Search for a Method

We tend not to bother ourselves much with the foreign civilians our government has killed. We get far more misty-eyed over the treatment of our war criminals, from Lieutenant William Calley (defended ardently not just by Loretta Lynn but by the New Jersey State Legislature and an up-and-coming Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter) to Sergeant Bob Bales, whose unhappy backstory received loads of sympathetic media attention after he killed 16 unarmed Afghan civilians. But battlefield reporters who give serious attention to civilian casualties from American military strikes, they get called all sorts of nasty names, not only by right-wing jingoists but by Obama-loving liberals as well.

Since 2009 we have been making war in, if not exactly on, Pakistan, with the predictable result of civilian casualties. Though the prospect of widening the Afghan War into Pakistan was condemned four years ago as “Strangelovian” by Mitt Romney and John McCain, our Peace Prize president has rushed where neocon ultras once feared to stomp. The weapon of choice is the drone, though we shouldn’t get too hung up on the hardware: the story wouldn’t be too different if we were launching cruise missiles from warships or dropping bombs from aircraft. The debate over noncombatant citizens of Pakistan killed by our drone strikes has almost been drowned out by the minor issue of who has leaked what about the risibly “secret” program.

Almost — but not entirely.

How many Pakistani civilians has our government killed? Who wants to know? For Washington, the drone strikes in Pakistan are ostensibly “secret” and officials can acknowledge them only through leaks and winks, so any official and transparent tally is not forthcoming.

The Pakistani state, meanwhile, has its own agenda. In a series of analyses published in Al Jazeera that search for a method have not gotten the attention they deserve in the U.S., Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer in journalism at Montfort Unversity in the U.K., has explained the incentives of the Pakistani military and intelligence to minimize civilian casualties in their reports to the press. It’s bad enough to admit that a foreign country is firing missiles into your territory with your tacit permission, but to cop to a high rate of civilian casualties would be  national dishonor.

On top of that, any Pakistani journalist who investigates the scenes of the strikes firsthand and tabulates the civilians killed faces a daunting methodological challenge: a high likelihood of violent death. The Pakistani state does not allow journalists into the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) where all the drone attacks take place, but occasionally, reporters manage their way past the checkpoints.

In November 2005, freelance journalist Hayatullah Khan went to the village of Haisori in North Waziristan near the Afghan border to verify a Predator strike, whose Hellfire missiles had struck a compound killing Taliban leader Abu Hamza Rabia along with a Syrian bodyguard and Mohammad Aziz and Abdul Waseed, the 7-year-old son and 17-year-old nephew of the homeowner, Sadiq. Khan filed story with the Urdu-language daily Ausaf, including the photos he had taken of the physical evidence: scraps of ordnance with the words “AGM-144,” “guided missile” and “U.S.” The story and the photos were widely and globally circulated.

I am grateful to Dr. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations for highlighting this incident in a post on his excellent blog, Politics, Power, and Preventive Action.

The next day, Khan’s car was run off the road and he was hauled away by armed men. His corpse was found six months later, still handcuffed, a bullet wound in the back of his head.

When journalists do make it out of the FATA alive, their work is barely acknowledged in the U.S. Noor Behram is a freelance journalist and photographer who has visited 60 sites of drone strikes and taken photographs of the wreckage and the carnage. Behram estimates that only one in ten to one in 15 of those killed is a bona fide Taliban or al-Qaeda member. American intellectuals have expressed little interest in Behram’s work, except to dismiss it.

Instead, the raw data for the most commonly cited civilian casualty estimates comes direct from members of the Pakistani military and  intelligence services who informally give casualty estimates, sometimes broken down between “militants” and civilians, sometimes not, to the wire services and major newspapers, who duly report them.

In the U.S., major newspapers don’t tabulate the civilian casualties — they leave this task to the think tanks. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and the Jamestown Foundation, both hard-right, neoconservative Beltway think tanks, have their studies purporting low civilian casualty rates: 6.14 percent and 4.95 percent, respectively. (Bill Roggio, head of the FDD study, candidly admits that his data is hardly reliable and that the civilian casualty rate “could be 20 percent ... they could be 5 percent.”)

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, head­-quartered in London, away from Washington’s gravitational pull, employs an entirely different range of techniques than either the Long War Journal or the Jamestown Institute’s studies. Using a network of researchers and journalists on the ground in the FATA to investigate each media report, the BIJ constantly updates their own figures and have managed to carry out two field investigations, all of which leads them to a civilian casualty rate between 13.5 percent and 33.6 percent. Chris Woods

Correction: An earlier draft referred to Chris Woods as Chris Brown, which we don't really want to get into. Our most sincere apologies to Mr. Woods
, director of the BIJ study, is somewhat impatient with the mystification regarding civilian casualties in the FATA. As he emailed me recently, “It’s often put about, usually by those seeking to undermine reporting from Waziristan, that it’s ‘impossible’ to get accurate information from there. That is not the case. It is possible to get pretty accurate information from FATA: You just need to be able to invest time and resources, and accept that the most accurate information may not come in during the regular news cycle.”

And yet the BIJ study, despite far more rigorous methodology, is not often cited in U.S. mainstream media accounts. The New York Times’ Scott Shane actually quotes “unnamed officials” who accuse the Bureau of Investigative Journalism of being one of the “elements who would like nothing more than to malign these efforts and help al-Qaeda succeed.”

Instead, the most commonly referenced study comes from the New America Foundation, a nonprofit that is not too frothily right-wing, but certainly not anti-war. One of the NAF study’s two directors, Peter Bergen, is a hardcore supporter of the Afghan war, which he likes to note “only” costs 1 percent of American annual GDP. The NAF count puts the civilian casualty rate at 16.94 percent, with most of those fatalities from the Bush-Cheney years. For the year 2012 to date, the NAF reckons that not a single Pakistani civilian has been killed by a drone, only “militants.”

But what makes someone a “militant” in a regionwhere the majority of the men believe in Sharia law and tote firearms as a matter of daily life? It is the very nature of guerrilla warfare that the line between insurgents and civilians is shifting and blurry, as Pakistan expert Anatol Lieven at Kings College London has pointed out in an interview with the BIJ. Lieven is surprised that the BIJ’s civilian casualty rate isn’t even higher.

For its part, the Obama administration, according to the New York Times, defines “militant” with meaningless circularity as any male of military age who is killed in a strike. And the “signature strikes” against unnamed, unknown individuals whose “patterns of behavior” — carrying a gun, for instance — mark them as legitimate targets.

This is how the civilian casualty rates are produced — but how are they consumed? In the media reception of all the various civilian casualty estimates, there are two broad trends. First, American intellectuals are generally eager to dismiss on-the-ground Pakistani sources as hopelessly biased. C. Christine Fair, an assistant professor of Security Studies and an oft-cited authority on Pakistan, has expressed withering skepticism of all nonofficial body counts that pop up in Pakistan’s non-English language press.

She is certainly right to take any unverified estimate with a grain of salt. But Fair goes further. There is no way of verifying Behram’s photographs, she says, and the women who are killed aren’t necessary civilians, as they could be suicide bombers. The death tolls are exaggerated, says Fair, either planted by the anti-American intelligence services or by locals with their own reasons to inflate.

But Fair’s probing skepticism, like that of other defense intellectuals, coexists alongside an untroubled faith in high officialdom, whose word she takes at face value:

U.S. officials interviewed as well as Pakistani military and civilian officials have confirmed to this author that drones kill very few ‘innocent civilians.’ I had been a drone opponent until 2008. I now believe that they are best option.

In other words, she has it on good authority — good, unnamed, official authority — and we should simply trust these unnamed officials, just as she does.

Fair also emphasizes how the drone strikes in Pakistan are rigorously legal, the intended inference being that lawfulness and wanton slaughter are by nature antithetical. History tells us they are not. Overall, the laws of armed conflict license much more lethal violence than they proscribe, and they turn out to be very supple instruments in the hands of a great power.

For example, the massacre of over a dozen Iraqi civilians by a U.S. Apache gunship, captured in Wikileaks’ viral video “Collateral Murder,” is according to many jurists not a “war crime” at all but a perfectly legal (though of course, regrettable) instance of regular, noncriminal war. Neither Amnesty International nor Human Rights Watch nor Human Rights First uttered any condemnation of that event because the applicable laws of armed conflict here are, at best, muddy.

It always bears mentioning that the laws of armed conflict were not written by an angel choir but by the attorneys of great powers; the main function of these laws is to license lethal violence and to protect the privileges of armed combatants.

There is an equally strong tendency among American intellectuals to embrace low civilian casualty counts, no matter how dodgy the study’s methodology or provenance. Two years ago, Brian Glyn Williams, a historian at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, gave a sneak peek of his own study to Spencer Ackerman, then of FireDogLake, a left-libertarian website, and the Washington Independent. Ackerman rather breathlessly reported that the study had been “peer reviewed.” But this was not true in the commonly accepted sense of the term: peer review is a process by which articles submitted to academic journals are screened, more or less rigorously. The Williams study had not come out in any scholarly journal, nor did it ever, instead it was published in the newsletter of the ultra-conservative Jamestown Foundation. No matter, from its debut in Ackerman’s blog post, the Williams study was touted in the Daily Kos, the Moderate Voice and elsewhere in the mod-prog blogosphere.

A few military intellectuals have railed against drones, not out of humanitarian concern but for strategic reasons. It is unclear whether their strategic goal is national security or career advancement. Andrew Exum and David Kilcullen of the Center for New American Security have editorialized against drone attacks, pointing out the aerial death robots’ tendency to alienate the hearts and minds that their own pet theory, counterinsurgency, aspires to win. Exum has elsewhere made emphatically clear that, lest he be considered an effete softy, he does not care how many civilians the drone strikes kill:

I do not care how many civilians drone strikes actually kill. And I do not care how many civilians Americans think drone strikes in Pakistan kill. I care only about how many civilians Pakistanis think drone strikes kill.

All the same, it is no corruption of humanitarian concerns to note that civilian casualties also are a matter of strategic importance, with a heavy price to our own security. To what degree does the killing of civilians motivate revenge attacks against American targets, abroad or at home? Are the strikes creating more potential terrorists? This question has been resolutely ignored, particularly by those who should know better. The would-be bomber of Times Square in May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, told the judge at his arraignment that he had intended to avenge all those killed by American military violence throughout the Muslim world: “When the drones hit, they don’t see the children,” he told the judge.

But the thriving niche industry of terrorist “radicalization” studies has been hell-bent on ignoring this point-blank declaration of motive. The report “Rethinking Radicalization” by the liberal advocacy group the Brennan Center makes no reference to America’s enormous military boot print in the Muslim world as a force that might inspire anti-American violence.

The Brennan Center would likely argue that dead Pakistani civilians are outside their sphere of U.S. domestic expertise, and that the topic is politically “controversial” and therefore not worth a mention in their glossy report. And yet Liza Goitein, director of the Center’s Program on Liberty and Security felt fully licensed to rail against Private Manning for the purely speculative casualties she says might have resulted from the alleged leaks. At least no one can say American intellectuals lack the courage to condemn imaginary deaths.

The best, then, that American reformers can do is to urge greater transparency, perhaps by transferring control of the drone strikes in Pakistan from the CIA to the military. This would by no means be a bad thing, but it is almost beside the point. Transparency of the rules governing the strikes does not answer the large question of how the intervention in Pakistan’s low-boil civil war is supposed to further U.S. security, the spread democracy, human rights, or any other goal. And even if we could get instant, perfectly accurate accounts of civilian casualties inside Pakistan, there is very little appetite for such knowledge here; the few of us who do care are too politically feeble to do anything about it. Counterterrorism czar John Brennan needn’t have taken the embarrassing trouble last June of claiming, ridiculously, that the drone strikes had killed zero civilians, at least not for our sake.