On the Questions of Drones, First Responders and Collective Punishment in Pakistan

Yesterday evening, I took the ill-advised step of jumping into an already ongoing Twitter discussion with Professor Christine Fair on the topic of drones in Pakistan. My jumping in was ill-advised on two fronts: I had not seen the comments to which Fair was responding, but, more importantly, I can’t come close to the experience, language skills and overall knowledge Fair brings to the issues of South Asia.

My first entry into the discussion was to respond to a statement from Fair in which she said that she supports drones and does not believe their use to be collective punishment. I asked whether the use of drones to attack first responders and mourners in Pakistan qualified as collective punishment and in a follow-up provided a link to the work by Chris Woods and Christina Lamb at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism where they document such attacks. Fair’s response was to point out that Woods and Lamb have not been to FATA and that the Pakistani press is heavily manipulated. She referred me to a piece she wrote for Monkey Cage for elaboration on the points she was making.

It appears that this is the post Fair was asking that I read. Before diving into it, I should point out that it is about a year old and was written primarily in response to earlier work by Woods and Lamb. For fairness, I should also point out that from the context of other tweets later in the evening, Fair was a passenger in a car during our conversation and so would have been working with fewer resources at hand than if at home and using a computer.

With that as prologue, here is Fair’s dissection of the reliance on press reports for analysis of drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas (BIJ is The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and NAF is the New America Foundation, where Peter Bergen and others have produced another drone strike database):

Their methodologies and data are fundamental weaknesses, although neither seem aware of this. Both NAF and BIJ claim that they have assembled a database which covers each individual strike in Pakistan in detail.  Unfortunately, both efforts fundamentally rely upon Pakistani press reports of drone attacks. Both claim that they use non-Pakistani media reports as well. For example the BIJ explains in their methodology discussion that the “…the most comprehensive information on casualties lies in the thousands of press reports of drone strikes filed by reputable national and international media since 2004. Most reports are filed within a day or two of an attack. Sometimes relevant reports can be filed weeks – even years – after the initial strike. We identify our sources at all times, and provide a direct link to the material where possible.”


While these methodologies at first blush appear robust, they don’t account for a simple fact that non-Pakistani reports are all drawing from the same sources: Pakistani media accunts [sic]. How can they not when journalists, especially foreign journalists, cannot enter Pakistan’s tribal areas?  Unfortunately, Pakistani media reports are not likely to be accurate in any measure and subject to manipulation and outright planting of accounts by the ISI (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) and the Pakistani Taliban and affiliated militant outfits.

The more recent report from Woods and Lamb (in which the first responder accusations are made), however, appears to have taken steps to address at least a portion of the shortcomings Fair has pointed out. Since it is not safe for foreign journalists to enter the tribal areas, Woods and Lamb engaged a group of local researchers to carry out interviews on their behalf:

But research by the Bureau has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.  A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.


For the Americans the attack was a success. A surprise tactic had resulted in the deaths of many Taliban. But locals say that six ordinary villagers also died that day, identified by Bureau field researchers as Sabir, Ikram, Mohib, Zahid, Mashal and Syed Noor (most people in the area use only one name).

[emphasis added]

Fair’s own analysis, however, seems to presage the targeting of first responders:

I believe that greater transparency about the drones will likely be exculpatory and actually extend the longevity of the drone program.  From my own research, drone attacks are more complex than ordinary air strikes. Drone strikes involve lawyers, intelligence officials, actual pilots and others to assess the nature of the target, establish a pattern of life to avoid civilian casualties, and ultimately to authorize or even call off a strike. Like conventional strikes, they are conducted by actual air force pilots. Unlike conventional air strikes, analysts become familiar with their would-be victims and have to watch the video footage of the strike and assess its outcome. Analysis of such footage also leads to information about other potential targets as affiliated militants often rush to the scene. (Indeed, the United States likely learned this from terrorists who pioneered the tactic of attacking at one site and waiting for first responders to appear only to strike again to maximize casualties.) It is a little known fact that people involved in this program are also vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.

I will assume for the sake of this argument that there is no disputing that follow-on drone strikes occur at the site of initial strikes. Fair clearly understands that the terrorist practice of secondary strikes to attack first responders is particularly heinous. She claims that drone operators are watching the aftermath of strikes to identify additional targets among the “affiliated militants” who “rush to the scene”. At this point, however, she must rely on the same sort of “dependent variable bias” of which she accuses The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the New America Foundation. Fair must rely on government assurances–which can’t be independently verified and for which the government has strong incentive to hide any evidence of wrongdoing–that follow-on strikes take place only when “affiliated militants” and not when innocent neighbors or official rescue personnel come to the scene of an initial strike. Otherwise, one can’t escape the conclusion that the US has decided that at least some collateral damage to rescuers is an acceptable price to pay when new targets arrive at the scene of an initial drone strike. How far down the slippery slope toward outright terrorism–and collective punishment–is such a conclusion?

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
16 replies
  1. OrionATL says:

    ” It is a little known fact that people involved in this program are also vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder.”

    this comment by prof fair could be taken as special pleading intended to inject sympathy into a question of factual matters.

    i recall that the u.s. claims to have tested its drone pilots for psychological adverse effects and claims to have found there was very little (+- 2% is my recollection). additionally, though, this testing may be meaningless since drone pilots are chosen in part on their psychological fitness for the job – rather like snipers.

  2. jo6pac says:

    potential targets as affiliated militants often rush to the scene

    I’m sure they’re all bad guys because we all know that people that have lived in the same villages for hundreds of years wouldn’t rush help their neighbor. Just more pr for war and to place blame on everyone but themselves.

  3. Chris Woods says:

    There are two distinct issues here. The one is the meta-data we and NAF employ (with very different approaches and findings). Fair cherrypicks aspects of TBIJ’s Methodology to imply a far narrower range of sources than we use to confirm her own biases (no mention of secret cables, US/ Pakistani military and diplomatic memoirs, on the record statements, academic papers, field studies, legal cases…)

    We’ve always been clear at the Bureau: those original credible media reports on the strikes are a good starting point. Indications are that at least on the overall numbers killed they’re pretty accurate. The point of tension, as even the CIA admits, is who is being killed.

    And to test that – and unlike NAF – we’ve mounted two major field investigations in FATA using our own researchers on the ground. For both we took only as a starting point those original media claims. Did they stand up? Quite often, yes, though there were significant discrepancies.

    So when TBIJ last year reported that the CIA had killed 45 civilians for certain – and that another 65 deaths raised significant concerns (at a time it claimed to have killed zero civilians) – we were able to name most of those killed, and the circumstances.

    When AP ran its own field investigation, based on eyewitness testimony from 80 civilians in FATA earlier this year, they substantially backed our own July 2011 findings when addressing the same strikes. Different sources, different methods, same outcomes.

    So either everyone in FATA is spinning furiously, or Dr Fair needs to rethink her view that no trustworthy evidence-based material can be obtained from Waziristan – a view that is not borne out by our work or that of others.

    Dr Fair is a fine academic on South Asian security issues. But her views on drone strikes appear to boil down to the CIA telling her that no civilians are dying – and her believing that. As she noted in that original article – though you didn’t:

    “As I have written elsewhere, U.S. officials interviewed as well as Pakistani military and civilian officials have confirmed to this author that drones kill very few “innocent civilians.” Indeed, it was these interviews that led me to revise my opinion about the drone program: I had been a drone opponent until 2008. I know believe that they are best option.”

    Perhaps best not to let some inconvenient facts get in the way of so strongly-held a conviction.

  4. OrionATL says:

    fair’s fundamental argument attacks the reliability of the sources that produce the numbers of dead targets and dead collaterals. those numbers are from what she labels the unreliable/manipulated pakistani press.

    o.k., so what’s a reliable number for dead collaterals – john brennan’s 0 or investigating specialists +500?

    does the political and moral problem of drone strikes killing non-combatants go away by attacking the source of current numbers being used to measure the magnitude of that killing?



  5. OrionATL says:

    prof fair’s attack on the reliability of the numbers of collateral dead may well arise from personal conviction and professional knowledge.

    it is however a well-established tactic employed when gov’t or corporate power encounters inconvenient information to have experts raise questions about the methodologies used or the magnitude or source of the numbers, cf attacks on public health scientists opposing the tobacco industry and scientists studying global warming.

    what such an attack can suceed in doing is changing the public argument from the basic political and moral issues to a focus and debate on mere counting – “who knows what the numbers are”.

  6. JThomason says:

    @OrionATL: You can bet your bottom dollar that the number is 100% collateral casualties for “an innocent until proven guilty standard by a jury of one’s peers.” With nebulous definitions of war at play and the “establishment of democracy” as a stated aim, the civil standard at least establishes a marker to understand the largely “irrational” means for determining who deserves to die.

  7. MadDog says:

    Beyond the simplistic belief and apparent child-like trust in the infallibility of US government assurances of “due diligence” when targeting and mounting drone strikes, it appears that Professor Christine Fair can’t be bothered to do her own homework.

    If she had, I’m sure she would be able to definitively answer each of these questions:

    1) What are the actual names of each of the individuals killed by US drone strikes? If not known, you’ve already failed the course.

    2) What were the actual “offenses” against the US of each of the individuals killed by US drone strikes (e.g. didn’t pay a parking ticket in Kenosha, Wisconsin versus planted a roadside IED bomb in Kandahar)?

    3) Were the “offenses” against the US of each of the individuals killed by US drone strikes of the kind where they had spoken out against various US policies, supported a different political group than the US (e.g. the Taliban), or because they had personally taken part in attacks against US persons or property using deadly force?

    Again, be specific. If you don’t have explicit incontrovertible and irrefutable evidence against an individual that would stand up in any court of law or be blessed by any reasonable jury, then you ain’t got nothing.

    4) Are US drone strikes targeted at individuals or groups of people for what they “might do” in the future or because of what they’ve already done in the past?

    Just a heads-up, but admitting that US drone strikes are targeted at individuals and groups for what they possibly “might do” in the future is especially problematic.

    5) With respect to this quote of Professor Fair’s:

    “…From my own research, drone attacks are more complex than ordinary air strikes. Drone strikes involve lawyers, intelligence officials, actual pilots and others to assess the nature of the target, establish a pattern of life to avoid civilian casualties, and ultimately to authorize or even call off a strike…”

    Would she please explicitly describe the how the US government magically determines the “intentions” of targets of US drone strikes?

    I should note that it would be a major scientific achievement worth worldwide acclaim if the US government has discovered the means to read people’s minds and intentions from 20,000 feet.

  8. Frank33 says:

    The New America Foundation is very serious, no hippies but lots of chickenhawks. Who pays the Insane Clown Posse of Dee Cee Think Tanks? Bill Gates, Petey Peterson and the Department of State.

    And who is the co-chair of the NAF National Security Advisory Council? It is their Plagiarist-in-Residence, Fareed Zakaria.

    They are brilliant scholars with such illuminating propaganda as Are ‘Swift Boat’ Attacks on Obama Bogus? or
    Right-Wing Extremist Terrorism as Deadly a Threat as al Qaeda? and Shootings by Afghan Forces Take Growing Toll on NATO Troops

  9. Chris Woods says:

    Glenn should watch out. As Christine Fair says of those pesky strikes on rescuers and funeral-goers:

    ‘US drones in FATA don’t do that. You can believe it.’

    Not a single US official, anonymous or otherwise, has publicly denied that story since we first broke it in February. Called Christina Lamb and I ‘friends of al Qaeda’, sure, but never got round to denying the actual story.

    So where’d Dr Fair get that gem from?

  10. bell says:

    christine fair is basically saying ‘trust us’, when all the facts to fallujah speak a different reality.. i guess that’s why some hate wikileaks so much.. it has eroded this automatic ‘trust’ that one is supposed to feel for all things american.. as greenwalds article highlights – the usa is acting as a terrorist.. all c. fair is doing is trying to spin some propaganda to suggest otherwise..

  11. Nic says:

    Who ya gonna believe: the lying Pakistani Media or the lying US government? I think the Pakistani media has more credibility.

  12. OrionATL says:


    yes, indeed.

    how can anyone, especially an academic researcher, give the u.s. gov’t a pass on the issue of the credibility of their statements?

    “who you gonna believe – us or your lyin’ interviews, head counts, photos, and documents research?”

  13. Frank33 says:

    You can believe Fareed Zakaria. He has been rehabilitated, by the Dee Cee Establishment. He will again be catapulting the Bipartisan warmongering. Hopefully he will stop stealing other people’s work. He was confused because he is so busy.

    The mistake, he said, occurred when he confused the notes he had taken about Ms. Lepore’s article — he said he often writes his research in longhand — with notes taken from “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” by Adam Winkler (W.W. Norton, 2011), a copy of which was on his desk at his CNN office.

    But it is Ok if you are a Republican, to be a thief and liar. And Fareed and Henry Kissinger are co-conspirators for global domination.

    Zakaria became a conservative, he says, from observing the Indian state. “People often say, ‘How could you, living in India, end up a Reaganite?’ Well, the answer is, live in India…

    Isaacson later recommended Zakaria for a job at Foreign Affairs, and not long after he was hired, Kissinger asked to meet the young man. “I discovered later that he bore a grudge because I had commented on some of Walter’s chapters,” Zakaria says. The meeting might have intimidated some, but “we had a scintillating time,”

  14. OrionATL says:


    i saw that – a trivial sentence to begin with for plagiarism (one month’s suspension from time and cnn). now mysteriously commuted to one week by time and cnn.

    if you can talk the talk (of the power elite in the u.s. of a),

    you don’t have to walk the walk (to the calaboose).

    in my view,

    fareed zakariah is overrated as a thinker

    and under deprecated as a thinker.

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