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We Still Have Little Idea Who We’ve Been Killing with Drones in Pakistan

Scott Shackford

October 17, 2014

The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been working to identify those who have been killed in Pakistan by American drone strikes and any groups with whom they were affiliated. The latest news from their project, titled "Naming the Dead," is that only four percent of the 2,379 people killed in 400 drone strikes in the country since 2004 can be identified as al Qaeda. That's just 84 people. Another 295 were identified as other "militants," and even that designation might be a little iffy:

Only 704 of the 2,379 dead have been identified, and only 295 of these were reported to be members of some kind of armed group. Few corroborating details were available for those who were just described as militants. More than a third of them were not designated a rank, and almost 30% are not even linked to a specific group. Only 84 are identified as members of al Qaeda – less than 4% of the total number of people killed.

These findings "demonstrate the continuing complete lack of transparency surrounding US drone operations," said Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International.

When asked for a comment on the Bureau's investigation, US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that strikes were only carried out when there was "near-certainty" that no civilians would be killed.

"The death of innocent civilians is something that the U.S. Government seeks to avoid if at all possible. In those rare instances in which it appears non-combatants may have been killed or injured, after-action reviews have been conducted to determine why, and to ensure that we are taking the most effective steps to minimise such risk to non-combatants in the future," said Hayden.

The report notes that the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) doesn't specifically say the president is authorized only to strike members of al Qaeda and the Taliban, but rather against those who were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks. It's a bit problematic to argue these strikes are covered:

The CIA itself does not seem to know the affiliation of everyone they kill. Secret CIA documents recording the identity, rank and affiliation of people targeted and killed in strikes between 2006 to 2008 and 2010 to 2011 were leaked to the McClatchy news agency in April 2013. They identified hundreds of those killed as simply Afghan or Pakistani fighters, or as "unknown".

Determining the affiliation even of those deemed to be "Taliban" is problematic. The movement has two branches: one, the Afghan Taliban, is fighting US and allied forces, and trying to re-establish the ousted Taliban government of Mullah Omar in Kabul. The other, the Pakistani Taliban or the TTP, is mainly focused on toppling the Pakistani state, putting an end to democracy and establishing a theocracy based on extreme ideology. Although the US did not designate the TTP as a foreign terrorist organisation until September 2010, the group and its precursors are known to have worked with the Afghan Taliban.

According to media reports, the choice of targets has not always reflected the priorities of the US alone. In April last year the McClatchy news agency reported the US used its drones to kill militants in Pakistan's tribal areas in exchange for Pakistani help in targeting al Qaeda members.

Early last summer NBC reporters got their hands on a classified document that showed the United States often doesn't know who it is killing in Pakistan or what their militant affiliations were. At the time, I thought the revelations would be a big deal. But that very same day was when the very first story about domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) dropped, thanks to a leaker that had not yet been identified as Edward Snowden. And the rest was history.

Below, ReasonTV explains why the United States' policy on drone strikes is pretty scary:



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