Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of America’s increasing drone use is the number of civilian casualties that result from the strikes. Various outlets have counted the number of casualties differently, but they all find that the numbers are troubling. The British-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s most recent investigation found that since Barack Obama has been president, 535 civilians have been killed by drones, including more than 160 children.
The Obama administration presents a different story. Those drone attacks, carried out by unmanned aircraft controlled thousands of miles away, don not do a lot of harm, President Obama has said. According to Obama, drones have “not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.” He added that it is “important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash.”
The New America Foundation, a non-partisan Washington think tank, finds that 295 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including seven in 2012, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,782 and 2,768 individuals, of whom around 1,480 to 2,297 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. “Thus, the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 17 percent. In 2011, it was more like 11 percent,” the Foundation writes. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institution, for every militant killed, ten civilians have also been killed.
Conversely, the Associated Press found that “American drone strikes inside Pakistan are killing far fewer civilians than many in the country are led to believe, according to a rare on-the-ground investigation.” An AP reporter who spoke to about 80 villagers at the sites of the 10 attacks in North Waziristan, the main sanctuary for militants in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region along the Afghan border, was told that a significant majority of the dead were combatants.
Indeed, the AP was told by the villagers 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, and 38 of them were killed in a single attack on March 17, 2011. The numbers gathered by the AP turned out to be very close to those given by Pakistani intelligence on the day of each strike, the main difference being that the officials often did not distinguish between militants and civilians.
The U.S. estimates of civilian casualties are far too low, according to Christopher Rogers, a Pakistan field fellow at the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. “There’s no accountability, no one is keeping count of the civilian deaths and no compensation is paid.”
Rogers, a lawyer who has studied civilian casualties in Pakistan from drone attacks and other military action, said that regardless of casualty tolls, the U.S. still needs to make the program more transparent to prove it is complying with international laws on who may be targeted and measures to minimize the loss of innocent lives.
“The percentage of militants killed is an important piece of this, but it is one piece of a larger picture,” said Rogers, who also works at Open Society Foundations, an advocacy group in New York City. “The bigger issue here is the covert nature of the program, the complete lack of any transparency and accountability and the lack of information about how the U.S. distinguishes a militant from a civilian.”
The CIA does not always even know whom they are killing. According to the U.S. government’s standards, “men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known” are targeted to be killed. A former head of the CIA’s counter-terrorism center, Robert Grenier, believes the U.S. is creating more terrorists than killing them in its drone campaign. “By launching those attacks, are we creating more militants than in fact we are killing?” He elaborated: “I think that drones are effective in doing what it is they are designed to do, and that is launch very specific, surgical focused strikes against individual and small groups of militants,” he said. “That then has unintended political and other effects….So in a sense, yes, we have helped to bring about the situation that we most fear.” As counterterrorism expert David Kilcullen put it, “When we intervene in peoples countries to chase small cells of bad guys, we end up alienating the whole country and turning them against us.”
A poll conducted in May 2011 by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center found that overwhelming majorities of Pakistanis who were aware of drone strikes said they were a bad thing and killed too many innocents. Pakistani officials regularly criticize the strikes as violations of the country’s sovereignty, but there has long been some level of Pakistani acquiescence or help in the program.