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’ve 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’ve 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 Thursday 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’s 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.