Last week, the New York Times and other outlets ran a bit of head-scratching news about drone strikes. Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense had released new figures that sharply revised downward previous estimates of civilian casualties caused by the unmanned strikes. In a report to Pakistan’s parliament, the ministry said that out of 2,227 people killed in 317 drone strikes since the start of 2008, 67 of them, or 3 percent of the total, were civilians.
The new numbers were far lower than even the most conservative estimates by human rights groups and other organizations that closely track non-combatant deaths that result from the U.S. drone campaign. During the same period, the new America Foundation estimated that 176 civilians were killed by drone strikes in Pakistan. Long War Journal put the number at 133. And Ben Emmerson, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, told the Times that the new numbers were “strikingly at odds” with the numbers he had received from Pakistan’s own Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For years Pakistan had publicly railed against the U.S. strikes, which it said violated the country’s sovereignty and killed far too many civilians. And now officials there seemed to be lowballing the casualty numbers. What was going on?
Human rights organizations and journalists immediately began speculating on a multitude of Pakistani agendas. Was it just a coincidence that the new numbers were released only days after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met in Washington with President Obama in a highly publicized effort to get the frayed U.S.-Pakistani relationship back on track? Perhaps the release of casualty estimates much more in line with U.S. numbers was a gesture of good will.
Or was it meant to push back against a flurry of recently released reports from human rights organizations that harshly criticized the American drone offensive for violating international law and indiscriminately targeting civilians. One theory suggested that the move was meant to blunt damage from a recent Washington Post story, citing classified CIA documents, that Pakistan had quietly acquiesced to the attacks and had repeatedly received detailed briefings from the CIA on casualty counts. If Pakistani complicity in the program was exposed, the theory went, why not at least try to downplay its negative fallout.
But then, underscoring the hall-of-mirrors quality of Pakistani actions, the government abruptly backed away from its latest estimates. The Pakistani newspaper The News quoted a Defense Ministry official calling the casualty figures “wrong and fabricated.” Accurate figures would be forthcoming, the ministry said.
The episode in some ways was just another blip in the ever-contentions dispute over casualty stats in the covert drone war. The U.S. government, which has never made public its own figures on civilian casualties, disagrees with Pakistan (except when, as in the case with the recent downward revisions, it agrees with them); human rights organizations and other NGOs disagree among each other; and news organizations often take issue with all of the estimates, pointing out that there is no way of knowing the truth, since it’s impossible for government or non-governmental agencies to thoroughly investigate the attacks on the ground in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
But this latest controversy, which justifiably received only glancing attention in the U.S., raises another more fundamental question worth considering: How important is it to track casualty numbers anyway, and is it possible that focusing on them in such a single-minded fashion comes at the expense of equally or even more important questions?
This is not in anyway to suggest that keeping tabs on civilian deaths in a controversial and secretive war isn’t critically important. It is. This week, in fact, the Senate Intelligence Committee approved language as part of the 2014 Intelligence Authorization that would require the president to publicly disclose the number of combatants and civilians killed in drone strikes. But even some in the human rights and legal communities are beginning to ask whether placing such a large emphasis on the metrics of the drone war comes at a cost.
“Drone strike civilian casualty counts—of course—matter enormously,” says Sarah Knuckey, an international lawyer at NYU Law School. She points out that tallying up such numbers matters first and foremost to the families that have lost innocent loved ones, as well as to help track the programs effectiveness and fidelity to the law over time. But at the same time, adds Knuckey, who also serves as a special adviser to the U.N.’s Emmerson, “important issues may be obscured by an over-emphasis on the numbers and there is much that raw statistics don’t tell us.”
Knuckey suggests that the internecine squabbling over drone statistics may be a distraction from the international community’s core concerns about drones—whether they are being used within a legitimate framework of law, accountability, and transparency.
But there is another curiosity about the microscopic attention that is paid to civilian casualties. It overshadows the inevitable, though no less tragic, instances of civilian casualties in more conventional attacks. Most Americans who follow U.S. military action in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have some rough idea of the number of drone strikes that have been launched in recent years as well as a sense of the range of civilian casualty estimates.
I would venture to guess, however, that Americans have virtually no idea how many civilians have been killed over the same period of time through more conventional means, including aerial bombardments and the use of ground forces. It’s hard to come by reliable statistics, since few organizations attempt to collect them, but it is undeniable that the number dwarfs civilian deaths by drone strikes.
So why do old-fashioned airstrikes draw so little attention, while drone attacks arouse paroxysms of anger among war critics and many human rights organizations? Is there a moral difference between dropping ordnance from a manned aircraft thousands of feet above a target and firing a Hellfire missile remotely from thousands of miles away in a CIA cubicle? Should we put more of a premium on a life snuffed out by a drone than one taken in a cruise missile strike fired from a ship offshore? Clearly not—and drone critics haven’t and wouldn’t say so.
But they do make some reasonable arguments for why, as a matter of policy and legal precedent, it might make more sense to emphasize drone strikes. They point out that civilians casualties in conventional theaters of war are an accepted, if tragic, inevitability of armed conflict. To many human rights organizations, drone strikes that occur in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia take place outside of a legal state of war and therefore need to be closely monitored and exposed when civilians are killed. Not to do so, groups like Amnesty International contend, would legitimize global armed conflicts and set dangerous legal precedents.
I think there are other reasons, more psychological and emotional in nature, for what Bill Roggio, the editor of a website that tracks targeted killings, calls the “fetishization” of drones. One is that people feel especially uncomfortable with the idea that individuals are being specifically targeted by a government in what is, in effect, a pre-planned execution. There is something ghoulish about government bureaucrats—let alone a president—going over hit lists and deciding who should be killed and who should be spared.
People are also troubled by the fact that a CIA or military operator can take out a target or series of targets from the comfortable confines of their cubicle, far removed from the battlefield, without subjecting themselves to any risk. The suggestion is that the ability to kill remotely dulls one’s moral sensibilities.
The U.S. government in many ways has invited this data-driven approach to the drone war. It has steadfastly refused to release its own estimates of non-combatant deaths in drone strikes, figures that it says classified. That alone provides a powerful incentive for civil society to try to ferret out the numbers. Moreover, when the administration has addressed the issue of civilian casualties, it has made assertions that have undermined its credibility. In 2011, John Brennan, then President Obama’s counterterrorism czar, stated publicly that there had not been a “single collateral death” caused by a drone strike in the previous year. He later had to walk back that statement.
President Obama has frequently touted armed drones as a highly precise and accurate form of weaponry, an assertion that can only really be tested with concrete metrics. Moreover, this past spring the administration announced that it had raised the standards for the use of drone strikes to a “near-certainty that no non-combatants will be killed.” How is the government to be held to its own standard without numbers?
The reality is that statistics in many ways are among the only concrete, tangible things people can latch onto to judge such a controversial program. Even if accurate drone stats are hard to come by, they are events that take place in the open, so investigators can at least attempt to collect the information. The government’s legal rationales for such activities, as well as information about whether anyone is ever held accountable for mistakes, is shrouded in total secrecy. All of that makes the obsession with raw numbers understandable and legitimate. Just as long as it doesn’t detract from the other crucial questions about the vicissitudes of war—both ancient and modern.