For years, the Obama administration has claimed that unmanned aircraft limit collateral damage in the war on terror. The numbers show otherwise.
- By Micah ZenkoMicah Zenko (@MicahZenko) is a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy., Amelia Mae WolfAmelia Mae Wolf is a research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
On April 8, at the University of Chicago Law School, U.S. President Barack Obama responded to a criticism of his use of armed drones. “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 conventional war,” he said.
Obama’s assertion that drones result in fewer civilian casualties than other weapons is a long-standing, and thus far unquestioned, argument for his administration’s defense of drone strikes. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared in 2013, “You can far more easily limit collateral damage with a drone than you can with a bomb, even a precision-guided munition, off an airplane.” The year prior, former CIA Director Leon Panetta claimed, “I think this is one of the most precise weapons that we have in our arsenal.” And as far back as 2010, Harold Koh, State Department legal advisor at the time, stated that drones “have helped to make our targeting even more precise.”
The Obama administration’s assumption that drones cause less collateral damage than piloted aircraft is simply untrue. According to the best publicly available evidence, drone strikes in non-battlefield settings — Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — result in 35 times more civilian fatalities than airstrikes by manned weapons systems in conventional battlefields, such as Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. There are sound arguments that can be made in favor of U.S. drone strikes, but their supposed precision should not be one of them.
Since the anti-Islamic State air campaign began in August 2014, coalition airstrikes totaling 41,697 have killed approximately 577 civilians, or one civilian per 72 bombs dropped. Naturally, there are disagreements among reporters, human rights organizations, and U.S. government officials about civilian deaths. While the U.S. Air Force reports total airstrikes, our estimated civilian fatalities are based on the combined average of two sources: the U.S. Defense Department, which acknowledges the death of only 35 civilians (and 25,000 Islamic State fighters), and the nonprofit research group Airwars, which claims 1,118 civilian fatalities and bases its estimates on numerous monitoring groups. Although some of these airstrikes are conducted using drones, the vast majority are not: In Iraq and Syria, 93 percent of all U.S. bombs have been dropped by manned aircraft.
In Afghanistan, between when Obama entered office in January 2009 and the end of last year, 24,848 bombs had killed 1,214 civilians, or one civilian per 21 bombs dropped. Again, the U.S. Air Force provides a count for bombs dropped, while the civilian fatality estimates are released biannually by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. As in Iraq and Syria, drone strikes only made up a small percentage of all airstrikes in Afghanistan: 7 percent, according to data released by the Air Force in 2013. To be sure, the use of drones has gone up dramatically in recent years: On April 20, the Air Force released data exclusively to Reuters showing that unmanned aircraft deployed 56 percent of bombs in Afghanistan in 2015. That year, a total of 947 bombs dropped by international forces killed 103 civilians.
Meanwhile, drone strikes in non-battlefield countries tell a much different story. Since Obama entered office, 462 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have killed an estimated 289 civilians, or one civilian per 1.6 strikes. These estimates are an average of the ranges provided by three research NGOs: the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, New America Foundation, and Long War Journal. (The U.S. government releases no data on the number of drone strikes or casualties in these countries, claiming the “covert” missions are classified information.)
In short, drones are far less precise than airstrikes conducted by piloted aircraft, which themselves also conduct “precision strikes.” Drones result in far more civilian fatalities per each bomb dropped.
Because we know little about the rules of engagement for drones and how the U.S. government classifies victims, we can only speculate why this is the case. It could be that targeted individuals are hiding among civilian populations, as Osama bin Laden advised his followers to do. Or, that the standards that need to be met before authorizing a strike are less rigid than Obama’s purported principle of “near certainty that the terrorist target is present.” This wouldn’t be surprising given that Obama continued the George W. Bush administration’s practice of “signature strikes” — killing anonymous suspected militants who appear to be associated with terrorists based upon their observable activity.
Armed drones have been used for such counterterrorism operations for nearly 14 years. In his April 8 comments, Obama acknowledged that this lack of transparency on civilian casualties has been a “disservice,” as the United States is unable to “examine where we made mistakes and create corrective action.” The White House pledged in March to publicly release annual data on non-battlefield civilian fatalities — though these will not be separated by country. However, the release of such context-free data is less important than an explanation for why the president doesn’t seem to understand the limitations of the drones he has made the face of U.S. foreign policy.
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