Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

New view of drone death toll

By Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. drone program is especially controversial in Pakistan
  • Peter Bergen: A leaked report suggests fewer civilian drone deaths than previously reported
  • Pakistan's new prime minister opposes drone program, cites issue of sovereignty
  • Bergen: Having reliable estimates on drone deaths is important

Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a director at the New America Foundation and the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad." Jennifer Rowland is a program associate at the New America Foundation.

(CNN) -- The debate over the number of civilian casualties caused by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan is perhaps the most contentious issue in the often fraught U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

On one side are US officials who assert that the strikes kill few, if any, Pakistani civilians. In June 2011, President Barack Obama's then-counterterrorism adviser John Brennan claimed improbably during a speech at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies "there hasn't been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we've been able to develop."

Two months later, U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity told the New York Times that around 50 civilians had been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan since the 9/11 attacks.

Peter Bergen
Peter Bergen

On the other side of the debate are Pakistani officials such as the country's powerful Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who asserted in 2012 that 80% of the people killed in drone strikes were civilians. Earlier this year, before he stepped down as Interior Minister, Malik told Pakistani reporters that the strikes had killed mostly women and children.

Similarly, Maulana Sami ul-Haq, leader of the Pakistani Islamist party Jamiat Ulama-i-Islam (JUI-S), told crowds at a 2011 conference in Lahore that drones kill "dozens of innocent people daily."

Now comes a leaked Pakistani government document that helps to shed light on some of the facts surrounding this debate. According to the internal Pakistani report, civilian casualties from drone strikes are much lower than has often been claimed in Pakistan, but they are also much higher than the U.S. government has asserted.

The Pakistani government confirmed 10 civilian deaths in CIA drone strikes in 2009, according to the leaked official document obtained this week by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based organization that tracks the strikes.

The report also found that from 2006 through October 24, 2009, civilians made up a minority of those killed in drone strikes: 147 civilians in a total death toll of 742, or about 20%.

That number is somewhat lower than the estimates of Western nongovernmental organizations that track the strikes. The New America Foundation estimates that up to 207 civilians were killed from 2006 to October 24, 2009, along with up to 198 people who were not identified in reliable media reports to be either civilians or militants.

Oddly, the leaked Pakistani report left out four strikes that occurred in 2007. It also missed nine strikes from 2008 and 2009, in which between eight and 10 civilians were reported killed, according to the New America Foundation's tally.

The leaked report is a welcome sign that the Pakistani government is making a concerted effort to confirm the identities of those who have been killed in U.S. drone strikes in the country's remote tribal regions that border with Afghanistan.

Pakistani authorities have long denounced the strikes, out of concern that civilian deaths caused by drone strikes inflame the local population, bolster militant groups and violate Pakistan's sovereignty.

The civilian casualty rate has declined steadily over the life of the CIA drone program as both technology and intelligence-gathering have improved. One civilian -- a 10-year-old boy -- has been confirmed killed so far in 2013, according to reliable media reports. In 2012, five civilians were confirmed killed, representing 2% of the total deaths.

As the civilian casualty rate has fallen, Pakistani officials who oppose the drone strikes have turned more frequently to the argument that they violate Pakistan's sovereignty, regardless of whom they kill.

Pakistan's new Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, told parliament in June that "We respect the sovereignty of others and they should respect our sovereignty and independence. This campaign must come to an end." As Sharif wrangles with the United States over the future of the drone program, a complete and authoritative official Pakistani tally of civilian deaths caused by drones would be a useful tool for those discussions.

The leaked Pakistani report is a step in the right direction.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:50 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT