The Missing Piece in Pakistan: Civilians

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Last week some Pakistani officials called for the American government to suspend the drone strikes that take place in the northwestern region of the troubled nation. Reports on Wednesday indicated the United States has no intention or desire to suspend, or even decrease, drone activity in Pakistan. The usual debate surrounding this sensitive topic involves questioning the value of killing so-called “high value” targets (read: Taliban) versus saving civilian lives. Some researchers have tried to tease out the number of innocents killed in drone strikes to find out whether the unmanned bombing campaigns have been, for lack of a better term, worth it.

One such person is Patrick Johnston, a research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Using strike data from 2004 to 2010, Johnston and his colleague Anoop Sarbahi studied how effectively the attacks countered terrorism in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) that comprise the border shared with Afghanistan. Econometric analyses revealed that there was a negative correlation between the drone strikes and terrorism — that is, terrorist activity decreased following drone strikes in FATA.

Patrick Johnston, center, conducted research indicating a correlation between drone strikes and decreased terrorist activity. Photo courtesy of

At first glance, this is great news, right? Without risking the lives of U.S. soldiers, the strikes effectively decrease the incidence of terrorist activities in a poor and unstable region. That would be an easy conclusion to draw, but it would also be a wrong one. Johnston admits that one of the greatest faults of the study was his inability to include civilian casualty data in his analyses. He calls this a “forgivable sin,” since there is such a wide variation in estimates of how many civilians have been killed by drone strikes since 2004.

Take this data, for example, from the New America Foundation, comparing high and low estimates of casualties from 2004 to 2010 (via GOOD). The Foundation reports a low estimate of 1,210 civilian and militant deaths versus a high estimate of 1,863 during that time period. The low estimate of solely militant deaths is 919, while the high is 1,328 — just 71.3 percent of all casualties. And the number of estimated militant leader deaths? Only 38. And these variable numbers are from a single source.

Considering the number of civilian deaths estimated by this report, Johnston is surprised by the results of his study. He suggests that the negative correlation was unexpected, since imprecise drone strikes (those that kill civilians along with militants) might enrage locals and make them more “recruitable” by terrorist organizations. Regardless, he concedes that the civilian piece of his puzzle is missing, a problem that will likely remain unsolved until someone starts officially and accurately tracking casualties.

With research like this to back the drone program, the United States may continue pursuing desirable targets from afar indefinitely. Johnston, however, thinks that would be a mistake. Tactically, the United States could claim gains in the fight against Pakistani terrorism but, strategically speaking, Johnston sees this road leading to a dead end. Bottom line? “The US is really risking losing its most important ally in the region for these short-term counterterrorism gains,” Johnston says.

Now, we turn it over to you. Divanee wants your opinion.

Where do civilians fit into the drone puzzle? How would you change this situation?

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  • Katie

    Shutting our eyes and ignoring the deaths of scores of innoncent people is hardly a “forgivable sin.” Let’s assume the purpose of fighting terrorism is to prevent needless casualties and improve the quality of life for local and global citizens. Let’s also state that drone attacks to Pakistan kill civilians and infuse their daily lives with a dose of fear and instability (not to mention resentment). Thinking syllogistically, we can very clearly come to the conclusion that our attack of terrorism spurs the same dire effects that we are attempting to ameliorate with our drones.

    To ignore these facts is just as much of a crime as those our labeled criminals committ.

  • AT

    My knowledge on the subject is quite limited but I think if Pakistan wants the U.S. to stop these drone strikes, it should first start by declining the millions of dollars the U.S. gives to Pakistan every year to fight terrorism. As long as Pakistan continues accepting this money, it’s providing an open invitation to the U.S. to attack “terrorists” as they please.

  • Sabeen H. Ahmad

    Katie and AT,
    I totally agree. Killing civilians (often children) cannot be deemed ‘a forgivable sin’ – if an atrocity like this was ever (God-forbid) committed in the US or Europe, we would be enraged. Instead, these deaths are just swept under the rug, and in previous cases, glossed over with the acceptance of millions in (much-needed) cash (a,k.a. bribes). There must be a better solution.

  • Anonymous

    Drones now being used in Libya too. Cruel irony?

  • Anonymous

    I might point out that the phrase “forgivable sin” in this context was not meant to indicate that Johnston thinks killing civilians is ok. It’s that he was not able to “include civilian casualty data in his analyses” because there is no reliable data out there. Before people jump to conclusions here, let’s read this a little more closely, shall we?

  • SR

    Regardless of the results of this study, the US military will do what it perceives is in its best interest. Sadly, they also have a long history of being painfully short-sighted and overly objective oriented. These strikes achieve the goal of destroying suspected Taliban targets, but in the end, harm the US more than they help. These kinds of operations are truly mere bandages on a hemorrhaging wound and only serve to further enrage the local population with each civilian death. True success can only be achieved with efficient and sophisticated intelligence gathering with effective negotiations and public support.

  • Ilyas

    The drone strikes may be called a success in the short term but because of civilian casualties are causing immense damage in public opinion which is making it harder for supporters of the US to speak openly and with conviction that the fight against terror is a cause worth supporting. Some answer to this difficult situation needs to be found.

  • Chaudhry Javed Iqbal

    Fact: US and Pakistan are not officially at war.
    Fact: People (both militants and ordinary civilians) being killed on the ground are not convicted by a court of law to be killed.
    I find it amazing that the community of legal experts (especially in Pakistan) working in Human Rights have not taken the US and Pakistan (their complicity is obvious) governments to International courts for unlawful killings carried out by drones over the last decade.
    Terrorists need to be stopped, nurseries of terrorism need to be eradicated – without adopting terrorism as a tool to do so.

  • Kate

    Civilians are often collateral damage in conflicts around the world (Libya, Yemen) but typically they are harmed in isolated attacks. The drone program, on the other hand, is a systematic and on-going plan that consistently produces these deaths, making it a completely unique situation.

  • e

    Life is not a video game. It’s a shame that some don’t acknowledge the fact that fathers, brothers, mothers, and daughters are being forever taken away with just a push of a button.

    Has anyone seen the movie, “Toys,” starring Robin Williams, Joan Cusack, and LL Cool J (yeah.. big LL)? Yes, it’s a movie but it’s interesting in the concept of how the toy/video game industry could have a large impact on the military’s endeavors in “training” kids to think numbly in the idea of war and destruction. (It’s a really cool movie.)

    Who knows, drones could lead to Skynet -> Skynet leads to cyborg war machines… we all know what happens from there. Hasta la vista, baybeh.

  • mm

    Unfortunately, our government – and more importantly – the decision makers, see what they want to see. Regardless of knowing that it is very difficult to get a true measure of civilian deaths…if the ‘numbers’ look good, they can justify their decision. This happens all too often.

  • KB

    US is creating mor terrorists by killing civilians that their drones kills on daily basis.

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