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US Drone War in Pakistan: Home

This database was developed by Maliha Ali '15 at Bennington College, as a resource for fact-checking and archiving the claims, research and data about US drone policy and its impact in Pakistan and beyond.


This database was developed by Maliha Ali '15 at Bennington College, as a resource for collecting and fact-checking the claims, facts and research about US drone warfare in Pakistan and to set up a living archive about a secretive global war policy.

As part of its global war on terror, the US has been conducting clandestine targeted killings against individual high-level leaders of al Qaeda and its affiliates through armed unmanned aerial vehicles—or drones—in Pakistan’s northwest tribal regions since 2004. Controlled remotely by CIA targeters from airbases across the US, in the manner of video games, drones are fitted with nine video cameras called the Gorgon Stare and can hover in the air, watching their target for hours, weeks, even months, before releasing a 100-pound air-to-ground Hellfire missile. Yet, more than a decade and over 400 strikes later, data about damages and casualty counts from these strikes are contradictory, uncertain or unavailable.

The US government considers the program classified and does not release official casualty counts or its methodology for selection of targets. In fact, the CIA, which operates these strikes, maintains that it "can neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of…records pertaining to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles."  At the same time, other government officials have made public claims acknowledging the program and extolling its effectiveness, with John Brennan declaring that the strikes are “exceptionally precise and surgical” and President Obama assuring that they are only undertaken when there is “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” 

However, statements from other government sources have directly contradicted such official statements. Jeffrey Addicott, former senior legal adviser to the US Army Special Forces, responding to claims about low civilian casualties from drone strikes, told Reuters, "The ratio is getting better but based on my military experience, there's simply no way [so few civilians have been killed]. For one bad guy you kill, you'd expect 1.5 civilian deaths...killing from that high above, there's always the 'oops' factor." A leaked internal CIA report from 2009 concluded that "The potential negative effect of HLT [high-level targets] operations include increasing the level of insurgent support […], strengthening an armed group's bonds with the population, radicalizing an insurgent group's remaining leaders, creating a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter, and escalating or de-escalating a conflict in ways that favor the insurgents.”

These revelations invalidate official US narratives about an effective and surgically precise war, showing drone policy to be both ineffective and counterproductive in addressing valid threats to the US.

For its part, the Pakistani government—which has been carrying out a military operation, titled Zarb-e-Azb, against militants in North Waziristan since June 2014—reacts by rote, issuing a familiar condemnatory statement after each drone strike and releasing no official body counts. However, a secret report compiled for the FATA Secretariat and leaked by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism confirms that the government maintains detailed counts of the dead. Yet reports of collusion and tacit approval between the two countries are rife. For instance:

  • Referring to Baitullah Mehsud, leader and founder of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan—a high-value target for both the US and Pakistani governments, who was killed in a drone strike in 2009—former  National Security Council counterterrorism official Roger Cressey told The New Yorker, “Mehsud was someone both we and Pakistan were happy to see go up in smoke."
  • In 2013, an unnamed senior US official was quoted in a New York Times article as saying that the US gives the Pakistani military 30 minutes’ advance notice of drone strikes in South Waziristan. The official also added, however, that no such notice is given in North Waziristan, where the majority of strikes have taken place and which is considered a bigger hub of militancy by the Taliban, al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, which carries out attacks in Afghanistan.
  • Despite senior Pakistani military leaders issuing unequivocal statements such as, "Any object entering into our air space, including U.S. drones, will be treated as hostile and be shot down," diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks in 2011 revealed Pakistan's then-prime minister Raza Gilani saying about drone strikes, "I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it." In a 2012 interview with The New Statesmen, former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf admitted that  “[t]here was no permission that they can attack. There was certainly a joint co-operation on the photography part [to carry out surveillance and to gather intelligence].” A year later, in an interview with CNN, he conceded further that his government signed off on strikes "only on a few occasions, when a target was absolutely isolated and [there was] no chance of collateral damage." 

These conflicting accounts nevertheless confirm the Pakistani government's complicity in US drone strikes on at least some occasions. The burden of responsibility for acknowledging unaccounted deaths, addressing civilian losses and providing greater transparency therefore falls on both governments, as a report titled "After the Dead Are Counted: U.S. and Pakistani Responsibilities to Victims of Drone Strikes," by the Open Society Foundations has recently argued. This is especially important as Pakistan's tribal areas are closed off to the general public, independent researchers and journalists, which means that reports from within are inherently unverifiable.

Data from several nonprofit and independent researchers agree on a clear trend of high death tolls and high civilian casualties from these strikes. For instance:

  • A report by the NYU and Stanford law schools, entitled “Living Under Drones”, revealed that the drone program has a failure rate of 98%, with only 2% of the dead being top-level al-Qaeda militants.
  • A report by Reprieve found that in attempts to target Ayman al-Zawahiri, Sirajuddin Haqqani, Jalaluddin Haqani and Abu Ubaidah al Masri in Pakistan, US drone pilots instead killed 213 people, including 103 children. Al Masri died of natural causes while the other three men are still alive. 
  • Most researchers and media sources agree that the highest death toll from an individual strike occurred in Bajaur Agency on October 30, 2006, hitting a school and killing between 81 and 83 people, mostly children. However, in an interview with The New Statesmen in June 2012, the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, candidly said, "It’s all bullshit—sorry for the word—that it was a madrassa and seminary and children were studying Quran. They used this as cover." When pressed further about well-documented media reports of children killed, he said, "I don’t remember. In the media, they said it was all children. They were absolutely wrong. There may have been some collateral damage of some children but they were not children at all, they were all militants doing training inside."

In addition to government and non-government sources, this database also contains popular narratives, rare photographic and video evidence and other interesting material about drone strikes. For instance:

These accounts from named and unnamed, current and former US and Pakistani government officials, drone operators and drone pilots, drone strike surviving witnesses, families of drone victims, independent researchers, journalists, photographers, artists, comedians, as well as Hollywood representations all present a dizzying array of contradictory and overlapping claims revealing drone warfare to be both complex and absurd.

Where does this leave us? Publicly stated and anonymously-made claims by both governments cancel each other out and are backed by classified material whose very existence or nonexistence cannot be acknowledged. Independent researchers, like The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and others, agree on high civilian death tolls from drone strikes and their collective critique strongly refutes official US government claims that civilian casualties are "exceedingly rare." However, while these various reports  overlap in their conclusions, they are based on varying methodology and limited field reporting. This critique is largely dismissed by the government. What further complicates the issue is the fact that the Taliban and other armed groups are likely to exaggerate civilian casualty figures. Ultimately, as Joseph Masco writes in his book The Theatre of Operations, all knowledge becomes suspect. Which information can you trust when all of it is unverifiable? The debate about drones seems to be inherently fragmented and inconclusive, leaving a void where the policy continues with or without public scrutiny.

But as Motherboard editor Alex Pasternack has written, perhaps drone warfare is "obscure by design."

This database was compiled in an effort to clear this obscurity. While it is inherently incomplete, the incompleteness might, at least, reveal where the gaps in publicly available knowledge lie. With armed drone technology now being exported to US allies, successfully developed by Pakistan as a matter of national pride, and possibly being used by the new militant Islamic State in what is slated to become an $11 billion global industry by 2022 and the very near future of warfare as we know it, it is crucial, now more than ever, to investigate the claims about drone warfare in order to draw informed conclusions about its impact in Pakistan and beyond.

To quote former CIA director and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, "from now on the watchword is: drones, baby, drones!"