Drone strike casualty tally questioned

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.

About the Author

Michael Hoffman
Michael Hoffman is the executive editor at Tandem NSI and a contributor to Military.com. He can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.
  • Anonymous

    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.

  • Russell

    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

      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…..

    • shawn1999

      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

    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

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

  • dubweiser101

    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?

  • yaboy

    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.

  • 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

    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_

      “I must shoot him before he shoots me”

      Thousands of miles away, at Creech AFB…

  • William C.

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

    • IronV

      That is indisputable.

  • Musson

    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.

  • john moore

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