AP's analysis of casualties from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan: the backstory

Feb. 28, 2012
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(In this Feb. 28 note below to The Associated Press staff, AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes explains how AP's analysis of casualties from U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan stemmed from establishing the facts behind a major issue besetting the American fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.)


As the U.S. drone war in Pakistan intensified, anti-American fervor was stoked by claims that most of the casualties were innocent civilians, not militants. Imran Khan, one of the country's most popular politicians, called on the media to go to the areas in question and see for themselves.

The AP was already doing just that.

Working with a local reporter who braved extreme personal danger, Islamabad correspondent Sebastian Abbot produced one of the most detailed analyses yet of casualties from 10 of the bloodiest strikes in the past year and a half. It showed that the attacks are killing far fewer civilians than many in the country are led to believe by right-wing politicians, clerics and the militants themselves.


The attacks were in North Waziristan in Pakistan's rugged tribal region, one of the most dangerous places in the world. It's off-limits to foreign journalists, so the local reporter, who works regularly with the AP, had to do the legwork.

It was the only way for AP to see for itself.

Remarkably little was known about who had been killed in the attacks, given the travel difficulty and the U.S. government's refusal to talk openly about the covert CIA-run program.

Abbot developed the idea for a rare on-the-ground investigation while reporting about a strike in March 2011 that killed four militants and 38 civilians and tribal police.

"I was surprised to discover the level of detail our local reporter was able to get from villagers around the attack site about exactly what happened," Abbot said. "I figured it would be worthwhile to try a broader analysis to get a better sense of who was being killed in the strikes."

The story took nearly six months. After consulting the local reporter, Abbot chose the 10 attacks to study based on the initial reports of how many people were killed and whether the sites were safe enough for the reporter to visit.

The reporter, who was not named on the story for security reasons, made several trips to North Waziristan and spoke to about 80 villagers about the attacks. Many people were wary about talking, so he had to look for acquaintances such as former classmates who could vouch for him. Even then, many people were happy to share a cup of tea but no information.

It was difficult, too, to move around without being noticed by the Taliban. And there was the even greater fear of a drone strike while he was there, putting him in danger of being killed as a spy by militants who might have suspected him of helping with targeting.

Some analysts have been skeptical of such assignments on the assumption that villagers would follow the militants' narrative of high civilian death tolls to avoid reprisals. The AP found otherwise.

The villagers said that of at least 194 people killed in the attacks, about 70 percent -- at least 138 -- were militants. The remaining 56 were either civilians or tribal police, 38 of whom were killed in the single attack last March. Excluding that strike, nearly 90 percent of those killed were militants.

Abbot compared the numbers with what anonymous Pakistani intelligence officials had reported on the day of each strike and found them to be very close. The main difference was that the intelligence officials often did not distinguish between militants and civilians.

After gathering all the information, Abbot worked extensively with the national security team in Washington to get comment from the U.S. counterterrorism community. U.S. officials who refused to be quoted by name rejected accounts of any civilian casualties.

For establishing the facts behind a major issue besetting the American fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Abbot and his courageous colleague win this week's $500 prize.

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