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    We Can't Count How Many Civilians Are Being Killed By American Drones

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    Adam Estes

    The statistics on remotely-piloted warfare keep getting messier. As many as 33 people are dead in Pakistan and Afghanistan thanks to a series of U.S. drone strikes over the weekend. In Pakistan, it was three separate attacks on Taliban insurgents — one on Saturday, two on Sunday — that killed 13. In Afghanistan, a single attack on a public execution took out 20. Of course, the casualty count could be much higher, and those killed might not be militants at all. But who’s really keeping count? Certainly not U.S. officials.

    For years now, details about U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan have become increasingly unsettling. It’s not terribly surprising. The intensely varied spectrum of reports about who’s being killed and why are really stacking up. These attacks, of course, are supposed to kill terrorists. However, a number of recent investigations show not only that the U.S. can’t keep track of how many casualties the drones produce but also that the military and CIA don’t really know who they’re attacking. And obviously, they don’t want to talk about it.

    There are two main groups of folks tallying the numbers behind the drone attacks: the government, and concerned onlookers like investigative journalists and human rights groups. Problematically, the government can’t keep its numbers straight. ProPublica’s Justin Elliott took a tally last week of all the various claims that unnamed government officials have made about civilians killed in drone attacks. “Last month, a ‘senior administration official’ said the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under President Obama is in the ‘single digits.’ But last year ‘U.S. officials’ said drones in Pakistan killed about 30 civilians in just a yearlong stretch under Obama,” Elliott wrote. “Both claims can’t be true.” One official said that there had been zero civilian casualties since May 2010, as did CNN.com using numbers taken from press reports. But that was dead wrong.

    A Bureau for Investigative Journalism graph of drone casualties through July 2012

    One problem with keeping track of civilian casualties is the definition of a civilian in these areas. Since the military is sometimes restricted to aerial photos of the attack zones for intelligence, it’s hard to distinguish the Taliban from unsuspecting villagers. So hard that the government created a couple of simple rules. In 2008, under President George W. Bush, the CIA decided that all they needed to attack a group of people was behavior that matched “a pattern of life” consistent with a terrorist organization. It’s unclear what that pattern looks like. A year later the Obama administration expanded that approach and decided that any military-aged male killed in a drone strike would count as a militant. This helped balance out the ratio of militants killed to civilians straight away.

    The problem is, these U.S. drone strikes are still killing a lot of civilians. The New America Foundation has been keeping a tally for years and estimates that under Obama, drone strikes have killed between 1,507 and 2,438 people. Some 148 to 309 of those —between 10 and 12 percent — were civilians (it was the New America Foundation, incidentally, that also published that faulty graph on CNN.com). A 2010 report from Pakistani officials put that ratio much much higher, claiming that the civilian casualty rate for 2009 alone reached upwards of 90 percent. Of course, because of the faulty methods for distinguishing civilians from combatants, it’s hard to be sure about either figure. Regardless, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the U.S. government is working hard to make those civilian casualties disappear.

    This is all to say, we have no idea who we killed last weekend. It could’ve been a pack of Taliban warlords or a group of simple goat herders. One thing is certain, though. Whoever came to the scene of the strikes this weekend to help rescue the injured was targeted too – a tactic, Glenn Greenwald points out, that has been long associated with terrorism by the American government. It might help kill more bad guys, but it clearly puts civilians in greater danger, and helps to deter journalists from visiting the scene of a drone strike too.

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