As a result of the unprecedented 41 drone strikes into Pakistan authorized by the Obama administration, aimed at Taliban and al Qaeda networks based there, about a half-dozen leaders of militant organizations have been killed--including two heads of Uzbek terrorist groups allied with al Qaeda, and Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban--in addition to hundreds of lower-level militants and civilians, according to our analysis.
The number of civilian deaths caused by the drones is an important issue because in the charged political atmosphere of today's Pakistan, where anti-Americanism is rampant, the drone program is a particular cause of anger among those who see it as an infringement on Pakistan's sovereignty. A Gallup poll in August found that only 9 percent of Pakistanis favored the strikes, while two-thirds opposed them.
An important factor in the controversy over the drones is the widespread perception that they kill large numbers of Pakistani civilians. Some commentators have asserted that the overwhelming majority of casualties are civilians. Amir Mir, a leading Pakistani journalist, wrote in The News in April that since January 2006, American drone attacks had killed "687 innocent Pakistani civilians." A month later, a similar claim was made in the New York Times by counterinsurgency experts David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum, who wrote that drone strikes had "killed some 700 civilians. This is 50 civilians for every militant killed, a hit rate of 2 percent." In other words, in their analysis, 98 percent of those killed in drone attacks were civilians. Kilcullen and Exum advocated a moratorium on the strikes because of the "public outrage" they arouse.
A very different picture was presented earlier this month by the Long War Journal, an American blog that closely tracks terrorist groups, in particular al Qaeda and the Taliban. Bill Roggio, the editor of Long War Journal, concluded that according to his close analysis of the drone strikes, only 10 percent of those killed were civilians.
Our analysis suggests quite different conclusions than those of either Kilcullen and Exum or the Long War Journal.
But first, a word on our methodology. Our analysis of the drone campaign is based only on accounts from reliable media organizations with substantial reporting capabilities in Pakistan. We restricted our analysis to reports in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, accounts by major news services and networks--the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, CNN, and the BBC--and reports in the leading English-language newspapers in Pakistan--The Daily Times, Dawn, and The News--as well as those from Geo TV, the largest independent Pakistani television network. (Links to all those individual reports can be found in Appendix 1 of this paper.)
The news organizations we relied upon collectively for our data cover the drone strikes as accurately and aggressively as possible. And though we don't pretend that our study is accurate down to the last civilian death in every drone strike, we posit that our research has generated some quite reliable data on the number of militant leaders killed, a fairly good estimate of the number of lower-level militants killed, and a reliable sense of the real civilian death rate.
Since 2006, our analysis indicates, 82 U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have killed between 750 and 1,000 people. Among them were about 20 leaders of al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups, all of whom have been killed since January 2008. (A list of their names, as well as links to stories about the drone strikes that targeted them, can be found in Appendix 1.)
It is not possible to differentiate precisely between militant and civilian casualties because the militants live among the population and don't wear uniforms, and because the militants have the incentive to claim that all the casualties were civilians, while government sources tend to claim the opposite. However, of those killed in drone attacks from 2006 through mid-October 2009, between 500 and 700 were described in reliable press reports as militants, or some 66 to 68 percent.
Based on our count of the estimated number of militants killed, the real total of civilian deaths since 2006 appears to be in the range of 250 to 320, or between 31 and 33 percent.