GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS CLAIM they’re ultra-precise killing machines that never, ever miss their targets. Outside groups say they’re covered in children’s blood. The fact is no one has a clue exactly how many militants and how many innocents have been slain in the U.S. drone war that spans from Pakistan to Somalia. Remember that before you start your next Twitter feud about the drone war.
Neither the American government nor the independent agencies have the consistent presence on the ground needed to put together true assessments of the damage drone strikes do. Most of the evidence is third-hand, whispered from a local soldier to a far-off reporter. The death toll claims, which vary wildly, are all educated guesswork.
It’s one of many conclusions in a new report on the covert, robotic air war that doesn’t fit neatly into the dominant narratives about the drone campaign, pro or con. (The report is due to publish at midnight GMT on Sunday.) Using interviews with dozens of people in northwest Pakistan – one of the epicenters of the unmanned air assaults – The Center for Civilians in Conflict and Columbia Law School’s human rights clinic have crafted a nuanced view of the civilian impact of this most controversial component of the Obama administration’s counterterror efforts. Table your preconceived notions about the drone war before you read – starting with the notions about who the drones are actually taking out.
In May, an administration official told The New York Times that civilian casualties from the Pakistan drone war were in the “single digits.” Perhaps that official only meant for one year. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates the minimum civilian death toll to be 447 during the campaign. One of the many costs of secret wars is that “nobody knows how many civilians have been killed by covert drone strikes. Nobody – that means the Obama Administration, the Pakistan government, and the media,” emails Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict.
“There are few boots on the ground to do an investigation after a strike, aerial surveillance is through a soda straw so can miss a lot and – unlike the military which has relatively transparent assessments and investigations in Afghanistan – the CIA and Special Forces are a black hole,” she adds. “The Obama administration says civilian casualties are ‘not a huge number.’ If that’s true, evidence could put the debate to rest, but we haven’t seen any.”
Image courtesy of US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Richard Lisum