Little data, lots of debate on drone raids

Published December 18, 2013
— File Photo
— File Photo

PESHAWAR: After years of drone strikes, whose number remains contentious, not a single state agency and government department has any authentic data to detail the number and identities of those killed, including civilian casualties.

Deep investigations, wide-ranging interviews and research of existing information conducted by Dawn shows that the drone debate, which has dominated the political discourse in Pakistan, at best stands on a weak information ground, and at worst is speculative, almost completely devoid of verifiable data. Lost in political rhetoric, thus, is the quest for finding the truth in arguably the CIA’s biggest known operation in Pakistan. The numbers just don’t add up.

The Drone Strikes

Take the number of drone strikes, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, with ingress in the tribal region picking up human and electronic intelligence, offer different figures. Since, the first drone strike that killed Nek Mohammad in June, 2004 to the attack that killed five people in Hangu; the figure maintained by state agencies hover around 334.

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) Secretariat, on the other hand has so far counted 352 drone strikes in the tribal region.

Officially, Pakistan has not released any figure about to the total number of drone strikes but Interior Minister, Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan, in a written reply to the Senate on behalf of the defense ministry in Oct, put the number since 2008 at 317.

The Long War Journal puts the total number of drone strikes in Pakistan at 353. The UK-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism numbers the drone strikes at 380 while The New America Foundation has estimated the number of drone strikes in Pakistan at 364.

The Number of Casualties

Clearly, while foreign organizations maintaining records of the number of strikes, have largely based their own estimates on media reports and therefore, their accuracy may be open to question, what is more ironical however, is the inability of the state agencies to collect more credible and authentic figures, indicating just how difficult it has been to operate in an area infested with militants.

The total number of civilian deaths, according to one outfit, since 2004, has been 134, another department, puts it at 259.

The Fata Secretariat, which gets its information from political agents, has classified those killed as “Locals” and “Non-Locals.” It does not make any distinction whether the dead were all local civilians or also included local militants. No word on who the “Non Locals”, either.

A Fata Secretariat document, a copy of which is available with Dawn, shows that since 2004, there have been a total of 2293 fatalities in drone strikes, out of which 1730 were classified as “Locals.”

The same list was provided to the UN Special Repporteur Ben Emmerson in March, 2013.

Chaudry Nisar in his statement before the Senate put the total number of “terrorists killed” in drone strikes from 2008 to 2013 at 2160. His statement, that only 67 civilians have been killed in drone strikes since 2008, caused a pandemonium in the Senate. He was not wide off the mark.

State agencies however, give out the number of the number of “terrorists” killed since 2004 at 2330 and 2240 respectively.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism put the total death toll in drone strikes at 2629.

The Confusion over Civilian Casualties

Political Agents, North & South Waziristan however, provided a completely different list to the Peshawar High Court in a writ petition challenging drone strikes in Pakistan, identifying all 1450 killed from 2008 to 2012 as Pakistani civilians. Fata Secretariat says the PAs did the classification on their own.

The list submitted to the PHC did not contain names of the victims, but included top militant commanders, the likes of TTP chief, Baitullah Mahsud killed in August, 2009, the mastermind and architect of suicide bombings in Pakistan, Qari Hussain killed in October, 2010 and Al Qaeda associate, Ilyas Kashmiri killed in June, 2011.

Had Chief Justice Dost Muhammad Khan asked for the names, he would have been shocked to know that Fata Secretariat did not have names of the civilian casualties. In fact, it does not even have all the names of the 47 foreign fighters, it claimed in the court, to have been killed in the drone strikes.

This is the figure being widely quoted by Imran Khan, whose party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, is spearheading the campaign against drone strikes, and has been blocking supplies to Nato in Afghanistan.

The only “officially” acknowledged civilian casualties, have been the 41 killed in a drone strike on a tribal jirga convened to settle a chromite mine dispute near Miramshah in March, 2011. The strike prompted a terse statement from the then Army Chief Gen. Kayani, condemning the strike as “regrettable”, “carelessly and callously” targeting “a jirga of peaceful citizens” with complete disregard to human life.”

An officer posted in North Waziristan at the time said the federal government promptly dished out more than 30 million rupees. The families refused to take the money, the official said.

There have been at least three other incidents drone strikes that, according to Fata documents resulted in massive civilian casualties. One occurred on Jan 13, 2006 in Damadola, Bajaur tribal region, when a drone strike killed 16 people died, five women, five children and six men. Another strike on October 30, 2006, on a seminary in village Chingai, tehsil Mamund left 81 people dead, eighty children and one man.

Similarly, on June 23, 2009, according to the documents, a drone hit a funeral of Khozwali Shabikhel, a militant commander, (killed in an earlier morning drone strike the same day), killing sixty people. Intelligence officials believe the drone strike was the result of a flawed intelligence.

The total casualty figure from the four drone strikes alone comes to about 192. Added to the figures provided by Chaudry Nisar of the civilian casualties from drones from 2008 to 2012, the total civilian casualties come to 259. But, except for the jirga drone strike in March 2011, there is no data available either with Fata Secretariat or the state institutions identifying those killed in the drone strikes. And therefore, no compensation was paid or received.

The Foreign Militants

Fata Secretariat does not have any figures for the number of foreign militants killed in drone strikes. The only figure they have for “Non-locals” is 563 since the beginning of the drone strikes.

A security agency puts the number of “foreigners” killed in the strike at 618, while another outfit gives out the figure of 701. Men of Middle-Eastern origin top the list, followed by militants from the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, Chinese Uyghurs, Turkmen, Chechens, Tajik and British and other nationalities.

Naming the Dead

While there has been much political rhetoric and debate over drone strikes and the number of civilians killed, ironically, there is not much of a data available with any of the state institutions and the government departments to corroborate it.

Fata Secretariat does not possess any data containing names of the drone victims. Officers, who have served in the twin tribal regions of North & South Waziristans at the peak of the drone strikes from 2008 to 2012, witnessing 303 strikes, acknowledge the absence of such a data, owing to the difficulty of access.

They admit that their only sources for information were local tribesmen closely linked with local and foreign militants and the radio wireless chat between militants, which they used to closely monitor.

“If there was a prominent militant commander, we would hear increased chatter on radio and we could decipher the code name of the commander killed”, one of the officers said. “We would also often figure out the number of dead from the number of fatehas offered. But those fatehas would only for the local militants. The Punjabis and foreign militants would never hold fatehas”, the officer recounted.

“There was no mechanism. If there was a senior militant commander or prominent foreign fighter killed, the information would be shared with the Governor, KP and the Additional Chief Secretary Fata. There was no mechanism and no database.”

The only list of names, sent to the Fata administration, regarding the identity of those killed in the March, 2011 strike, seems to be missing. Dawn could obtain the names of only 19 people, that too from a security source. Fata Secretariat officials say there may be some other names, but those are buried in the Daily Situation Reports (DSRs) routinely sent to the secretariat.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which launched an ambitious program to name the dead, says that by the end of Jan 2013, it was able to identify 544 civilians by name out of the total 2629 killed in drone strikes.

Compared with political administration in the two Waziristans, the intelligence agencies have had a wider network of human intelligence and have had better electronic capabilities to gather intelligence and information.

But Dawn has seen documents which show that the perhaps the only data available with one of the state institutions is too sketchy and incomplete, identifying 24.32 per cent of over two thousands listed dead between 2010 and 2013, comprising entirely of local and foreign militants – and no civilians.


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