ISLAMABAD — A Pakistani government announcement this week that CIA drone attacks have killed just 67 civilians since 2008 has been greeted with confusion by a public that for years was told that the strikes have indiscriminately claimed hundreds of lives.
The announcement also surprised Obama administration officials, who have long said the number of civilians killed in the strikes by Hellfire missiles in Pakistan’s insurgency-plagued tribal area is extremely low, and who have dismissed previous figures given by the Pakistani government and independent studies as highly inflated.
U.S. officials in Washington and experts in both countries were trying today to discern why the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had drastically revised the official civilian death toll. As recently as March, the previous government had told a special United Nations rapporteur that the civilian toll from drone strikes was as high as 600.
“It is very, very strange, and it makes you wonder whether they are setting a new policy toward drones, because it certainly flies in the face of everything that the Pakistan government has been saying about drones in the past few years,” said Lisa Curtis, an analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.
The new civilian death toll was revealed Wednesday by the Ministry of Defense in an answer to a question from a Pakistani senator. Since 2008, the ministry said, 67 civilians had died in 317 CIA drone strikes that also had killed 2,160 terrorists. There have been no civilian deaths since January, the statement said, implying that the CIA’s aim has improved over time.
The answer took on added significance because it effectively came from Sharif, who has held the defense minister’s portfolio since his Cabinet took office in June after national elections in May. Sharif campaigned on a pledge to end the drone strikes, which he condemned as a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Sharif hammered that theme during a visit to Washington last week that included a meeting with President Barack Obama.
The latest drone strike — the 15th this year — occurred early Thursday, killing three suspected militants and wounding as many near Miranshah, the administrative center of North Waziristan, the last stronghold in the country of the Pakistani Taliban. The Foreign Ministry criticized the strike as a violation of sovereignty and human rights, but it said nothing about the militant casualties.
The new civilian death toll is far lower than publicly perceived in Pakistan, where the news media for years have followed an army narrative that said CIA drone strikes undermined the military’s efforts to end the Islamist extremist insurgency by preventing the military from winning the “hearts and minds” of the estimated 10 million residents of the tribal area. The narrative largely neglected to mention that the military had cooperated in many of the strikes.
Sharif, however, has been working to deconstruct the narrative. Within days of his June appointment as prime minister, he acknowledged that the military had coordinated strikes with the CIA and called for an end to the “policy of hypocrisy.”
Some security analysts in Islamabad and North Waziristan on Thursday called the government’s new figure broadly accurate and said it reflected a newfound transparency in security policy that had been part of an effort by Sharif, whose previous term as prime minister was ended by a military coup, to assert his civilian government’s authority over the military. The military has toppled elected civilian governments four times since the country won independence from Britain in 1947.
“There was never any doubt that very few civilians died in drone strikes, although they died, nonetheless,” said Mohammed Imran, a security analyst based in Islamabad. “The problem with the new statistics is that they have created ambiguity between the positions of the government and the military, and that will deepen public confusion and distrust toward all components of counterterrorism policy.”
The generals haven’t publicly opposed Sharif’s takeover of national security policy, in part because they’re waiting for him to select a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a new chief of staff of the army, the dominant arm of the services, analysts said.
The appointments are due by Nov. 27, when the incumbent army chief retires.
The new number also challenges recently released reports that suggested civilian casualties from drone strikes weren’t uncommon. The U.N.’s special rapporteur for drones only two weeks ago reported 33 drone incidents in which there was evidence that civilians had been killed, and a report that Amnesty International released last week accused the United States of having “violated the right to life” of Pakistani civilians and said the strikes “may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.”
The special rapporteur’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Puzzled by the vastly revised civilian death toll, journalists asked Information Minister Pervez Rasheed on Thursday whether Sharif was rethinking his demand for an end to the strikes. Not at all, he responded.
Analysts based in North Waziristan said the debate over drone strikes was viewed with skepticism in the tribal areas, where residents were squeezed between the Taliban and 150,000 Pakistani troops on the ground and CIA drones overhead.
“We are the victims of a political drama being scripted elsewhere and enacted at our expense,” said Safdar Hayat, a former president of the tribal area’s journalists union. “People here are so desperate that, given the choice between a Pakistani military operation and CIA drone strikes, most would prefer the drones because, unlike military operations, at least the drones don’t displace populations or flatten communities.”