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Q. How many fatalities have resulted from covert drone strikes?

The fatalities associated with these strikes are difficult to assess since different organizations have generated different estimates of militants and civilians killed. Based on the accounts of the three main groups which have collected the data—the NAF, The Long War Journal, and the BIJ—the total number of individuals killed has been close to 4,000 as of 2014. By some accounts, only about 2.5-5% of the targeted killing victims are militant leaders, with the vast majority being foot soldiers, and a smaller number being civilians.28 Table 2.3 summarizes the fatality estimates of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia from 2002 to 2014.

Table 2.3 Estimates of the Total Number of Strikes per Country, 2002-2014

Country

Strikes

Total Killed

Civilians Killed

% Civilians

Pakistan

376

2924

376.5

13%

Yemen

88

635

87.5

15%

Somalia

17

114

28

24.7%

Source: Micah Zenko, "US Transparency and the Truth of Targeted Killings." CFR.org, September 5, 2014.

Table 2.4 Operations in 2014 in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, Based on the BIJ’s Data

Country

Strikes

Total Killed

Civilians Killed

% Civilians

Pakistan

22

104-168

0-2

~1%

Yemen

13-15

82-118

4-9

~5.5%

Somalia

2

8-15

0

0%

While the United States had held off on drone strikes in Pakistan in the first half of the year, granting Pakistan latitude to try negotiating a deal with the Taliban, the number picked up in the latter half, with about two dozen attacks during 2014. As Table 2.4 suggests, the percentage of civilians killed in the most recent year for which complete data was available (2014) is lower than the average between 2002 and 2014. Given these apparent shifts in the civilian casualty rate, advocacy groups have taken notice and investigated the casualty trends.

Indeed, the civilian casualty figures have proven to be quite controversial, as there tend to be discrepancies across studies. A meta-study—i n other words, a study about studies— examining the casualty data from three major think tanks and the two nongovernmental organizations cited above identifies a large range of casualty estimates. Offering a more in-depth look at casualty differences across studies, Table 2.5 compares the numbers across these studies for just one country and one year: Pakistan 2011. It shows the wide variation in terms of estimated civilian casualties even while the overall

Table 2.5 Variation in Fatality Estimates across Studies for Strikes in Pakistan in 2011

Target

NAF

Long War Journal

BIJ29

CHRC

Militant

303-502

405

N/A

330-575

Civilian

57-65

30

52-146

72-155

Unknown

32-37

N/A

N/A

N/A

Total

392-604

435

447-660

456-661

Civilian

9-17%

7%

8-33%

11-34%

Casualty Rate

totals are within the same ballpark, with one analysis in the single digits for civilian casualty rates and other entities as high as 33-34%.

The meta-study found that the biggest reason for discrepancies across studies is that each uses different designations for militant and civilian such that reading the same account of a strike victim, one group will check a box in the militant column while the other will use the civilian column, and still others will use the "unknown" column for potential ambiguity. The challenge is that the legal definition of combatant is ambiguous, defined as an individual directly participating in hostilities. As an illustration of how contentious this definition can be, in 2012 the New York Times created a stir by reporting that the Obama administration designates "all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants." Such an accounting system would certainly produce lower estimates of civilian deaths, which is why the administration's declaration that its strikes had produced zero civilian casualties in 2014 had raised eyebrows. Groups such as the BIJ refer to this practice as "false accounting" and designate many of these same "militants" as civilians. As one observer concluded, the range across and even within studies is "so large that it actually tells us very little about whether drone strikes are killing a great many or a small number of innocent people—or somewhere in between. In that sense, the best methodology only serves to demonstrate how little we actually know about the civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes."30

While a number of groups have worked to create transparency in terms of overall drone strikes, going for breadth in their analysis, other groups have carried out more focused studies within a particular country or year, aiming for depth. For example, Amnesty International investigated nine drone strikes in North Waziristan between January 2012 and August 2013; Human Rights Watch examined six drone strikes in Yemen during a period between 2009 and 2013; and the Columbia Law School's Human Rights Clinic (CHRC) studied Pakistani drone strikes in 2011. These all focus their attention on whether those individuals reported as militants were in fact culpable by conducting interviews on the ground, in the case of Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, and in the case of CHRC by using the data from the first three studies to arrive at their own conclusions about the number of drone strike casualties in Pakistan in 2011. Each of these focused studies seeks to expose the fact that the actual number of civilian fatalities was far more than not only government accounts but even those of media outlets, which are unable to field reporters in the dangerous regions where drone strikes occur.

At the least, the more focused examinations of civilian casualties have uncovered a number of deaths in episodes where the US government had stated that the strike had not produced any civilian casualties. In some cases, the strikes were "doubletap" strikes that killed rescuers who were coming in to claim the bodies originally targeted, another involved an assembly of elders, and a third struck six school children. Researchers also found that in these cases, drone strikes were actually more likely to kill innocent civilians than manned aircraft because the drone pilots were comparatively less proficient in their training on minimizing civilian harm.31 The studies, which focused on a subset of strikes, may be vulnerable to the criticism that the particular strikes are not representative of strikes in general, and therefore could be flukes rather than an indication of policy. Nonetheless, human rights groups point out that even if these episodes are outliers, they are sufficiently egregious that they should raise flags in terms of the soundness of the policies. While far from the last word, the analyses also pose important questions about the credibility and transparency of the US government, which has not been forthcoming in reconciling the discrepancies in these accounts.

 
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