A wave of air strikes by the Pakistani military in the country’s tribal northwest has killed at least 291 people, including a minimum 16 civilians, over the past six months, a Bureau investigation has found.
The Bureau gathered news reports of Pakistani military strikes taking place between December 19 2013 and June 15 2014. Using the same methodology used for our drones research, we found reports of 291 to 540 people killed in 15 strikes by Pakistani military aircraft. The reports suggest at least 16 – and possibly as many as 112 – civilians are among the dead.
All but one of the attacks took place in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, an area populated by civilian communities but also by large numbers of armed groups, including the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Over 400,000 people have fled the targeted areas since the air strikes intensified in May, according to the FATA Disaster Management Authority. While those registered by the authorities are likely to be civilians, AFP reported that members of militant groups have also been making their escape ahead of the long-rumoured military incursion.
On June 15, hours after launching air strikes that reportedly killed at least 105 and up to 150, the Pakistani Army announced the launch of a full military operation in the tribal area of North Waziristan, which has been the focus of the air strikes. An estimated 25,000 to 30,000 troops are expected to participate, including tanks, artillery, ground troops and air force, according to AFP.
‘People of the FATA have been the real victims of the conflict between the military and the terrorists’
- Senator Afraisab Khattak
In the first week of the strikes the Pakistan military claims that it has killed 257 alleged militants and no civilians, according to a tally of claims in military press releases by the Long War Journal. Access to the tribal regions is even more restricted than usual, meaning that it is impossible to verify the military’s claims.
But the Bureau’s data shows that even before the full military operation started, air strikes were killing hundreds of people and – according to some reports – claiming a high civilian toll.
The bombing has occurred even though the Pakistani government was attempting to hold peace talks with the TTP. These started in February but were repeatedly disrupted by terrorist attacks across Pakistan and retaliatory air strikes in the tribal belt. A Pakistani think-tank says that nearly 700 people, including many civilians, have been killed in militant suicide bombings and attacks in this time.
The peace talks ended conclusively at the start of the month after the TTP launched an attack on Karachi airport, in collaboration with Uzbek militants, that reportedly killed over 30 people. Militants cited Pakistani military strikes and previous US drone strikes as the reason for the airport attack.
Our analysis suggests that a series of attacks on May 21-22 across North Waziristan killed 30 to 80 people, and including at least four civilians. But local accounts suggest the civilian death toll is much higher.
Faizan Khan, 25, from Peshawar, has family in the North Waziristan capital, Miranshah, who witnessed the attack.
Speaking to the Bureau about the attack, he said: ‘Last month I was talking to my uncle, who lives in Miranshah, he told me that 17 people from one family died after they attacked a village square in Mir Ali which contained many businesses.
‘Many people have fled the region and many civilians are very scared it will happen again.’
After the May 22 strikes, an unnamed military official was quoted in local Pakistani newspaper Dawn saying that these attacks were ‘targeted’ at militants and ‘aimed to hit those orchestrating the attacks’.
Sources close to the army dispute the number of casualties. Former army commander Ikram Sehgal, who runs one of the largest private defence contracting firms in the country, says reports of civilian casualties have been exaggerated.
He told the Bureau: ‘I would say no more than six civilians have died. That information is coming from my own sources which I have cross-referenced.
‘That particular strike [May 22]… there could have been some children killed. And I am taking that as an exception. I would say half a dozen child casualties.’
He added: ‘This strike was directed against a particular leader. And they try and put a protective shield around them. All the precision airstrikes that took place target military training camps.’
Data collected by the Bureau from credible media reports contradicts this claim, shows that at least 16 civilians – and possibly as many as 112 - have been killed. The large discrepancy between the figures reflects the contradictory reports from eyewitnesses and government casualty estimates.
Amnesty International’s lead researcher on Pakistan, Mustafa Qadri, pointed out that almost all data in the media reports has come directly from the military. ‘When it comes through the Pakistan military, like all military sources, you need to be careful about the information,’ he said. ‘Much like the CIA with drones, the Pakistan government tends to publish what it wants the public to hear.
‘The journalists often get their reports about how many casualties there have been vetted by the military, of course the Taliban and other groups also pressure journalists to make reports favourable to them. It is difficult to determine the exact figures and circumstances as there is not much reporting on the ground in Waziristan.
‘There are many variables to consider when looking at the number of casualties from these strikes, and in fact the figures could be much higher. For instance you need to take into account the number of people that die as a result of their injuries, that is always under-reported.’
Eight of the 14 strikes documented by the Bureau took place between February 19 and 27, causing between 67 and 122 casualties.
The helicopter and jet strikes were targeted at eight separate towns and villages throughout North Waziristan and Khyber Agency. The military offensive followed a bus bomb attack on February 13 in Karachi that killed 13 policemen and wounded 47 others, including civilians.
Government reports suggest that the mastermind behind this attack and a number of his commanders were successfully killed in the February strikes.
Pakistani senator Afraisab Khattak said the strikes have claimed civilian lives. He told the Bureau: ‘People of the FATA have been the real victims of the conflict between the military and the terrorists.
‘Terrorists have been killing them with impunity and the state has miserably failed to provide security. Every time there is a military action Pashtuns of FATA get caught in the crossfire. Terrorists kill their respectable leaders and the state remains indifferent for all practical purposes.’
The military strikes have coincided with the longest pause in drone strikes of Obama’s presidency – with no drone strikes between Christmas Day and June 11. The Pakistani government had requested that the US stop carrying out strikes to allow peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) to take place, sources close to the negotiations told the Bureau in February. Days after the Karachi attack, drone strikes resumed, with two attacks reportedly killing at least 16 people.
Faizan Khan, whose family are based in Miranshah, told the Bureau that the high numbers of civilians killed in the Pakistani air strikes were leading some to suggest that drone strikes might be preferable.
He said: ‘The difference between the drone strikes and the military strikes is that drones target specifically who they want to target… the wanted terrorists… people are saying that drone attacks were good compared to the military strikes.
‘Personally I agree, because I have seen drones, they are in the air 24 hours and they don’t attack as randomly… the place of the attack was always an area where the Taliban or terrorists were living.’
In 2013, the Bureau recorded 27 CIA drone strikes in the region, killing at least 108 people in attacks that appeared to target senior commanders. Claims of civilian casualties been made in three of these strikes, but the Bureau has been unable to corroborate reports that up to four civilians were killed. Reporting on the ground in the tribal areas of Pakistan has become increasingly difficult due to the violence and instability.
But 2013′s drone strikes are very different from the campaign’s peak, in 2010, when the CIA was attacking a much broader range of targets. The attacks in 2010 are believed to include ‘signature’ strikes – a controversial tactic where people are selected for targeting based on suspicious patterns of behaviour. In that year, the US carried out a reported 128 strikes, killing at least 751 including a minimum of 84 civilians, according to the Bureau’s data.
Jennifer Gibson, who runs research projects on drones for legal charity Reprieve, emphasised that US drone strikes had killed thousands of people in Pakistan, and that the two campaigns should not be compared: ‘Weapons, including drones, are only as precise as the intelligence behind them. We know from the CIA’s own records that it frequently didn’t have any idea who it was killing. If you don’t know who you’re killing, then there’s nothing precise about your targeting.
‘A covert war carried out by a foreign power without any transparency allows for no accountability – and no recourse for the civilians who have lost innocent relatives to strikes.’