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 6:47 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT