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:
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:
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!"