Writing in Foreign Policy, Georgetown University’s Christine Fair disputes the widely held belief that American drone strikes in Pakistan are killing large numbers of civilians. Fair writes:
The only publicly available civilian casualty figures for drone strikes in Pakistan come from their targets: the Pakistani Taliban, which report the alleged numbers to the Pakistani press, which dutifully publishes the fiction. No one has independently verified the Taliban’s reports—journalists cannot travel to FATA to confirm the deaths, and the CIA will not even acknowledge the drone program exists, much less discuss its results. But high-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me that very few civilians have been killed by drones and their innocence is often debatable. U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings. In fact, since January 1 there has not been one confirmed civilian casualty from drone strikes in FATA. (“Drone Wars,” 28 May 2010)
Now Fair’s argument here fails for a number of reasons. Consider her statement that we can’t trust the Taliban’s claims because journalists haven’t been able to verify them. That seems reasonable enough, but then she claims that the number of casualties is actually quite low, her proof for this being the testimony of Pakistani and American officials. Do you see the problem here? We can’t trust the claims of Taliban because we can’t verify those claims. But we can trust the claims of Pakistani and American officials even though we can’t verify those claims either.
What it is that makes Pakistani and American government officials so trustworthy isn’t clear, and Fair never tells us. She just assumes that they’re trustworthy. Notice her language. “[H]igh-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me…” Conceded to you or perhaps told you what they want you to believe? “U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings.” Report similar findings or report similar propaganda?
It’s sad that someone in Fair’s position has so much faith in governments that have every reason to downplay and no reason to exaggerate the number of American-caused civilian casualties. The US, of course, has a very obvious incentive for downplaying civilian deaths, as General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan cannot succeed amid reports that US drone strikes are killing large numbers of innocent people. Pakistan has its own reasons for downplaying civilian casualties. Aware that the population deplores the drone attacks and that it deplores the government for allowing the attacks to occur, Pakistani officials probably reason that, since they’re unable to stop the attacks, the best way to quell public outrage is to disseminate the message that the bad guys are the ones being killed.
It’s also sad that someone like Fair so blindly trust governments which have in the past so consistently lied about civilian casualties. As I documented in April, the US has an especially bad track record here, the WikiLeaks Collateral Murder video being just one example. Another, lesser known, example occurred in August 2008 when US forces bombed a memorial service in Afghanistan’s Herat Province. American officials initially claimed that the strike had killed 30 insurgents and no civilians. After an investigation by the Afghan government concluded that 90 civilians had been killed, the US revised its findings, claiming that 5 of the 30 victims were civilians. Soon thereafter, an Afghan Human Rights Commission “found that 88 people had been killed, including 20 women,” and then a UN investigation “found convincing evidence, based on the testimony of eyewitnesses, and others, that some 90 civilians were killed, including 60 children, 15 women and 15 men.” After all this, the US stated that perhaps as many as 7 civilians, but certainly no more than that, had been killed. It was only after an Afghan doctor released an eight-minute cell phone video which was taken shortly after the bombings and revealed scores of dead bodies in the targeted area that the Pentagon agreed to reopen its investigation.
But despite all this, Fair has the audacity to accept the US claim that “drone airstrikes are pre-planned, intelligence-led operations, and are usually accomplished with minimal civilian deaths.” She goes on to tell us how such strikes are “the product of meticulous planning among lawyers, intelligence officers, and others” and how the Air Force even uses a “classified algorithm” to “estimate the potential for civilian casualties based upon a variety of local data inputs.”
As neat and impressive as all that might sound, the number of civilian casualties is undoubtedly far higher than she claims. Just last month, US officials were forced to admit that a February drone strike in Afghanistan had killed 23 civilians (Dexter Filkins, “Operators of Drones Are Faulted in Afghan Deaths,” New York Times, 29 May 2010). Shortly after that attack, Carlotta Gall reported how villagers around Kandahar “described at least three instances in recent weeks when drone strikes killed farmers digging ditches or bringing goods home from the market” (“Kandahar, a Battlefield Even Before U.S. Offensive,” New York Times, 26 March 2010). To maintain, as Fair does, that the US is somehow getting right in Pakistan what after eight years it still can’t get right in Afghanistan is stretching credulity to its limits.