Demystifying the drone — I —Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood

October 27, 2010

Source: Daily Times

The figures cited by a leading newspaper were so erroneous that their account of the total militants killed was less than the number of militants killed in a single drone strike that they themselves had reported. Such unethical exaggerations and fabrications should be unacceptable in journalism and they construct the wider narrative about drone strikes in the public opinion

Drone strikes have evolved to become a national political issue with the media and public opinion constantly pressing the government to take up the issue with the US. Opposition to drone strikes is mostly based on ill-conceived notions of sovereignty, ghairat (honour) and figures that seem to suggest that drone strikes are inaccurate and lead to a high number of civilian casualties (not to suggest that there cannot be any informed opposition to drone strikes). From Imran Khan to Munawar Hasan, right-wing political parties and religious groups have used drone strikes to forward their agenda by misguiding people through erroneous, fabricated and fictional data. As a result, thousands of people have been mobilised across the country to oppose these strikes.

Papers published such as ‘The CIA’s Covert Drone War in Pakistan, 2004-2010: The History of an Assassination Campaign’, ‘New Light on the Accuracy of the CIA’s Predator Drone Campaign in Pakistan’ and ‘Sudden Justice? Evaluating the U.S. Predator Campaign in Pakistan’ have already challenged the exaggerations and fabrications of these parties and media groups. The figures they provide contradict the ones thrown at us. The casualty rates are 13.56 militants: 1 civilian: 3.35 unknowns according to one paper. The New America Foundation put civilian deaths at 24 percent and the Long War Journal at 9 percent. The figures cited by a leading newspaper were so erroneous that their account of the total militants killed was less than the number of militants killed in a single drone strike that they themselves had reported. Such unethical exaggerations and fabrications should be unacceptable in journalism and they construct the wider narrative about drone strikes in public opinion.

An online database of suicide bombings and drone strikes in Pakistan is maintained at a website called Pakistan Body Count (hereinafter referred to as PBC) by Dr Zeeshan Usmani, a former Fulbright Scholar and currently Assistant Professor at GIKI. Fulfilling the tradition of the lack of intellectual integrity and dishonesty, his data has been used by various media outlets without giving him credit. The data reports that as of late September 2010, only 32 al Qaeda militants have been killed by US drone strikes in comparison to 1,778 civilians giving a paltry 1.76 percent strike rate accuracy. As we shall show categorically, much of this data is erroneous, flawed and plagued by numerous transgressions. Academic credentials alone cannot guarantee lack of bias and the use of technology cannot assure authenticity of data.

The first problem is that Dr Usmani has only two entities in his data, i.e. al Qaeda and civilians. Where do the Taliban fit in, precisely the Afghan Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Islam (LI)? Where does targeting monsters like Baitullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain Mehsud fit in this scenario? There is no justification for including the TTP, LI or any other militant groups in the same category as civilians. Such gimmicks are only being used to mislead the whole world and any such defence of the flawed data is misleading and unacceptable. We cannot claim whether the data is manipulated and purposely flawed for ideological reasons. What we can assert is that this alone leaves a serious flaw in his data collection and since the government of Pakistan officially declares the TTP, LI and associated groups as terrorists and has been pursuing an active military campaign against them, including their deaths amongst civilians is a serious distortion of the truth, erroneous and contrary to acceptable logic. Their deaths are and should be included as a part of the accuracy of drone strikes.

Here is a list of the major errors in his data. Dates and location of strikes are mentioned for reference.

October 30, 2006: Bajaur. Gunship helicopter attack by Pakistan Army (officially claimed) that killed 80 suspected militants is included as a US drone strike by PBC.

August 13, 2008: Two strikes in Bhagar/Angor Adda, SWA. Reuters reports death of 9-25 militants including Commander Abdul Rehman and Islam Wazir. Geo reports death of three Turk and several Arab militants as well. PBC lists 22 civilian casualties.

September 8, 2008: Danday Darpakhel. PBC reports 23 civilian casualties. CNN reports death of al Qaeda’s Pakistan chief Abu Haris and another three Arab fighters amongst 25.

October 9, 2008: Reuters reports deaths of six militants including three Arabs. PBC lists nine civilians.

November 19, 2008: Bannu. Al Qaeda leader Abdullah Azzam al Saudi is killed. CNN reports local confirming three foreigners killed. PBC does not list strike.

May 16, 2009: Khesoor, NWA. Target assumed to be a seminary may have killed up to 23 al Qaeda militants according to NYT. Al-Jazeera reports 10 militants including two Arabs. This paper reported 25-28 local militants leaving for fighting in Afghanistan. PBC lists two al Qaeda and 23 civilian casualties.

June 23, 2009: Makeen, SWA. Two drone strikes in one day including one on the funeral of Niaz Wali kill 51 Taliban according to this newspaper. Other reports suggest anywhere between 45 and 83 militant casualties. Dr Usmani’s data shows a total of 91 civilians and only six al Qaeda deaths.

December 8, 2009: Aspala, NWA. 2-3 militants including al Qaeda leader Saleh al-Somali are killed. PBC does not list this strike.

December 17, 2009: Datta Khel. 10-15 militants including al Qaeda leader Zuhaib al-Zahibi. PBC reports 17 civilians.

January 3, 2010: Mosaki, NWA. Dawn reports five killed, three of them Arabs. A security official told AFP, “Five militants have been killed, two are local and three are foreigners.” PBC reports five civilian deaths.

January 15, 2010: Zanini, NWA and Shaktoi. 7-12 militants killed, including militant commander Azmatuallah Muawiya as per reports from Dawn, AP and Reuters. PBC lists 22 civilian casualties.

February 14, 2010: Mir Ali, NWA. Dawn reports four foreigners (reportedly Uzbek) and three militants killed. Compound was used for training insurgents. Reuters claims five deaths. CNN reports six dead. PBC does not mention the attack.

September 3, 2010: Two drone strikes kill 12-15 militants. Dawn reports six local militants being killed in first strike. Samaa reports death of Taliban commander Inayatullah in second strike. PBC reports 13 civilian deaths.

(Note: Complete data analysis can be seen at

As can be seen from these errors, which are just a small number amongst the database maintained by PBC, casualties of Taliban and many other militant groups are included amongst civilians.

(To be continued)

The writers are interested in history and public policy. Shahid Saeed can be reached at and Awais Masood can be reached at

2 Responses to “Demystifying the drone — I —Shahid Saeed and Awais Masood”

  1. Whether the data are with held as long as their had been Taliban deaths, it is good. Hope you can continue with your posts. It is a very informative one.

  2. […] Bhaggar, South Waziristan References:, Long War Journal,, Geo TV, Reuters, Pakistan Body Count, SATP, The […]

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