Sorting Through Diverging Reports On Drone Strikes

Steve Inskeep talks with Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council about recent news out of Pakistan about drones.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's follow up now on the troubling question of civilians killed by American drones. It is believed the U.S. has conducted hundred of missile strikes by unmanned aerial vehicles on suspected militants, especially in Pakistan, a practice U.S. officials refused to talk about for years and still acknowledge only in general terms.

This week, members of Congress heard a Pakistani voice say, through an interpreter, that a drone strike killed his grandmother and injured him.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) When the drones fired the first time, the whole ground shook and black smoke rose up.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

But the day after that testimony, Pakistan's military released a surprising number. It said of more than 2,000 killed by U.S. drone strikes in recent years, only 67 were believed to be civilians. Still a lot of dead, but far fewer than independent reports had suggested. We brought in Shuja Nawaz, author and co-author of books on Pakistan. He's based at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank. Welcome back to the program.

SHUJA NAWAZ: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: So how could the number be so low. I don't want to minimize 67 dead, but that is way below any other guess we've seen.

NAWAZ: Well, this is why there was a furor in the upper house of the Pakistani Parliament, the Senate, with the opposition demanding that the interior minister who released these numbers as having been given to him by the defense ministry, that he should withdraw the numbers.

There's a huge gap between these numbers and the numbers that Ben Emerson, the U.N. rapporteur, who was investigating drone strikes in Pakistan said the foreign office of Pakistan had given him, which was closer to 400. Other groups have put the number at 300. But, in my view, this really brings up the famous quote attributed by Mark Twain to Disraeli, and actually not said by Disraeli, but should have been said...

(LAUGHTER)

NAWAZ: ...that there are three types of lies. There are lies, damned lies and statistics. So, this falls in that category. And nobody really knows what the exact numbers are, and there are very good reasons for that.

INSKEEP: Which are?

NAWAZ: Most of the strikes when they occur, if they are on a genuine target that involves militants, the militants tend to surround the site, protect it, clear, whatever evidence they need to remove the bodies, and only then can other people get to it.

Secondly, there is no known systematic method that is being used by the Pakistanis to try and gather information on these strikes. It's very hit or miss, literally.

An third, the only time that you have access to these strike sites is when in fact a mistake is made, an egregious mistake leading to a really innocent person or person getting killed. And so, those are the real - the ones where you can actually identify the families.

INSKEEP: And we'll just remind people that the overwhelming majority of drone strikes have been taking place what are called tribal areas, remote mountainous areas, not very accessible areas, with a lot of militancy going on.

Let me ask you, Shuja Nawaz, though, because the prime minister of Pakistan was here the other day in Washington; complained about the drone strikes, as Pakistanis have for years. But we have these very low estimates from the Pakistan government. Is this more evidence that the Pakistan government quietly doesn't mind these drone strikes; thinks they're mostly hitting the right people?

NAWAZ: This may well be in the aftermath of this visit, which went surprisingly well, much better than most people expected and maybe even better than the prime minister expected 'cause the drone rhetoric was before he had his big meetings with the senior officials at the White House and elsewhere. And it's quite possible that we may be seeing a new honeymoon between the U.S. and Pakistan following this visit.

INSKEEP: Meaning that they'll quiet the rhetoric in some of the areas of tension like this.

NAWAZ: Meaning that they will probably align some of their figures.

INSKEEP: Align some of their figures. But at the same time, and we've just got about 30 seconds here, is there something that troubles you about the continuing strikes, although they've been reduced in number in Pakistan?

NAWAZ: Well, it does continue to create problem with the Pakistani population in general because the government has been lying to them in the past and they don't know when the government is telling the truth.

INSKEEP: Shuja Nawaz, thanks very much, as always, for coming by.

NAWAZ: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: He is with the Atlantic Council, a think tank here in Washington, D.C.

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