04 Jul

Drone Strike Statistics Answer Few Questions, and Raise Many

NYT use

Drone Strike Statistics Answer Few Questions, and Raise Many

Monitoring Air Force drone footage from Afghanistan in 2010. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — The promise of the armed drone has always been precision: The United States could kill just the small number of dangerous terrorists it wanted to kill, leaving nearby civilians unharmed.

But the Obama administration’s unprecedented release last week of statistics on counterterrorism strikes underscored how much more complicated the results of the drone program have been.

It showed that even inside the government, there is no certainty about whom it has killed. And it highlighted the skepticism with which official American claims on targeted killing are viewed by human rights groups and independent experts, including those who believe the strikes have eliminated some very dangerous people.

“It’s an important step — it’s an acknowledgment that transparency is needed,” said Rachel Stohl, an author of two studies of the drone program and a senior associate at the Stimson Center, a research group in Washington. “But I don’t feel like we have enough information to analyze whether this tactic is working and helping us achieve larger strategic aims.”

More broadly, President Obama’s move to open a window on the secret counterterrorism program takes place against a background of escalating jihadist violence that can be called up by a list of cities that includes Paris; San Bernardino, Calif.; Brussels; Orlando, Fla.; Kabul, Afghanistan; Istanbul; Baghdad; and now Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Apart from the dispute over the number of civilian deaths, the notion that targeted drone strikes are an adequate answer to the terrorist threat appears increasingly threadbare.

“There’s a massive failure of strategy,” said Akbar S. Ahmed, a former Pakistani diplomat and the chairman of Islamic studies at American University in Washington. Drones have simply become one more element of the violence in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, not a way to reduce violence, he said.

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Among young people attracted to jihadist ideology, “the line to blow yourself up remains horrifyingly long,” he said. “That line should be getting shorter.”

A senior Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the classified program, said the recent series of major terror attacks in urban areas had all been directed or inspired by the Islamic State.

The classified counterterrorism drone campaign, he said, has targeted other groups, notably Al Qaeda’s old core in Pakistan, its branch in Yemen and the Shabab in Somalia. (Because the strikes in Pakistan are a covert action program, the official was not permitted to name that country.) No attack in the West in the past year has been traced to those groups, suggesting that the strikes have been effective, he said. The drone strikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan are, for the most part, carried out by the military in a separate program.

In Friday’s release, the White House made public an executive order laying out policies to minimize civilian casualties in counterterrorism strikes and a plan to start making public the basic statistics on strikes each year.

At the same time, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released the first official estimates of those killed during Mr. Obama’s presidency in strikes outside the conventional wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Though the announcement did not say so, the classified strikes took place in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, and the vast majority used missiles fired from unmanned drone aircraft, though a few used piloted jets or cruise missiles fired from the sea.

Military officers prepared an American drone for a mission at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan in March. Credit Josh Smith/Reuters

Since 2009, the government said, 473 strikes had killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants. They are defined as members of groups, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that are considered to be at war with the United States, or others posing a “continuing and imminent threat” to Americans.

In the most sharply debated statistics, the statement estimated that between 64 and 116 noncombatants had been killed. Officials said those numbers included both clearly innocent civilians and others for whom there was insufficient evidence to be sure they were combatants.

The numbers were far lower than previous estimates from the three independent organizations that track strikes based on news reports and other sources. The Long War Journal, whose estimates are lowest, counted 207 civilian deaths in Pakistan and Yemen alone. The security policy group New America in Washington estimated a minimum of 216 in those two countries, and the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated the civilian toll under Mr. Obama between 380 and 801.

With no breakdown by year or country, let alone a detailed strike-by-strike account, the Obama administration’s new data was difficult to assess. For example, according to multiple studies by Human Rights Watch, Yemen’s Parliament and others, an American cruise missile strike in Yemen on Dec. 17, 2009, killed 41 civilians, including 22 children and a dozen women. At least three more people were killed later after handling unexploded cluster munitions left from the strike.

If those 41 are included in the new official count, as appears likely, that would leave only 23 civilians killed in all other strikes since 2009 to reach the low-end American estimate of 64. By nearly all independent accounts, that number is implausibly low. Obama administration officials declined over the weekend to discuss any specific strikes or otherwise elaborate on the statistics.

Scott F. Murray, who retired from the Air Force as a colonel after 29 years, was a career intelligence officer involved in overseeing airstrikes in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. He said that while he had not been involved directly in the counterterrorist strikes outside those war zones, the civilian death estimates were “lower than I would have expected.”

He said civilian deaths could result from multiple causes, including incomplete intelligence about the identities of people on the ground, equipment failure and human error.

Perhaps most often, Mr. Murray said, problems arise when civilians enter a target area before drone surveillance begins, or when a civilian suddenly enters the strike zone just before a strike.

“The night you choose to strike, it may be that the in-laws arrived earlier in the day or the children’s birthday party is ongoing and you weren’t watching when everyone arrived,” Mr. Murray said. “Those are the things in war that drive you to drink. You never ever have perfect information.”

Brandon Bryant, who worked on Air Force drone teams from 2006 to 2011 and has become an outspoken critic of the program, recalled one strike in 2007 targeting a local Taliban commander. As the Hellfire missile sped toward the small house, he said, a small child — possibly frightened by the missile’s sonic boom — ran into the house and was killed.

“Those things are burned into my brain — I can’t really forget them,” Mr. Bryant said. He added that he believed total civilian deaths were much higher than the administration’s estimate because of officials’ wishful thinking, rather than deliberate deception. “They’re just deluding themselves about the impact,” he said.

The senior administration official acknowledged the fear and frustration produced by the recent urban attacks and said Mr. Obama’s strategy went far beyond drone strikes, incorporating the military battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, counter-messaging against jihadist groups, and support for allies facing the same enemies as the United States.

American officials strongly defend the necessity of targeted killing, and the president’s executive order suggests that he believes the drone program will endure far beyond his presidency. But deaths from terrorism have risen sharply since 2011, according to the Global Terrorism Index, compiled annually by researchers, and there is worry inside and outside the government that the United States and its allies are winning battles but losing the ideological war.

Of particular concern is the possibility that the rash of attacks carried out in the name of the Islamic State is just the beginning — not because the group is getting stronger but because it is getting weaker. As the United States and its allies uproot the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, its supporters may turn to terrorism wherever they are, many terrorism experts believe. In most of those places, like the cities hit hardest in recent months, no drone strikes will be possible.

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