Using drones to kill people for doing calisthenics

One reason US assertions of limited civilian casualties in drone strikes don't hold water.

Shakil Adil/AP
Supporters of Pakistan's Islamist party Pasban rally against US drone strikes on hideouts of militants in the country's tribal areas, in Karachi, Pakistan, Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013.

The Washington Post has a scoop today about the extent of cooperation between Pakistan and the US on the drone campaign against alleged militants in that country.

Though "Pakistan is involved with the drone campaign" is about as surprising as "Revealed: Pope found to be Catholic" the Pakistani government has nevertheless frequently pretended for domestic political reasons that all drone strikes have happened without its involvement. The Post story, built using documents provided from unnamed people, nevertheless provides a useful degree of detail.

While there's lots to consider when it comes to the drone program, it's worth highlighting something from the CIA's own documents: Its claims that it knows civilians are rarely the victims of assassination abroad don't hold water.

The Post reports that the US has decided to kill people in Pakistan because they were exercising in an organized fashion, were shifty in their traveling habits, or were shown inordinate amounts of respect in public. The Post writes:

On Jan. 14, 2010, a gathering of 17 people at a suspected Taliban training camp was struck after the men were observed conducting “assassination training, sparring, push-ups and running.” The compound was linked “by vehicle” to an al-Qaeda facility hit three years earlier. On March 23, 2010, the CIA launched missiles at a “person of interest” in a suspected al-Qaeda compound. The man caught the agency’s attention after he had “held two in-car meetings, and swapped vehicles three times along the way.” Other accounts describe militants targeted because of the extent of “deference” they were shown when arriving at a suspect site. A May 11, 2010, entry noted the likely deaths of 12 men who were “probably” involved in cross-border attacks against the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

The Post continues: "Although often uncertain about the identities of its targets, the CIA expresses remarkable confidence in its accuracy, repeatedly ruling out the possibility that any civilians were killed. One table estimates that as many as 152 'combatants' were killed and 26 were injured during the first six months of 2011. Lengthy columns with spaces to record civilian deaths or injuries contain nothing but zeroes."

Nothing but zeros. Setting aside the slippery meaning of words like "combatant" and whether it's wise to kill people in foreign countries the US is not at war with absent evidence they're planning an attack on US interests, that is not a remotely credible claim. Particularly since the documents show the government admitted to bumping off guys based on their being treated with too much respect in public. Frequently a target is at home with family, or meeting with local tribal figures who aren't remotely interested in attacking US interests, when the hellfire missiles come knocking.

The Obama administration has insisted that it decides who to kill in Pakistan based on tough criteria. But strong doubts should be raised by documents obtained by the Post. In war zones in general, people involved in carrying out deadly missions have huge incentives for downplaying civilian casualties. Consider the 11 Iraqi civilians, two of whom worked for Reuters, who were killed by a US helicopter in Baghdad in 2007. At the time of the incident, the US military first said that armed men had been attacked, and later said that the men were killed only after the helicopter came under fire from the ground. The truth - that no weapons were present and there were no signs of attack from the ground - only came out after Bradley Manning leaked footage from a helicopters gun camera to Wikileaks in 2010.

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