Last weekend’s drone strike that killed Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was the first acknowledged by the U.S. military in Pakistan and will be included in an upcoming White House accounting of all those killed in counterterrorism operations outside active war zones.
The inclusion of attacks in Pakistan, nearly all of which have been conducted as CIA covert actions, will significantly boost the overall number of strikes taken since 2009. The statistics, which may be presented in aggregates without specific reference to geographic location or date, will include drone-fired missiles in Pakistan and drone and other air attacks in Yemen, Somalia and Libya, along with government tallies of combatant and civilian casualties.
The Washington Post had previously reported that Pakistan would probably not be included in the tally.
The statistics to be released will not include airstrikes or casualties — either combatant or civilian — in what are considered the active war zones of Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
“We’re still working on it; we don’t have anything to announce yet,” said a U.S. official who was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue. The numbers are expected to be released in the coming weeks as part of President Obama’s pledge to be more transparent in describing lethal U.S. actions overseas.
Absent specific information about when and where they occurred, the total accounting of civilian deaths could spark as much controversy as the attacks themselves. One official said the number could be significantly lower than the hundreds estimated by several independent groups who use local contacts and media reports to assemble their counts.
The administration has long since discarded the 2011 statement by John Brennan, then Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser and now CIA director, that “nearly for the past year there hasn’t been a single collateral death” from drone strikes.
But it has consistently rejected the high independent claims of civilian casualties from the precision weapons. “There is no doubt that some innocent people have been killed by drone strikes,” Obama, who has cited “misinformation” on the subject, said last month. “What I can say with great certainty is that the rate of civilian casualties in any drone operation are far lower than the rate of civilian casualties that occur in a conventional war.”
The administration gathers its own reporting from after-strike overhead surveillance and both signals and human intelligence on the ground.
Since 2013, when Obama announced newly restrictive guidelines for drone and other strikes outside official war zones and a desire for increased transparency, the Pentagon has released information on a number of drone and other airstrikes taken by the military in Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
Pakistan has been the administration’s most active and written-about drone program, with hundreds of strikes in the tribal regions close to the Afghanistan border reported by local residents, the Pakistani government and outside organizations.
The administration has only thrice publicly acknowledged drone attacks there. The first was in April 2015, when hostages Warren Weinstein, a U.S. aid worker, and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto were mistakenly killed in a CIA strike targeting al-Qaeda. The White House also announced in April 2015 that a January strike that year had killed U.S. citizen and alleged al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn.
The third time was this past weekend, when the military announced it had targeted Mansour in the southwestern Pakistan province of Baluchistan. The attack that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011 was a CIA-operated ground assault carried out by helicopter-borne U.S. Navy SEALs.
Strikes in Pakistan have always been particularly sensitive. Begun in 2004 by the George W. Bush administration and sharply escalated during Obama’s first term, CIA drone attacks were conducted with what U.S. officials said was the private acquiescence of Pakistan’s government, which nonetheless sharply protested them in public.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included an incomplete quotation attributed to then-senior White House aide John Brennan. Brennan said in June 2011 that “nearly for the past year there hasn’t been a single collateral death” in U.S. counterterrorism operations. The article also incorrectly stated that only two U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have been announced by the Obama administration. There have been three. The White House announced in April 2015 that a January strike that year had killed U.S. citizen and alleged al-Qaeda operative Adam Gadahn.