Friday, 5 July 2013

Civilian casualties from the Obama administration's drone campaign in Pakistan

The US Military has been carrying out drone strikes in North West Pakistan since 2004. As the chart below indicates, these strikes--which function as an alternative to ground-based intervention--have increased in number dramatically under the Obama administration.

According to Obama administration officials, total civilian casualties from drone strikes are in the single digits. What do independent sources have to say? There at least four comprehensive databases on drone strikes in Pakistan: one compiled by The Long War Journal, one compiled by the New America Foundation, one compiled by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and one--known as Pakistan Body Count--compiled by Zeeshan Usmani. The total number of civilian deaths estimated by each of these sources is shown in the chart below.

Not one of the esitmates is in line with the Obama administration's claim of single digit civilian casualties. Which one is most reliable? Although it is very difficult to be sure, there is reason to think The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's higher estimate may be closest to the truth. Scholars at the Columbia Law School published a report entitled Counting Drone Strike Deaths, in which they attempted to gauge the number of civilian casualties from drone strikes in 2011 as precisely as possible. They "counted 2300 percent more “civilian” casualties than the New America Foundation, and 140 percent more “civilian” casualties than New America’s “civilian” and “unknown” casualty counts combined". Similarly, the authors of a Stanford/NYU report entitled Living Under Drones concluded that The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's data-sets are "more thorough and comprehensive than both New America Foundation and The Long War Journal." Finally, the government of Pakistani has acknowledged the deaths of over 400 civilians since 2004.

The mismatch between journalistic findings on the one hand, and assertions coming out of the Obama administration on the other, is quite staggering. The Appendix to Living Under Drones documents this discrepancy in meticulous detail. Below is an example of a table from the Appendix, which shows an official government statement on the left together with contrary statements from various news outlets on the right.

One of the principal reasons given by the Obama administration for the use of drones is their alleged accuracy. Ostensibly, targets can be pinpointed and then zeroed-in on with a high degree of precision. If this claim were true, then--given the considerable number of civilians estimated to have been killed--drone strikes should have killed a very large number of putative terrorists. I.e., the ratio of militant deaths to civilian deaths should be very high. What do independent sources have to say? As the table below reveals, the ratio may be as low as 1:4, and is probably at least as low 4:1. (Incidentally, I calculated these percentages myself, based on figures given in the various sources.) And indeed, a recent study argues that drones may be more hazardous to civilians than conventional manned aircraft.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that the Obama administration has been making use of drones not only in Pakistan, but also in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali. For several reasons, including the extensive collateral damage they evidently inflict, I do not believe the US should be conducting drone strikes in the Middle East. I may elaborate on my position in a future post.


  1. It is a very worrying development. But war is pretty nasty, anyway, and collateral damage and deaths inevitable. The Taleban and their allies are not the slightest bit concerned about collateral damage - deliberately killing and maiming 'their own' people as well as 'the enemy' all the time. I would hazard a guess more Pakistani civilians have been killed by Islamists than by the US. Which doesn't make the moral case for 'us' doing it any better, of course. In the end I think it just comes down to it being a method which minimises or totally avoids casualties to 'our' personnel, while still hitting 'the enemy' - therefore obviously from a PR point of view and in terms purely of resources and manpower it is highly attractive to politicians and military and will inevitably happen more.

  2. I think you're right that insurgents have killed more civilians than the US Military.