taliban's operations and killed hundreds of their lower-level fighters and a number of their top commanders. Conversely, the CIA strikes may also be fueling terrorism. Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen of Pakistani descent trained by the Pakistani Taliban, tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010. The plot failed, but Shahzad subsequently claimed that the drone program had fueled his anger against the United States. 

The CIA inaugurated the lethal drone program in Yemen on November 3, 2002, with a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator drone at a vehicle in the province of Maarib, about 100 miles east of the capital city of Sana’a. The attack killed al-Qaeda's top operative in Yemen, Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, who was also a suspect in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off the Yemeni coast. In the car with al-Harethi were five other militants, all of whom were killed, including U.S. citizen Kamal Derwish. He was the first reported American casualty in the CIA's drone campaign. After the 2002 U.S. drone strike, there were no reported U.S. air or drone strikes in Yemen until December 2009, when a sustained campaign of attacks began. That change came when al-Qaeda's Yemen-based affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), attempted a number of terrorist attacks against the United States. 

As of mid-April 2013, U.S. air and drone strikes had killed an estimated 427 to 679 people in Yemen, 439 to 583 of whom were identified in media reports as militants, according to the New America Foundation's data.22 That data is derived from reports in the Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, and the Yemen Post. Of these deaths, all but six occurred during Obama's presidency. The non-militant casualty rate from these strikes is estimated to be between 7 percent and 14 percent, roughly comparable with the civilian and unknown casualty rate from the U.S. drone program in Pakistan, which averaged 11 percent in 2012, according to New America Foundation data. 

During the Obama administration, U.S. drones have killed at least 34 key al-Qaeda militants in Yemen, including the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Fahd al-Quso, who was suspected of involvement in the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.24 The death of AQAP’s senior leader Said al-Shihri from wounds sustained in a U.S. drone strike in October 2012 dealt the organization an important blow.25 (A list of the AQAP leaders who have been killed by drones can be found in Appendix C). AQAP hasn’t attempted a plot against a Western target since its attempt to bring down US-bound cargo planes in October 2010, and the group has lost control of the string of towns in southern Yemen it held in 2011. 

Unlike Pakistan, where political leaders have almost universally—at least in public—condemned the strikes, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi said during an interview with the Washington Post in September 2012 that he personally signs off on all U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and that they hit their targets accurately, asserting, "The drone technologically is more advanced than the human brain." 

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