The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ, a London-based not-for-profit news organization) has initiated a project titled ‘Naming the Dead’, which aims to quantify and identify the number of people killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. The purpose is to challenge Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) claims that few civilians have lost their lives to America’s drone war.
TBIJ’s website keeps a comprehensive record of the victims of drone airstrikes in Pakistan, which according to the organization’s calculations have killed at least 2,537 people. Estimates suggest that up to a quarter may have been civilians, including children.
The CIA claims a high rate for militant casualties, citing that strikes since May 2010 have killed more than 600 militants but no civilians. This claim has been repeatedly questioned and refuted by experts, journalists and researchers from both the international community as well as within Pakistan.
However a recently leaked report from Pakistan showed that during the 2006-09 period covered in the document, officials had extensive internal knowledge of high civilian casualties. Rauf Khan Khattak, a former Political Agent from Pakistan and a long-time opponent of foreign drone strikes, believes the newest figures could be the most reliable obtained so far.
“What you end up with in these reports is reasonably accurate, because it comes from on-the-ground sources cultivated over many years. And the political agent is only interested in properly understanding what actually happened,” he told TBIJ.
At the end of January 2013, TBIJ was able to identify by name 213 people killed by drones in Pakistan who were reported to be middle or senior-ranking militants. The first names will be published on Monday.
A further 331 civilians have also now been named, 87 of them children.
‘At the moment we know the names of fewer than 20% of those killed in Pakistan’s tribal areas. At least 2,000 deaths still remain publicly anonymous,’ said Chris Woods, who leads the Bureau’s covert drone war team.
‘Our aim will be to identify by name many hundreds more of those killed. A significant number of those identities will be known by local communities, by US and Pakistani officials, and by militant groups. We hope to convince them to share that information.’
According to the Bureau, “Researchers based in Pakistan and the UK will seek to build up biographical information for all of those killed, whether civilian or militant – their name, age, gender, tribe, and village, for example. Where possible, photographs, witness statements and official documentation will also be published.
The team will seek assistance from the Pakistan and US governments in identifying those killed. And researchers will also call on Taliban factions and other militant groups to release information on the many hundreds of fighters killed in more than 360 US drone strikes since 2004.”
America’s covert drone war appears to be entering a new phase.
Until recently, strikes were carried out with the tacit co-operation of host governments.
According to a Pakistani official who wanted to remain anonymous, “There is a tacit understanding to agree to the drone attacks and to deny the agreement, because the government doesn’t want to go against public opinion.”
A cable sent by Anne Patterson, the then U.S. ambassador to Pakistan in 2008, supports this claim.
“[Interior Minister Rehman] Malik suggested we hold off alleged Predator attacks until after the Bajaur operation. The PM [Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani] brushed aside Rehman's remarks and said, ‘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.’”
But support from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city, no longer exists.
Recent drone strikes in Pakistan have been publicly condemned by the government as being ‘in total contravention of international law.’
If TBIJ’s manages to provide convincing data (although current evidence is convincing enough) those who oppose predator drones in countries like Pakistan and Yemen will have a stronger case.