Reported civilian deaths fell sharply in Pakistan in 2012, with Bureau data suggesting that a minimum of 2.5% of those reported killed were civilians – compared with more than 14% in 2011. This suggests the CIA is seeking to limit non-militant casualties, perhaps as a result of sustained criticism.
Drone strikes in Pakistan are now at their lowest level in five years, as Islamabad protests almost every attack. The CIA also appears to have abandoned ‘signature strikes’ on suspected militants fitting certain patterns of behaviour – at least for the present. Almost all attacks in recent months have been against named al Qaeda and other militant leaders.
As drone strikes fell in Pakistan they rose steeply in Yemen, as US forces aided a major military campaign to oust al Qaeda and other Islamists from southern cities. A parallel CIA targeted killing programme killed numerous alleged militants, many of them named individuals. Yet US officials took more than three months to confirm that American planes or drones had killed 12 civilians.
Little is still known about US drone strikes in Somalia, with only two credibly reported incidents in 2012. One of those killed was a British-Somali militant, Bilal al-Barjawi.
In 2012,the US also chose to loosen the bonds of secrecy on its 10-year-old drone targeted killing programme. A number of senior officials went on the record about aspects of the covert war. But details of those killed – still a highly contentious issue – remain classified.
The year also saw a number of significant legal challenges to the campaign, most of them ultimately unsuccessful. UN experts also announced a study into possible war crimes, partly in response to a Bureau/Sunday Times investigation.
President Obama became the first senior US official in eight years openly to discuss the covert drone programme in January, telling viewers of a Google Town Hall session that ‘a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Area], and going after al Qaeda suspects.’
And he insisted that ‘actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties, for the most part they have been very precise precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates.’
Days afterwards, the Bureau and the Sunday Times published evidence in February showing that the CIA has deliberately targeted rescuers and funeral-goers in Pakistan, leading to the reported deaths of civilians. The administration has yet to deny the claims – although one anonymous senior official appeared to claim that the Bureau was ‘helping al Qaeda.’
A major covert US military offensive in Yemen began in March. Its aim – in which it was successful – was to break al Qaeda’s grip on a number of towns and cities in the south of the country. By late spring, drone strikes were occurring more frequently in Yemen than in Pakistan.
One reason for a decline in Pakistani strikes may have been growing hostility. Some 74% of polled citizens said they viewed the US as an enemy, and uniquely Pakistan bucked a global trend to register as the only nation favouring Mitt Romney for president. In contrast, the American public appears to staunchly support covert drones – in one poll 83% of respondents were in favour of the strikes.
The British High Court was called on in April to look into US covert drone strikes and possible British co-operation, which some lawyers in the UK insist is illegal. Days before the end of the year the High Court declined to investigate. After years of inactivity, US and Pakistani courts also began to consider legal questions surrounding the campaign.
In one of the biggest news stories of the year, in May the New York Times revealed that President Obama was personally deciding whether to kill some individuals. The paper also revealed that the administration ‘counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.’
As the Bureau noted at the time, ‘The revelation helps explain the wide variation between credible reports of civilian deaths in Pakistan by the Bureau and others, and the CIA’s claims that it had killed no ‘non-combatants’ between May 2010 and September 2011 – and possibly later.’
In June, Washington partially declassified aspects of the secret campaign, with officials openly acknowledging ‘direct action’ in Yemen and Pakistan. However the CIA’s parallel campaign remains classified – and Pentagon officials still refuse to release information relating to specific drone strikes.
CNN found itself in the firing line in July when it claimed there had been ‘zero civilian casualties’ from US drone strikes in Pakistan in the first six months of the year. The Atlantic was among a number of publications which attacked the broadcaster for relying on error-filled data.
One of Pakistan’s most senior diplomats told the Bureau and the Guardian in August that drone strikes were now undermining democracy. And in September, President Obama laid out the five rules he said need to be followed in covert US strikes, as it emerged that US ‘consent’ for strikes in Pakistan appears to rest on a monthly unanswered fax.
October saw the publication of a major academic report by Columbia Law School into the reporting of drone strike casualties. Noting the problems all casualty recorders face, the study concluded that only the Bureau appeared to be accurately reflecting reported civilian deaths. An earlier study by Stanford and New York universities reached similar conclusions.
The tenth anniversary of the first US covert drone strike in November received little US coverage, coming as it did days before the presidential elections. Both Obama and Mitt Romney had told voters that it would be business as usual if elected.
And days after the 300th Pakistan drone strike of Obama’s presidency, the Bureau exclusively reported in December on declassified data which showed 1,200 US and British conventional drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
Pakistan: The drop in strikes from their 2010 peak continued, and proportionally civilian casualties plummeted. Of at least 246 people killed in 2012 only 7 were credibly reported as civilians. Last year 68 non-combatants were reported among a minimum of 473 dead.
Yemen: After al Qaeda took and held a swathe of land in southern Yemen, the US responded by massively increasing the rate of drone and air strikes. At least 185 people were killed. But up to two thirds of the strikes and casualties exist in a limbo of accountability.
Somalia: The US fight in the Horn of Africa is the most secretive in the covert war on terror. There were only two confirmed US strikes in Somalia this year despite evidence that operations are continuing unreported.