the veracity of drone strike statistics.
Drones, the centerpiece of President Obama’s counter-terrorism operations, are often advertised as new, precise, even surgical means of combating belligerents and terrorists in the Middle East. To date, attack drones have been deployed in Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, and apart from the occasional embarrassingly blunderous civilian killings and their consequences, they are lauded as a new method of thwarting terrorists and minimizing collateral damage.
But does this make sense?
Analyzing these statements from the ground is difficult. Killings generally take place in remote areas of the world where verification is dangerous and sources unreliable. Often, the agencies reporting civilian killings are aligned with governments or political groups that have strong incentives to overstate or downplay casualties to support some desired narrative. All there is to go on are reports compiled by several agencies, such as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the Columbia Human Rights Institute.
All reports, though they doubtlessly undercount civilian deaths, present one simple fact: the ratio of terrorists to civilians killed is big. Take, for example, the Council on Foreign Relations report. Civilian casualties account for as little as 3 to 10 percent of total deaths.
There is one particularly glaring disconnect in the data, though: the ratio of terrorists killed to drone strikes initiated is also very large. What that means is that the military is somehow striking their precisely-chosen targets when they are all in proximity with one another, killing on average about 7-8 targets per strike. It is also worth noting that the number of named targets is much, much smaller than the number of people ultimately killed.
Is it more likely that the military is in fact so surgical and methodical in its targets that they not only kill targets with minimal collateral damage but also manage to hit many of them at once? Does the military underreport its strikes but not the number of people killed? Or is it more likely that most of the people killed, whomever they may be, are lumped into dead terrorist count?
Perhaps it is impossible to adequately corroborate any particular theory based on these observations alone and barring some substantial leak or hack, but there are definitely some facts worth considering.
First, the definition of enemy combatant is remarkably poor. Often, a combatant is defined as military-age males (between ages 15-55, give or take). All are assumed to be terrorists unless exculpatory evidence exists. Such a definition guarantees that collateral damage counts will be incorrectly low and targets killed incorrectly high.
Second, statements on drone efficacy fit narratives that reports on inadequacy would not. Defense contractors and weapons manufacturers can more easily sell drones and secure multi-billion dollar contracts, and politicians can claim elusive successes in the war on terror.
Whether official counts are to be believed, the drone campaign has had tangible effects on people, the targets obviously but also their families and communities. As the former DIA head Michael Flynn stated quite frankly, drone warfare has exacerbated anti-American sentiments. Far too many have grown to associate clear blue skies with the fear of someone being incinerated without notice or trial.
It is not in the world’s interest for these numbers to be distorted.