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Drone strike casualty tally questioned

by Mike Hoffman on July 19, 2012

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic is calling into question the tally of drone strike casualties in Pakistan done by the  New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program — a tally used by plenty of publications and agencies to include CNN.

Friedersdorf takes aim at the program’s estimation that zero civilians have been killed in drone strikes in 2012 saying the statistic is misleading Americans about the repercussions of the drone war being waged by the U.S. in Pakistan.

The New America Foundation uses media reports of drone strikes in Pakistan done by international publications to include ones based in Pakistan to populate its database of resulting casualties. Peter Bergen, director of the National Security Studies Program, breaks casualties into two groups the same way the U.S. military and CIA does: militants and civilians.

The problem is the way the title of militant is defined. Again, much like the U.S. military and CIA, a casualty is typically identified as a militant if the person in question is a male old enough to join the military. For example, if I, a 29-year-old male, am living in Pakistan and have the great misfortune to have a Hellfire hit my house, I’d most likely be considered a militant.

Friedersdorf considers this too simplistic a method to say with any distinction exactly how many civilians, or militants for that matter, have been killed by drone strikes.

He also questions the dependence of anonymous Pakistan officials used in most of the media reports for accurate tallies of casualties. Even if the reader is trusting these officials exist, Friedersdorf questions their motives to provide casualty numbers that benefit their agencies.

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{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous July 19, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Imagine a foreign country dropping bombs from drones that kill your neighbors and family. Then wonder what your response would be.

Then know that the "war on terror" will ever end because we end up creating terrorists for all the innocent people that we terrorize and kill.


majr0d July 19, 2012 at 5:14 pm

I'm not crazy about claiming someone is a militant based on age and sex. On the other hand I readily accept that people get killed standing next to terrorists. Moral of the story is don't stand next to terrorists and if you're going to side with terrorists because an "innocent" relative was next to a terrorist it's very likely your relative was interested in the terrorist's message.

The argument that we shouldn't be killing "innocents" because it creates terrorists is a canard. The same stupidity can be argued to not kill terrorists because you might make their families the enemy. CLUE: THEY ALREADY ARE!

Carpet bombing and the wanton destruction of villiges turns populations. There's quite a difference between a hellfire strike and taking out a town.


LtKitty July 19, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Agreed. I hope those civilians will one day kick some terrorist ass and take control of their own counties and lives.


anton laforge July 19, 2012 at 8:50 pm

AQ and other militants will coerce innocent villagers to cook for them, shelter and hide them, spy for them, etc. Saying "don't stand next to terrorists" is really helpful advice for some poor schmuck who's village is under the careful, malign watch of these thugs. If you think the repeated use of drone attacks doesn't drive resentment (regardless of efficacy otherwise), you're simply uninformed. Innocent people "side" with terrorists because there is no lawful power with enough legitimacy or might to protect them should they refuse. Do you really understand so little, or are you just an ideologue?


majr0d July 19, 2012 at 10:17 pm

Anton, I might understand more than you think. Have you been downrange or is all of your bravery from behind a keyboard? Idealism is often one of the first casualties in combat.

No doubt there are individuals coerced into service. They are the minority. Those that don't want to be involved can often find ways to avoid entanglements. Those that do find themselves aiding and abetting the terrorists don't have guns to their heads.

Having grown up in drug and gang infested Brooklyn between drug dealers and dirty cops I'm far from an ideologue. I do understand why folks get attracted to the wrong people though and those that make excuses for their decisions.

(BTW, not all cops are dirty but all idealists have challenges dealing with a real world especially when they've never had to face it or fix problems in nasty parts of the world)


Michael Loyd July 19, 2012 at 11:11 pm

Based on these comments alone, I can gaurantee you that you have never been to any combat zone, yet alone Pakistan/Afghanistan. You are talking about this in a context that does not exist on the ground. Locals know who the bad guys are, they make it a point of staying away. The Taliban aren’t forcing innocent villagers to cook or shelter them…


JohnB July 20, 2012 at 12:33 am

VC exploited the people and they won the war. Samething is happening everywhere in the the world where dictators and tyranies govern. Afghanistan is Vietnam all over again. And I was there to witness that.

LtKitty July 19, 2012 at 5:55 pm

You offer a very limited viewpoint. Our mission is not to terrorize and kill innocent civilians. We limit our capabilities and endanger the lives of our soldiers by putting stringent ROEs in place to avoid situations as you describe. Just ask any soldier in the field. We go out of our way to keep civilians as safe as possible in a battlefield.

Let me offer you the opposition: your neighbor who promises your starving family food and money if you would only blow yourself up in the middle of a market for Allah. You neighbor who bullies you, promises to kill your family, spreads fear by killing those who do not follow their radical creed. Your neighbor who exploits your ignorance and tells half-truths, and propaganda to net you under their influence.

Why? Why do your neighbors have to involve you because of their hate? Why do you have to die because your neighbors won't stand in the open for what they believe?

We do what we must to keep these bullies as dead as possible and drones are an effective way of doing so.


stanky/funky July 19, 2012 at 7:02 pm

**** ********, you limit the capability of regular Pakistanis to LIVE all that ***********-backtalk is why the U.S is the only county on Planet Earth with so many enemies. You take step over boundaries and dictate what human life is worth.


majr0d July 19, 2012 at 8:22 pm

What other countries? Maybe they have less enemies because they have no problem killing them.


shawn1999 July 20, 2012 at 2:37 pm

LOL @ stanky
I say we go back to carpet bombings a la B-52s and B-2s- no smart weapons- they are expensive anyway. Just flatten entire cities of suspected terrorists. Then, when they wish for the days we ONLY used drones, we'll be gracious enough to grant their request. Its war and if P-stan doesn't like it, they are MORE than welcome to STOP double-dealing- backing the terrorists with one hand, and taking US money with the other.

sobriquet July 24, 2012 at 1:41 am

I take issue with your language, internet tough person. Force is used with full regard to what it means.

You are from either China or Eastern Europe, by your diction. Most assuredly, you are not American, French, Canadian, or German. I would make you to be an angry East European. Where are you from, good sir?


tiger July 19, 2012 at 6:32 pm

Pay pack is a bitch……… innocent my ass.


Chris July 20, 2012 at 9:53 am

Another Anonymous idiot!


Russell July 19, 2012 at 4:42 pm

But it sure is a good way to keep the numbers of civilians killed at zero. Misleading the tax-payers cannot be unlearned in such a short time, if ever.


steve July 20, 2012 at 10:05 am

The actual use of a military weapon should never be related to fooling the US taxpayer or not fooling the US taxpayer. I think the gripe here is the news media is NOT getting the info it wants to further its cause, to degrade Our military, at all points of conflict. All fo this controversy is akin to street corner gangs running the show? Or better yet, play by my rules or I will take my ball home? If anyone can "really' make a distinction between militant and civilian in a war such as this one….they hae a talent that no one else could possibly have??? When you blend in wit civilians, and out to kill the opposition, the choice has to be for the opposition to kill the civilian or be killed…It is easy sitting in your chair, making all those worthless comments, on degrees of accountability, it's not your life at stake here. The only other assumption is you prefer the enemy have safe haven 'everywhere' they hide…..their choices, being among the civilian population…..


Russell July 23, 2012 at 6:49 pm

What worthless comments? It seems you are thinking of another commenter or trying to find argument where there is none….move along. Plus you make alot of assumptions about a two line sentence that has almost nothing to do with your comments……I sure wouldn't want to be your civilian relative in a war here.


Russell July 23, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Oh and I said mislead the tax-payers….we dont have to be fools to be mislead. It has happened alot in the past. An awful lot. And yes you are correct the use of a weapon should never be related to "misleading" the US taxpayer….should.


shawn1999 July 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Considering the in country "officials" are only going to take the word of witnesses and relatives (and terrorists who escaped), and of course they are going to lie to make the US seem worse, this is simply just a way to counter balance the lies. They lie, decrease the number of militants, raise the number of civs, so we lie and go the other way. But you are right, its most likely not fair. Afterall, they think nothing of strapping bombs to their women and children and forcing them into their little dillusional jihad


elmondohummus July 19, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Well, the joke would be that, if someone was a 29 year old male in Pakistan, then he's probably a militant for reasons having nothing to do with a Hellfire missile or even the US itself.


In all seriousness: While it's a good thing to continualy re-examine the way stats like that are compiled, there's still the question of basic accuracy. For example, US hits an individual, Pakistan says he's NOT a militant… what's their basis for declaring that person that? Could it be accurate? Or, given the split and frankly obscure loyalties conflicting within their intelligence community, could it be protectionism?

The basic problem with identification is one that will be difficult at best to resolve.


Andy July 19, 2012 at 5:44 pm

Remember 9/11 ? that all I have to said.


Josh July 19, 2012 at 10:36 pm

I'm no fan of militants anywhere, let alone Pakistan, but that's just a retarded comment… especially since you wrote "that all I have to said."
What does that even mean?


ANDY July 19, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Al queda harbor Bin ladin right ? who attack us and kill over 3000+ people and thousand more got sick…..ARE YOU AWAITING FOR THEM TO COME HERE AND MURTER SO THEY CAN GET 72 VIRGINS ? DRON DO A FAVOR FOR THEM…


FtD July 23, 2012 at 3:56 am

so you're a precog in your own minority report? kill them first before they kill you? lol


dubweiser101 July 19, 2012 at 5:51 pm

I know the US media or government isn't always honest. But if I had to decide who is being more honest between the US and Pakistan I would leading more towards the US. Simple reason being is that there is a huge anti-America sentiment in Islamic countries, and generally they seem to be looking for any reason to propagate that sentiment.

If Pakistan has such a problem with the US carrying out drone strikes, why doesn't Pakistan actually take the initiative themselves to expel terrorists in order to prevent Pakistani civilian casualties?


elmondohummus July 20, 2012 at 11:38 am

I think it's a combination of genuine difficulty (from what I've read and seen in the news – admittedly not a well-rounded basis, but it's all I've got – the Pashtun population on the border is notoriously clannish and militant) and institutional apathy.

Keep in mind that, again from what I've read, Pakistan is blaming the US publicly to give them cover amongst the radical groups, but are privately telling the US "this is who you need to hit". If that's correct, then the Pakistan government is playing a double game in the area. Their price to private cooperation is a public face of criticism. And again, from what I've read, the US accepts that. Analyzing from there: I think that's why these stories about drone strikes crop up and look like someone's making an honest and big fuss, but then dies down quickly. I believe it's theater, to a degree.


yaboy July 19, 2012 at 5:55 pm

As a skeptical supporter of the "drone warz," I'd have to say Friedersdorf's criticism of the methodology in question seems pretty fair. This is why the military doesn't like to get involved in these kinds of conflicts. It is just too dang messy.


Brian Black July 19, 2012 at 6:31 pm

US agencies operating these strikes follow the principle that all casualties are militants unless and until it’s proven beyond any doubt that they were civilians.
If a casualty absolutely and unavoidably has to be added to the civilian tally, then quickly dispatch a few 16-65 year old males before the end of the reporting period in order to maintain that near-zero percentage figure of innocents.
Three guys doing jumping-jacks… “We found their terrorist training camp, Mister President! And reduced the number of civilian casualties by point-one percent.”


tiger July 19, 2012 at 7:11 pm

Door Gunner: " Anyone that runs, is a VC. Anyone that stands still, is a well-disciplined VC! "-Full Metal Jacket


This is my FLIGHT CONTROL STICK. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my FLIGHT CONTROL STICK is useless. Without my FLIGHT CONTROL STICK , I am useless.

I must fire my HELFIRES true. I must shoot straighter than the enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will. MY FLIGHT CONTROL STICK and I know that what counts in war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our Drone, or the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit.

My Flight control stick is human, even as I am human, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its accessories, its USB port and its cord. I will keep my FLIGHT CONTROL STICK clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other.

Before God I swear this creed. My DRONE FLIGHT CONTROL STICK and I are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.

So be it, until victory is America's and there is no enemy.


blight_ July 19, 2012 at 7:42 pm

"I must shoot him before he shoots me"

Thousands of miles away, at Creech AFB…


UAVGeek July 25, 2012 at 3:57 pm

This should be changed to "I must shoot him, before my latte runs out…"


blight_ July 25, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I must fire hellfires before lunch break


William C. July 20, 2012 at 1:39 am

The Pakistanis have proven either unwilling and/or unable to hunt them down, so our UAVs have stepped in.


IronV July 22, 2012 at 1:06 am

That is indisputable.


Musson July 20, 2012 at 9:16 am

The numbers of crazies are not infinite. They do not go on forever.

In WWII Japan – the first 5,000 to 8,000 Kamikazis were volunteers. But, after that – the well ran dry. The Japanese finally had to draft men into the Kamikazi corps.

Likewise – pictures of il Duce hanging from a meathook pretty much squelched the enthusiam of Italian Facists.


tiger July 20, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Minor nitpick….. Kamikazes were not crazy. They died as Soldiers. With honor, & devotion to the Emperor, Their service, & the empire of Japan. Sacrifice with purpose is not crazy. In fact, we make them VC & Medal of Honor winners. The man who puts a Zero into a carrier is no different from one who jumps on a grenade. If that max effort stops the enemy, it is worth it.


john moore July 21, 2012 at 7:34 pm

Can't be I'm sure he won the peace price a few years back no?


J.E. McKellar July 19, 2012 at 7:20 pm

The alternative isn't 'big tactical airstrikes', it's not attacking the civilian population at all. Frankly, tribesmen in North Pakistan or revolutionaries plotting in Yemen aren't a real threat to the US. Getting a reputation as a global tyrant is a real threat to the US, though. The drone strikes aren't managing the problem, they are the problem.


IronV July 19, 2012 at 7:47 pm

Your response indicates a complete ignorance of both the strategic problem and the tactical situation. In short you have no clue what you're talking about. In fact ALL OBJECTIVE EVIDENCE indicates that the drones have been extraordinarily effective in disrupting Islamo terrorist leadership's ability to plan and execute acts of terror. And while you may be comfortable with your myopic and smug definition of a "threat" I'm quite happy to risk being perceived as a "bully" by the right people.


David July 19, 2012 at 10:13 pm

U..S.S. Cole
A few embassies in Africa.

Yeah those religious freaks "over there" are no threat… Naive seems to be a word the comes to mind.

What is your solution? Please enlighten us.

In terms of taking out high value targets such as leaders and skilled personal drones are the most efficient means available. A drone can survail a target for more then a day in secrecy, identify the target in hd video, and eliminate the target. It can do this without a large footprint, and much less chance of civilian casualties since the drone payload operator is not at risk he or she is not in a fight or die moment where they may make a rash decision.

IN WW2 AN ENTIRE CONTINENT WAS DECIMATED, CITIES WERE FIREBOMBED, CIVILIANS ARE USED AS SHIELDS BECAUSE OUR ENEMIES KNOW U.S. TROOPS DO NOT KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE INDISCRIMINATELY. The Japanese and German people are our allies despite killing far more of them then the drones have killed in the current conflict.

Moral highchairs are for naive people.


AntiNewWorldOrder July 21, 2012 at 12:23 am

Well said J.E. McKellar!!!!!!!


J.E. McKellar July 19, 2012 at 11:21 pm

9/11 was planned in Hamburg, financed using the banking system, the pilots trained in the US, and ultimately used US-made airliners as weapons. It was a criminal act, and used the various resources available to criminals. The Cole attack was likewise planned and executed within the borders of our allies. Taking out training camps in Afghanistan does nothing to decrease those capabilities, and assassinated leadership is easily replaced. Killing a key bomb-maker here and there might erode capability a bit, but that expertise can be replaced. The truth is, air bombardment isn't all that good at winning wars, because the destruction wrought does little to change the political situation on the ground.

Terrorism is a tool used by extremists to escalate a conflict. The terrorist's greatest enemy isn't their opponents, but the moderates that keep the status-quo working. Al-Qaeda wanted a global jihad, a global war against US hegemony, so they committed an atrocity that the US would have to respond to, in the hopes that the US reaction to that atrocity would be even more atrocity, radicalizing the moderates in the Islamic world that would otherwise acquiesce to US leadership. Drone strikes might not work as well for Al-Qaeda as the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but they still work. If we keep them up, moderates in Pakistan might be willing to support a Islamist coup.

There will always be extremists, and now matter how many bombs you drop on them, you can't bully them into submission. You do what you can to stop them from harming the moderate civilian population, but if you start attacking the civilians yourself in your zeal to up your body count, you're just helping the terrorists get their big war. The path we're heading down, using lethal force without regard to the sovereignty of our allies, the UN charter, and even our own Constitution, is making us look more and more like an illegitimate power, and is seriously eroding our ability to credibly lead the international community. The stakes are a lot higher than the occasional terrorist attack. If the world's moderates begin to believe that the US is no longer restrained by the respect of law and legal due process, then we're become the problem they have to get rid of – which is exactly what Al-Qaeda wanted in the first place.


majr0d July 20, 2012 at 1:10 am

"Taking out training camps in Afghanistan does nothing to decrease those capabilities,"

Uh, haven't been attacked since…

Contrary to your limited explanation of 911 and the Cole (you missed the Africa embassy bombings), those attacks were directed from Afghanistan. Major parts of the planning, funding and training occured in Afghanistan (each of the 20 911 terrorists especially the muscle trained in Afghanistan).

Since Afghanistan isn't home anymore our enemies have had to move, hence the drone and other strikes in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan. So yeah, taking out the Afghan training camps paid dividends. Not enough proof? Contrast Clinton's strikes on those terror camps and what happened subsequently…

No one is trying to kill civilians but the enemy is causing their deaths by using them as cover. We aren't the bad guys here contrary to the popular belief in some circles.


IronV July 20, 2012 at 1:41 am

I don't accept your definition of "legal and due process." I think you have an agenda and are way, way out of your element. Al Qaeda was by no stretch of the imagination seeking to alienate the US from the "moderate" international community. Al Qaeda seeks to impose its will on the pan-Arab world, period. The US is not "attacking civilians." That's a patently ridiculous, lunatic fringe bit of propoganda. Here's the bottom line, sparky: These a-holes will stop at nothing to control. Do you get it? They're not going to be negotiated or coalitioned or lawyered away–anymore than the Imperial Japanese or Nazi Germans were. They're going to kill, kill, kill unless you submit. And even that won't guarantee your safety…


STemplar July 20, 2012 at 5:23 am

Poetic non sense. We dropped plenty of bombs on the Japanese and Germans and we literally beat the marshal spirit out of both of those nations. The Wehrmacht wrote the book on warfare and there has never been a larger more zealous group of warriors than the Imperial Japanese army. So you're assertion is both historically incorrect and completely absurd.


Riceball July 20, 2012 at 4:11 pm

So we're supposed to just sit idly by and do nothing while in the meanwhile they continue to train, plan, and plot completely undisturbed? Unfortunately, our enemy hasn't the decency to hide themselves exclusively in secluded camps in the middle of nowhere for us to come by and bomb into non-existence, name one terror or even resistance group that's actually hidden completely in the open for their enemies to come and easily bomb an/ord arrest them?

Unfortunately, because our enemies haven't the courtesy of hiding in big bases well away from innocent civilians our only real option is to conduct precision strikes using drones. It would be nice if the real world was like the movies and we had Jason Bournes or James Bonds to run around the world to find and assassinate the terrorists and their leaders but it's not so we have to rely on alternate means.


majr0d July 20, 2012 at 1:11 am

True. Almost 3000 on 911 as I remember.


Foraker July 20, 2012 at 1:15 pm

And that is why we need to think twice before going in in the first place, and once the decision is made we go in, kick butt, and get the hell out as quickly as possible. Something we did well in Iraq 1, for example, but not as well in Iraq 2 or Vietnam or Afghanistan.


blight_ July 20, 2012 at 4:49 pm

"…there has never been a larger more zealous group of warriors than the Imperial Japanese army."

I think the Jewish Zealots, who the term zealous comes from, might beg to differ.


AntiNewWorldOrder July 21, 2012 at 12:38 am

Two minor corrections will make your post right: (1) change "non sense to "nonsense" and (2) change the punctuation to ":", i.e.

Poetic nonsense: ( followed by your nonsense )

By and large, it was the USSR that defeated Nazi Germany, NOT the U.S.


AntiNewWorldOrder July 21, 2012 at 12:25 am

You've been completely duped by false information and government propaganda.


majr0d July 23, 2012 at 10:02 pm

Oh yeah, try and make the Batman tragedy similar to killing terrorists and those that harbor them. The logic escapes me. How about a closer metaphor? What would you think about taking action against those that knew the scumbag was a murderer, sold or delivered more weapons and ammo to him? Only a left leaning wacko would argue you might turn those aiding terrorists against you by killing them. Duh, they're there already dude.

BTW, I challenge you to document where we are killing AK47 armed goat herders. When you create that whimsical evidence I'll share some "documents" proving the goats were taliban.


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