How Ridiculous is Pakistan’s New Civilian Drone Victim Estimate? Terrorist Okra-Picking Grandma!

On October 24, 2012, Nabila Rehman, who was eight years old at the time, was helping her grandmother pick vegetables in the family’s garden in North Waziristan. Here is her description of what happened next:

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Remarkably, Pakistan’s government has now indirectly called Nabila’s grandmother, Mamana Bibi, a terrorist. That is because the government has released new figures, radically revising downward their estimate of civilians killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan. They must be calling Bibi a terrorist, because the figures claim that there were zero civilian casualties in 2012. Amnesty International provides many more details (pdf) on the strike that killed Bibi and on another strike in 2012 that killed eighteen civilian workers.

Here is Declan Walsh writing in the New York Times on the new figures from Pakistan:

In a surprise move, Pakistan’s government on Wednesday sharply revised downward its official estimate of civilian casualties caused by American drone strikes in the tribal belt, highlighting again the contentious nature of statistics about the covert C.I.A. campaign.

The Ministry of Defense released figures to lawmakers saying that 67 civilians were among 2,227 people killed in 317 drone strikes since 2008. The remainder of those killed were Islamist militants, the ministry said.


Recently, a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, said that the Pakistani government had reported at least 400 civilian deaths since the drone campaign started in 2004.

In an email, Mr. Emmerson noted that the revised figures were “strikingly at odds” with those he had been given earlier by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry and said he would be writing to the government seeking clarification.

“It is essential that the government of Pakistan now clarify the true position,” he said.

BBC gives us the directly comparable figures from The Bureau for Investigative Journalism:

The latest figures released by Pakistan differ dramatically from previous estimates, but no explanation was given for the apparent discrepancy.

London’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which researches Pakistan drone strikes, told the BBC it estimated based on reports that between 308 and 789 civilians had died since 1 January 2008 (of between 2,371 and 3,433 total deaths).

Since 2008 then, Pakistan has now revised their civilian death toll estimate down to 67 during a period when TBIJ documents a minimum of 308 civilian deaths and as many as 789. Somehow, Pakistan has reclassified several hundred deaths from civilian to terrorist. And among them is Mamana Bibi, who is now a terrorist okra-picking grandmother. [That one hits me especially hard; I have fond memories of my grousing about how itchy the okra plants were when I picked okra with my grandfather in his garden.]

Tom Hussain and Jonathan Landay at McClatchy sum up the response to this announcement by Pakistan: Read more

Did Declan Walsh Get Expelled from Pakistan because He Provided Drone Cover for Brennan’s Confirmation?

Three things have recently gotten me thinking about the legitimacy of US counterterrorism in Pakistan in terms of the partners we choose:

  • UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, using the opposition to US drone strikes of Pakistan’s political classes as the basis for claiming the drones are illegitimate, in spite of the silence of Pakistan’s national security class. 
  • General Joseph Dunford’s recent suggestion that the solution to US difficulties with Pakistan is to increase military-to-military ties; never mind that Admiral Mike Mullen had put a lot of faith in just such a plan as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, only to be disappointed by Pakistan’s support for the insurgency in Afghanistan.
  • The recent Pakistani court ruling declaring drones illegal (note, some international law experts have told me the decision is problematic on those terms, but nevertheless, it represents Pakistani courts censoring the policy supported by the national security establishment).

After all, everyone marginally attentive to drones in Pakistan knows the game: the US and the ISI and Pakistan’s military make agreements permitting the US to launch drone strikes in Pakistan — at both US and Pakistani targets — while the political and judicial classes in Pakistan increasingly voice their opposition.

To sustain its claim that its drone strikes in Pakistan operate with the sanction of the government, it seems, the Obama Administration must treat the consent of the military as more legitimate than that of the political classes. Our necessary disdain for what Pakistan’s fragile democracy has to say is precisely the kind of thing I meant when I talked about how drones undermine the nation-state.

Mind you, I think the US is giving unelected national security figures an increasingly large role in legitimizing its counterterrorism and counternarcotic programs in a lot of places (a topic I suspect I’ll return to). It’s one natural outcome of waging diplomacy primarily by military training.

Anyway, with all that in mind, I wanted to point to this explanation for why NYT’s reporter Declan Walsh was thrown out of Pakistan just before the elections (note: someone on Twitter pointed this out — though I’ve lost track of who said it).

Declan Walsh was thrown out for apparently annoying the military back in February with a story about conflict between the CIA and the ISI over the use of drone missiles.

These two stories — in which the CIA and ISI squabbled over who conducted two drone strikes in Waziristan in early February (significantly, the day before and the day after John Brennan’s February 7 confirmation hearing; the CIA had appeared to hold off on strikes during his confirmation because of sensitivity about drones) — appear like they may be the ones in question.

The first article, published March 4, the night before the Senate Intelligence Committee voted on Brennan’s nomination, cited 3 “American officials” denying the strikes were ours, and adding that the CIA had not engaged in such activities since January (that is, since Brennan’s nomination).

Yet there was one problem, according to three American officials with knowledge of the program: The United States did not carry out those attacks.

“They were not ours,” said one of the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the drone program’s secrecy. “We haven’t had any kinetic activity since January.”

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ICRC President Visits Obama, Brennan, Hagel Regarding “International Humanitarian Law”

ICRC President Peter Maurer (Wikimedia Commons)

ICRC President Peter Maurer (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross, yesterday completed four days of meetings with US officials in Washington. According to the blog site for the ICRC, Maurer met with President Barack Obama, senior members of Congress and a number of high-ranking government figures, including “Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Brennan, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, and Deputy Attorney General James Cole.”

It is perhaps not surprising that since there is a widespread hunger strike at Guantanamo (and since the ICRC visited Guantanamo earlier this month), detention issues were high on the list of topics for the meetings:

A focus of Mr Maurer’s visit was detention-related matters. “The United States, including its Congress, must urgently find a way to resolve all pending humanitarian, legal and policy issues relating to the detention of persons held at Guantanamo Bay, including those deemed to no longer represent a threat that justifies their continued detention there,” said Mr Maurer.

But Guantanamo was not the only topic. It comes as a welcome development to me that Maurer would widen the scope of discussion with key figures such as Obama, Brennan and Hagel to remind them of their duties under international humanitarian law:

“We enjoy a robust and multi-faceted dialogue with the United States, and my visit was an opportunity to discuss issues and contexts of mutual concern such as Syria and Afghanistan,” said Mr Maurer. “The United States values the mandate, positions and input of the ICRC and I am confident that this interaction will continue to bring concrete results, notably in terms of implementation of and respect for international humanitarian law in current and future battlefields.”

Especially when it comes to Obama and Brennan, it is striking that this statement can be construed as saying that the US needs to implement international humanitarian laws and to respect them. Although not stated outright, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion than to believe that the ICRC now believes that the US does not abide by international humanitarian law. I would think that the US practice of targeted killings, which is viewed by the UN as an issue for international law (and where the UN has called “double tap” drone strikes war crimes) would likely have been a topic for Maurer when talking with Brennan, who has played a key role in ordering drone strikes.

Sadly, I don’t share the ICRC’s optimism regarding our government’s respect for the “mandate, positions and input of the ICRC”. We need look no further than the sad news out of Guantanamo yesterday where it now appears that hundreds of thousands of confidential files and communications belonging to Guantanamo defense lawyers have been provided to the prosecution. In addition, a number of key files seem to have disappeared. From Carol Rosenberg: Read more

Breaking! Brennan Extends No Rule Drones for 2 Years

It’s hard to take this story — reporting, Exclusive: No More Drones for CIA — all that seriously given this assertion:

Brennan has publicly stated that he would like to see the CIA move away from the kinds of paramilitary operations it began after the September 11 attacks, and return to its more traditional role of gathering and analyzing intelligence.

Here’s what Brennan has in fact said about paramilitary operations and the CIA, in statements to Congress and therefore presumably with a bit more legal weight than what he says secretly to journalists.

What role do you see for the CIA in paramilitary-style intelligence activities or covert action?

The CIA, a successor to the Office of Strategic Services, has a long history of carrying out paramilitary-style intelligence activities and must continue to be able to provide the President with this option should he want to employ it to accomplish critical national security objectives.

How do you distinguish between the appropriate roles of the CIA and elements of the Department of Defense in paramilitary-style covert action?

As stated in my response to Question 6 above, the CIA and DOD must be ready to carry out missions at the direction of the President. The President must be able to select which element is best suited. Factors that should be considered include the capabilities sought, the experience and skills needed, the material required, and whether the activity must be conducted covertly. [my emphasis]

What Brennan does have the habit of doing is providing evasive answers when people who want CIA out of the paramilitary business ask him about it, as he did several times in his confirmation hearing.

MIKULSKI: So, let me get to my questions. I have been concerned for some time that there is a changing nature of the CIA, and that instead of it being America’s top spy agency, top human spy agency to make sure that we have no strategic surprises, that it has become more and more executing paramilitary operations.

And I discussed this with you in our conversation. How do you see this? I see this as mission-creep. I see this as overriding the original mission of the CIA, for which you’re so well versed, and more a function of the Special Operations Command. Could you share with me how you see the CIA and what you think about this militarization of the CIA that’s going on?

BRENNAN: Senator, the principal mission of the agency is to collect intelligence, uncover those secrets, as you say, to prevent those strategic surprises and to be the best analytic component within the U.S. government, to do the allsource analysis that CIA has done so well for many, many years. At times, the president asks and directs the CIA to do covert action. That covert action can take any number of forms, to include paramilitary.


And the CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations.

Now, Brennan has actually made that last comment — that he wants CIA out of traditional military activities — several times, as well.

From this we can make the following conclusions:

  • If flying remotely piloted aerial vehicles and shooting missiles from them is a traditional military operation — and they sure should be — then Brennan wants out.
  • If flying remotely piloted aerial vehicles and shooting missiles from them is a paramilitary operation (which is the implied understanding of most people who comment on this), then Brennan very much plans on keeping that capability in case the President wants to conduct such operations covertly.

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Ben Emmerson: Dupe on Two Continents, or Politically Savvy Diplomat?

If I’m not mistaken, the people accusing UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, of condoning lies in his recent report on drone strikes in Pakistan had no such reaction when Emmerson endorsed John Brennan to head the CIA.

That’s not surprising. Some of the same people consistently read articles presenting evidence that Brennan was not the moderating force on the drone program his boosters claimed and yet parroted the headlines of those articles that said he was.

Don’t get me wrong. Like these Emmerson critics, I take Emmerson’s report solely for what it is: a report on what the civilian, democratically-elected leadership of Pakistan wants to say about drone strikes in Pakistan, not a report on what is really going on in Pakistan, largely under the leadership of Pakistan’s permanent shadow government. Indeed, I was one of the first to point out how Emmerson’s inability to talk to Pakistan’s military and ISI in his reporting trip highlighted the differences between what civilian and military in Pakistan were saying, rather than reflected any “reality” on the ground.

What the release does, then, is lay out in stark contrast the degree to which Pakistan’s civilian and military authorities are sending different messages.

I just read Emmerson’s motives to be different than, simply, sanctioning a lie.

Indeed, I think his comments to Spencer Ackerman and Jack Goldsmith’s interpretation on his endorsement of Brennan might offer some insight on how he’s approaching his efforts to put some legal framework on the use of drones internationally, and why he presented Pakistan’s claims with such seeming credulity.

Emmerson told Spencer that while he might not agree with policies Brennan endorses, having him lead CIA would at least make the program more accountable.

“By putting Brennan in direct control of the CIA’s policy [of targeted killings], the president has placed this mediating legal presence in direct control of the positions that the CIA will adopt and advance, so as to bring the CIA much more closely under direct presidential and democratic control,” Emmerson says. “It’s right to view this as a recognition of the repository of trust that Obama places in Brennan to put him in control of the organization that poses the greatest threat to international legal consensus and recognition of the lawfulness of the drone program.”

“Warts and all” conversations with current and former Obama administration officials convince Emmerson that Brennan tried to steer the drone program from a “technology-driven process” to one that attempted to balance the interests of the law, counterterrorism, and the agencies involved in implementing it. “There are significant elements within the CIA who are unhappy about Brennan’s appointment,” Emmerson says. “These are the hawkish elements inside the CIA who would rather have as a director someone who reflected their agenda, rather than someone who is there to impose the president’s agenda.”

Emmerson says he can’t know if Brennan will actually carry out fewer drone strikes at the CIA. “What I’m saying is, Brennan has been the driving force for the imposition of a single consistent and coherent analysis, both legal and operational, as to the way the administration will pursue this program,” he explains. “I’m not suggesting that I agree with that analysis. That’s not a matter for me, it’s a matter for states, and there’s a very considerable disagreement about that. But what I am saying is that what he will impose is restraint over the wilder ambitions of the agency’s hawks to treat this program in a manner that is ultimately unaccountable and secret.” [my emphasis]

Jack Goldsmith deems Emmerson’s acceptance of the myth that the CIA has been operating in rogue fashion as gullible or naive–critically, some of the same adjectives being used to describe his reporting on Pakistan.

By confirming Emmerson’s ex ante bias that the CIA is a cowboy institution operating lawlessly and beyond presidential control, the officials and former officials who talked to Emmerson are clearly trying to protect the President and the White House (and, no doubt, themselves) from Emmerson’s investigation at the expense of the CIA.  Emmerson’s gullibility or naivete (if those are the right terms) on this matter makes clear what has been pretty clear from the beginning, namely, that the CIA, and not the USG, is his real target.

I would suggest, however, that whether Emmerson is being naive or savvy, the effect is the same. He aggressively supported Brennan taking the helm at CIA (in a way that Goldsmith notes may make his life more difficult at CIA).

A position where, it should be said, Brennan will reportedly be operating outside the Drone Rulebook he himself devised.

But, according to both the analysis of Emmerson and those who are calling him naive, given Brennan’s close relationship with Obama, even those off-rulebook drone strikes will now operate with no plausible deniability. Whether CIA was genuinely operating as a cowboy before or not, going forward it will be almost impossible to argue it is doing so, because Brennan, a very close Obama aide, will be overseeing the program.

I think both Emmerson’s endorsement of Brennan and his presentation of a view the civilian government of Pakistan would like to tell rather than the reality serve the same purpose: To highlight the way drone wars operate within big loopholes of democratic accountability and possibly, to move towards eliminating those loopholes.

Emmerson is a UN diplomat operating with almost no leverage, and I’m not at all confident he’ll succeed.

But his effort seems to understand a point I’ve long made about drones and Rosa Brooks has recently been addressing as well. Beyond any question about efficacy and civilian casualties, conducting drone strikes as we have been undermines the principles of sovereignty (which, it should be said, is an important part of any authority the UN might have over such issues) in both targeted and targeting states.

Maybe I’m misreading Emmerson’s actions as being far more astute than they really are–maybe he is the dupe his critics make him out to be. But he seems to be using his public statements to address the underlying problems with imposing some international legal framework on drones as much as he is the specifics.

Congratulations to Pakistan for Peaceful Transfer of Civilian Power the Military Ignores

McClatchy has an article hailing the Pakistani Parliament’s ability to serve out its entire five year term without being overthrown.

Pakistan’s Parliament completed its term Saturday and the coalition government was dissolved, the first time in the country’s history that a democratically elected government has served its full five years in office.

The way is now open for elections and an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power to another elected administration, even though the country is plagued by political instability.

“This is a milestone in the political history of Pakistan,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a political science professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. “The significance is that there is consensus among all political parties that democracy must continue, no matter how good or bad.”

He added, “The only way to improve the quality of democratic government is democratic continuity.”

Pakistan has long been dominated by its giant military, which until Saturday had scuttled every previous Pakistan experiment with democracy. The United States, which has supported military governments in Pakistan in the past, blames the military for supporting radical Islamist groups and keeping relations tense with India and hopes that the establishment of democracy will weaken the army sufficiently to force it to give up its support for extremist groups.


Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has won praise for not seeking to topple the PPP government, and army chief Gen Ashfaq Kayani has been lauded, especially by the United States and other Western powers, for staying out of politics more than his predecessor had. [my emphasis]

And while I don’t want to diminish this achievement, I find the celebration ironic given this report, from the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson, reporting on his trip to investigate America’s use of drones in Pakistan. In it, Emmerson pointed to a number of pieces of evidence showing Pakistan does not consent to our drone strikes on its soil.

The Special Rapporteur was informed that Pakistan considers that its own democratically elected civilian Government, aided by its law enforcement agencies and military forces, are best placed to judge how to achieve a lasting peace in the region, and that interference by other States in this process has been, and continues to be, counter-productive to those efforts.


Officials stated that reports of continuing tacit consent by Pakistan to the use of drones on its territory by any other State are false, and confirmed that a thorough search of Government records had revealed no indication of such consent having been given. Read more

Pakistan Undercuts America’s Drone War

The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counterterrorism, Ben Emmerson,  just released a press release on his trip to Pakistan which is part of his inquiry into the use of drones.

The Pakistanis appear to have used Emmerson’s visit to undercut the legal basis for our drone war there.

During the visit, the Government emphasized its consistently-stated position that drone strikes on its territory are counter-productive, contrary to international law, a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that they should cease immediately.

The Special Rapporteur was informed by the Government that Pakistan does not consider the situation in FATA to amount to an armed conflict (whether international or non-international). To the contrary, Pakistan considers that its own military forces operating in the region are engaged in a law enforcement operation aimed at countering terrorism in support of the civilian administration.

And even mocked the “unwilling or unable” language we use to claim our strikes there are legal.

The Special Rapporteur was informed in the clearest possible terms that Pakistan’s Government and Parliament unequivocally rejects any suggestion that its authorities and armed forces, acting together, are either “unable or unwilling” to tackle the problem of terrorism effectively on the sovereign territory of Pakistan.

Emmerson’s statement spends a lot of time laying out the efforts the Pakistanis have made to get the Americans to stop the drone strikes.

Officials stated that reports of continuing tacit consent by Pakistan to the use of drones on its territory by any other State are false, and confirmed that a thorough search of Government records had revealed no indication of such consent having been given. Officials also pointed to public statements by Pakistan at the United Nations emphasizing this position and calling for an immediate end to the use of drones by any other State on the territory of Pakistan.

In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed the Special Rapporteur that since mid-2010 (and to date) the Government has regularly sent Notes Verbales to the US Embassy in Islamabad protesting the use of drones on the territory of Pakistan and emphasizing that Pakistan regards these strikes as a violation of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and requiring the US to cease these strikes immediately.

There are several more paragraphs describing legal efforts to get us to stop the drones.

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