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.

    • majr0d

      I’m not crazy about claiming someone is a militant based on age and sex. On the other hand I readily accept that people get killed standing next to terrorists. Moral of the story is don’t stand next to terrorists and if you’re going to side with terrorists because an “innocent” relative was next to a terrorist it’s very likely your relative was interested in the terrorist’s message.

      The argument that we shouldn’t be killing “innocents” because it creates terrorists is a canard. The same stupidity can be argued to not kill terrorists because you might make their families the enemy. CLUE: THEY ALREADY ARE!

      Carpet bombing and the wanton destruction of villiges turns populations. There’s quite a difference between a hellfire strike and taking out a town.

    • LtKitty

      You offer a very limited viewpoint. Our mission is not to terrorize and kill innocent civilians. We limit our capabilities and endanger the lives of our soldiers by putting stringent ROEs in place to avoid situations as you describe. Just ask any soldier in the field. We go out of our way to keep civilians as safe as possible in a battlefield.

      Let me offer you the opposition: your neighbor who promises your starving family food and money if you would only blow yourself up in the middle of a market for Allah. You neighbor who bullies you, promises to kill your family, spreads fear by killing those who do not follow their radical creed. Your neighbor who exploits your ignorance and tells half-truths, and propaganda to net you under their influence.

      Why? Why do your neighbors have to involve you because of their hate? Why do you have to die because your neighbors won’t stand in the open for what they believe?

      We do what we must to keep these bullies as dead as possible and drones are an effective way of doing so.

    • tiger

      Pay pack is a bitch……… innocent my ass.

    • Chris

      Another Anonymous idiot!

  • 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…..

      • Russell

        What worthless comments? It seems you are thinking of another commenter or trying to find argument where there is none….move along. Plus you make alot of assumptions about a two line sentence that has almost nothing to do with your comments……I sure wouldn’t want to be your civilian relative in a war here.

      • Russell

        Oh and I said mislead the tax-payers….we dont have to be fools to be mislead. It has happened alot in the past. An awful lot. And yes you are correct the use of a weapon should never be related to “misleading” the US taxpayer….should.

    • 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.

    • Josh

      I’m no fan of militants anywhere, let alone Pakistan, but that’s just a retarded comment… especially since you wrote “that all I have to said.”
      What does that even mean?

      • ANDY

        Al queda harbor Bin ladin right ? who attack us and kill over 3000+ people and thousand more got sick…..ARE YOU AWAITING FOR THEM TO COME HERE AND MURTER SO THEY CAN GET 72 VIRGINS ? DRON DO A FAVOR FOR THEM…

        • FtD

          so you’re a precog in your own minority report? kill them first before they kill you? lol

  • 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?

    • elmondohummus

      I think it’s a combination of genuine difficulty (from what I’ve read and seen in the news – admittedly not a well-rounded basis, but it’s all I’ve got – the Pashtun population on the border is notoriously clannish and militant) and institutional apathy.

      Keep in mind that, again from what I’ve read, Pakistan is blaming the US publicly to give them cover amongst the radical groups, but are privately telling the US “this is who you need to hit”. If that’s correct, then the Pakistan government is playing a double game in the area. Their price to private cooperation is a public face of criticism. And again, from what I’ve read, the US accepts that. Analyzing from there: I think that’s why these stories about drone strikes crop up and look like someone’s making an honest and big fuss, but then dies down quickly. I believe it’s theater, to a degree.

  • 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…

      • UAVGeek

        This should be changed to “I must shoot him, before my latte runs out…”

        • blight_

          I must fire hellfires before lunch break

  • 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.

    • tiger

      Minor nitpick….. Kamikazes were not crazy. They died as Soldiers. With honor, & devotion to the Emperor, Their service, & the empire of Japan. Sacrifice with purpose is not crazy. In fact, we make them VC & Medal of Honor winners. The man who puts a Zero into a carrier is no different from one who jumps on a grenade. If that max effort stops the enemy, it is worth it.

  • john moore

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