Drone Strikes and Civilian Casualties: Only One Statistic Matters

While a recent New America Foundation study found that 30 percent of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan are civilians, a new study by Bryan Glyn Williams finds the real number is a tenth that.

Spencer Ackerman, who has obtained an advanced copy, reports:

Much like the New America Foundation study, Williams’ team relied on English-language media accounts of the drone strikes in Pakistan to compile a data base of how many civilians and militants were reported to be killed. He conceded from the start that such a reliance is a “serious limitation” of the study — news reports can, after all, be incorrect — but the tribal areas of Pakistan where the strikes occur are often off limits to Western researchers, and even their Pakistani counterparts.

[…]

Williams’ results, which he said have been peer-reviewed, are as follows:

According to our database, as of 1 April 2010, there have been a total of 127 confirmed CIA drone strikes in Pakistan, killing a total of 1,247 people. Of those killed only 44 (or 3.53%) could be confirmed as civilians, while 963 (or 77.23%) were reported to be “militants” or “suspected militants.”

That leaves just over 19 percent of reported deaths out of either category, as their status as civilians or combatants can’t be rigorously determined under Williams’ methodology. But he writes that “even if every single ‘unknown’ is assumed to in fact be a civilian, the vast majority of fatalities would remain suspected militants rather than civilians — indeed, by approximately a 3.4:1 ratio.”

[…]

Both of the principle authors of New America’s drone strike survey, Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, are on vacation, but they both still (generously) addressed my questions. All three researchers — Bergen, Tiedemann and Williams — appeared to agree that New America was more methodologically aggressive than Williams in counting as civilians all who could not be clearly identified as militants, which perhaps accounts for the variance in their results.

Bergen observed in a Blackberried message that although his civilian death tallies are higher than Williams’, he has observed that the drone program has increased its accuracy over time, “so the later the the date that the study begins the lower the rate [of civilian deaths] will be.” That’s in line with Brennan’s intimation (he never actually uses the word “drones”) that the drone strikes “are more precise and more accurate than ever before.”

Accordingly, Bergen now pegs the civilian death rate from the drone strikes at 20 percent. Williams pegs it at 3.53 percent. What no one knows, however, is how many outraged Pakistanis take up arms against the U.S. or its allies as a result.

FP’s Christine Fair, seemingly independent of other of the aforementioned studies, pushes back against the “we’re creating more terrorists than we’re killing” argument and, in particular, a year-old NYT op-ed by David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum titled “Death from Above, Outrage from Below.”

The only publicly available civilian casualty figures for drone strikes in Pakistan come from their targets: the Pakistani Taliban, which report the alleged numbers to the Pakistani press, which dutifully publishes the fiction. No one has independently verified the Taliban’s reports — journalists cannot travel to FATA to confirm the deaths, and the CIA will not even acknowledge the drone program exists, much less discuss its results. But high-level Pakistani officials have conceded to me that very few civilians have been killed by drones and their innocence is often debatable. U.S. officials who are knowledgeable of the program report similar findings. In fact, since January 1 there has not been one confirmed civilian casualty from drone strikes in FATA.

Not only do drone opponents rely upon these fictitious reports of civilian casualties, they also tend to conflate drone strikes in Pakistan with air strikes in Afghanistan, lumping the two related but very different battlefields together as one contiguous theater. They also conflate different kinds of air strikes within Afghanistan.

These distinctions matter, a lot. In Afghanistan, it is an ignominious truth that hundreds of civilians are killed in NATO airstrikes every year. But most of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan have not stemmed from pre-planned, intelligence-led attacks; rather, civilians are most likely to die when troops come into contact with the enemy and subsequently request air support. This is because when it comes to air strikes, NATO forces in Afghanistan have a limited range of air assets at their disposal. As a result, when troops come into contact with insurgents and call for  air support, they get the ordinance that is available, not the firepower that would be best suited to their needs. Sometimes large bombs are dropped when smaller ones would have been better, and the risk of civilian casualties increases accordingly.

Exum dismisses this. Emphatically:

I do not care how many civilians drone strikes actually kill. And I do not care how many civilians Americans think drone strikes in Pakistan kill.

I care only about how many civilians Pakistanis think drone strikes kill. As one of the world’s experts on Pakistani public opinion, you should be able to provide that number to me, right? Because all you can tell me right now is the Pakistani press is dutifully reporting whatever the Taliban tells them … and I already know that. I don’t care in the slightest about what Pakistani generals or the CIA is telling you behind closed doors. It does not matter. I care about what those Pakistani generals are telling their public. I care, in other words, less about reality as defined by verifiable facts and figures and more about reality as it is interpreted in Pakistan and within Pakistani diaspora communities.

That’s exactly right.

Now, of course, the actual truth of the matter is worth investigating.  Presumably, having the real numbers will be worthwhile in pushing back against the propaganda of the Taliban and their enablers in the Pakistani military.  But the bottom line is that reliance on air strikes — of whatever sort — rather than commandos makes it much more likely that we’ll kill civilians and, more importantly in terms of the information war, much easier for the enemy to distort reality to his own advantage.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Intelligence, Military Affairs, World Politics, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Alex Knapp says:

    I think it’s a big leap to say that killing a “suspected” militant is somehow okay. What’s the basis for the suspicion? We don’t know. How does the CIA select its targets? We don’t know.




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  2. john personna says:

    You’re fighting the good fight on this one James. Sadly, long odds though.




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  3. Jim Henley says:

    Given that it’s wrong and evil to kill Pakistani civilians, surely the actual number killed also matters.




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  4. James Joyner says:

    Given that it’s wrong and evil to kill Pakistani civilians, surely the actual number killed also matters.

    Indeed. I’m wearing my political scientist/strategist hat here, simply looking at costs and benefits to our operation.

    To the extent that we’re fighting a just war, there’s a moral allowance for unavoidable civilian casualties. That’s especially true when, as here, nearby civilians are likely giving sanctuary to the enemy.

    The problem, however, is that soldiers — and especially professional soldiers — are under an obligation to try to prevent noncombatant deaths, even if it means achieving the mission in ways more dangerous to themselves. And fighting with tools that almost by definition lead to more noncombatant casualties is therefore problematic.




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  5. TangoMan says:

    I think it’s a big leap to say that killing a “suspected” militant is somehow okay. What’s the basis for the suspicion? We don’t know. How does the CIA select its targets? We don’t know.

    You know what else you don’t know? The rules of engagement that apply to every military encounter we have with the Taliban. Yet, I assume, you accept their reports and their undeclared definitions.

    The CIA has a different mission than the military. It will have different ROE. If we’re not requesting that the military publish the particulars of their ROE after each firefight then why should the CIA have to disclose these particulars and if they do how do you imagine the enemy would change their tactics if they became aware of this intelligence>




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  6. Andy says:

    Ok then, what’s the alternative? You may say that drone strikes don’t pass a cost-benefit analysis, but that all depends on how that compares to alternative actions. The reality is that drones are the only game in town to attack AQ and those harboring them in the Pakistani tribal areas.




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  7. walkerny says:

    It is time the rest of the world severely restrict the mobility of Muslims traveling and immigration of Muslims until the followers of this religion reform themselves. Heal your religion or become pariahs to the world. No I don’t care about their “rights”. I care about the victims of daily Muslim murder and mayhem.




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  8. Brian Moore says:

    James, I’m late to the discussion, but when you say:

    “And fighting with tools that almost by definition lead to more noncombatant casualties is therefore problematic.”

    Does this mean that drones have a higher civilian casualty rate than non-drone strikes? I have been trying to figure this out, but failing.




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  9. James Joyner says:

    Does this mean that drones have a higher civilian casualty rate than non-drone strikes? I have been trying to figure this out, but failing.

    Yes. Drone strikes — and pretty much any other relatively safe-for-the-utilizer methods — produce more civilian casualties than sending in commandos with knives and small arms. That may make sense in the case of a regime change or other Big War missions but not in in the context of COIN or SASO.




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  10. Brian Moore says:

    “Drone strikes — and pretty much any other relatively safe-for-the-utilizer methods — produce more civilian casualties than sending in commandos with knives and small arms.”

    Ok, I can definitely see how they would create more civilian casualties than infantry.

    But I assume in the majority of situations where drones are used, actual physical soldiers are not a possibility because the target will have left the area, or other reasons. So the drone is a replacement for a piloted craft air strike — if the military didn’t have drones, they’d send in piloted craft, like they were doing before they had drones. Is the civilian casualty rate for drones higher than piloted air strikes as well?

    I guess what I’m trying to determineis : should the stance of the person (like myself) who wants to minimize civilian casualties be:

    1. Stop using drones, but keep using air strikes, because they are worse than air strikes
    or
    2. Stop both drone and normal air strikes when civilian casualties will be high, because they are both equally (or close enough) bad.

    I’ve always advocated the second, because I assumed drones were just replacements for piloted craft bearing the same weapons with the same precision. If this is not true, and drones are worse in the civilian killing department, then I’ll revise my opinion.




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