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WASHINGTON, Jul 17 2012 (IPS) - Civilian deaths due to drone strikes in Pakistan are falling rapidly, and the death rate is now close to zero – or so asserts a New America Foundation (NAF) report.
The report was authored by Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland of NAF, a public policy think tank based in Washington DC. Bergen is the cable news channel CNN’s national security analyst and a director of NAF, and Rowland is a programme associate.
The report states that since 2004, there have been 310 drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, killing between 1,870 and 2,873 individuals, of whom 1,577 to 2,402 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. This would put the overall civilian fatality rate at 16 percent.
Bergen and Rowland say that they used data compiled by the NAF, and the most “reliable press sources” which include the New York Times, Reuters, Washington Post, Associated Press to name a few, and leading English media outlets in Pakistan: Dawn, Express Tribune and Geo TV.
However, some sceptics challenge the accuracy of the report, based on NAF’s statistical database.
Chris Woods of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) believes that NAF has not only underestimated the number of strikes and civilian deaths, but adds that civilian death percentages need to be treated with extreme caution.
“It (NAF) relies only on a small number of media reports immediately following a strike. Sometimes we learn crucial facts days, weeks or even months after an initial attack,” he told IPS.
“In February of this year, for example, a major investigation by Associated Press, based on 80 eyewitness testimonies from civilians in Waziristan, found previously unknown evidence of civilian deaths in 20 percent of the sampled strikes. Unfortunately, NAF has not incorporated these important findings into its data,” said Woods.
TBIJ’s own data puts the total number of drone strikes at 355, with a minimum of 2,513 people killed, of whom between 482 and 835 were civilians.
CNN’s controversial graph released with the report puts civilian deaths at zero for 2012.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a sociologist and journalist, is scathing in his criticism of the report.
“NAF plays fast and loose with its statistics, and in some cases it deliberately misreports,” he told IPS. “Two particularly egregious cases where civilian casualties were actually reported even in the U.S. press were either omitted or misreported in the database.”
For example, as reported by Ahmed for Al-Jazeera, 82 children were killed at a seminary in Bajaur on Oct. 30, 2006. The NAF database continues to list the number as “80 militants”.
In another incident on Aug. 14, 2010, the AP reported seven civilian deaths, which are still listed as seven “militant” deaths in the database.
Likening Bergen’s report to propaganda, Ahmed argues that there are no “reliable press accounts” when it comes to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). He says that the redefinition of the term “militant” – which now encompasses any male citizen over the age of 18 in a combat zone – has not only skewed reporting figures, but given license to more indiscriminate targeting.
Not one to cut the Pakistani government any slack, Ahmed says that it is in the interest of the United States as well as Pakistani authorities to lowball the figures. Pakistani officials would want to minimise public anger and outrage, and reporting militant deaths plays well to this particular stance.
“The Pakistani government doesn’t even make an effort to confirm the identity or category of the victims. I’ve asked people in FATA. They confirm that no one from the Pakistani government/military ever visits after an attack to confirm who the actual victims were. It’s convenient to declare them all ‘militant’,” said Ahmed.
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