Brookings Report on Drones Confirms High Civilian Death Rate and Misses the Point

Posted: July 21, 2009 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

To their credit, the folks over at the Brookings Institution have become one of the first mainstream think tanks to recognize the horrendously indiscriminate nature of drone attacks in Pakistan. Brookings Institute scholar Daniel Byman wrote last Monday:

Critics correctly find many problems with this program, most of all the number of civilian casualties the strikes have incurred. Sourcing on civilian deaths is weak and the numbers are often exaggerated, but more than 600 civilians are likely to have died from the attacks. That number suggests that for every militant killed, 10 or so civilians also died.

I’ve been citing numbers that show a worse civilian-combatant ratio (15-1), but the Brookings citation makes the same point: drones kill far more civilians than suspected militants. Good for Brookings for bringing this to folks’ attention.

Unfortunately, though, Byman fails to really get into the details of what causes the high ratio, preferring instead to attribute them to the Evil Taliban:

To reduce casualties, superb intelligence is necessary. Operators must know not only where the terrorists are, but also who is with them and who might be within the blast radius. This level of surveillance may often be lacking, and terrorists’ deliberate use of children and other civilians as shields make civilian deaths even more likely.

The preceding paragraph demonstrates an amazing Fareed-Zakaria-like ability to take the vile and the shocking and transform it into a passive-voice bromide. Translation: “We need good intel to avoid killing noncombatants. We don’t have good intelligence. We don’t let details like that get in the way of firing the weapons, so we kill 10 civilians for every one suspected terrorist. Oh yeah the Taliban are bad.”

Americans should be terrified and horrified that CIA operators use a weapons system whose ability to avoid killing innocent men, women and children depends on “superb intelligence” when such intel does not exist. Essentially, what the CIA is doing is analagous to a police sniper aiming into a bank crowded with hostages with a sniper rifle whose barrel lacks rifling, pointing at a suspected robber and pulling the trigger. When the bullet goes astray due to the lack of a key feature that makes the sniper rifle accurate–the rifling– and kills a hostage, the police officer shrugs. “The robber used human shields.” If the public found out that our hypothetical police sniper knew in advance that he had, oh, say, a 90-percent chance of killing a hostage rather than a robber and he pulled the trigger anyway, they’d be howling for his head on a platter. But this kind of vile nonsense is exactly what the administration asks the American people to accept through further escalations of the CIA’s undeclared war on the Pakistanis unlucky enough to be living near our national enemies.

I repeat:

The strikes have caused such carnage that leading British legal experts “said the aircraft could follow other weapons considered ’so cruel as to be beyond the pale of human tolerance’ in being consigned to the history books,” likening them to “cluster bombs and landmines.”

Byman’s analysis of the problem, though, ultimately misses the point. It may be true that the high civilian death rate is bad because it undermines our counterinsurgency efforts to win hearts and minds. However, the real problem is not the political consequences of these deaths, but rather the deaths themselves. Even if the 10-1 civilian-combatant death rate had zero political consequences, it would still be immoral to continue the use of drones. As I said on July 14,

“The worst effect of all this talk about counterinsurgency is that it has reduced the civilian populations of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to mere means to the end of our strategy. They’re not. Drones may be awful in part because their use leads to more terrorism, but the worst effect of their use is the slaughter of people whose right to life exists independent from our goals for the region.”

Get those drones on the ground, now.

UPDATE: Despite its problems, the Brookings article shows that the CIA is lying to the American people about the drones.  Here’s Leon Panetta in a May 2009 speech:

“[Drone] operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting and it involved a minimum of collateral damage.”

Very simply, Panetta lied.

UPDATE II: The Long War Journal just published an analysis of drone strike activity in 2009 compared to 2008 [h/t/ Noah Schactman at Danger Room]. Their study shows that compared to last year, drone strikes have been more frequent and have killed more people, with the total number of deaths for 2009 already exceeding the 2008 total :

…In 2009, the frequency of Predator strikes in Pakistan has continued to trend upwards. There have already been 31 Predator strikes in Pakistan this year (as of July 18) – nearly matching the total of 36 strikes for all of 2008.

If airstrikes continue at the current rate, the number of strikes in 2009 could more than double the dramatic increase in Predator activity seen in 2008.

Using low-end estimates of casualties (including Taliban, al Qaeda, and civilian) from US strikes inside Pakistan, we have determined that airstrikes resulted in 317 deaths during 2008. Already, the airstrikes in 2009 have surpassed that total, with 365 killed in 2009 as of July 18. [see Chart 2, Deaths]

…Another indicator of the increasing lethality of US airstrikes inside Pakistan is the rising average number killed per attack. So far in 2009, the average casualty rate has been 11.77 killed per strike, compared to 8.81 in 2008. [see Chart 3, Lethality]

So, to summarize:

  • CIA drone operators lack the “superb intel” needed to prevent civilian casualties, but are firing their weapons anyway, causing them to kill ten times as many civilians as suspected terrorists.
  • CIA Director Panetta, however, continues to lie and/or propagandize about the drones’ accuracy and “minimal collateral damage.”
  • Despite their indiscriminate and inhumane nature, the U.S. has doubled the rate of drone strikes and is killing more people per attack in 2009 compared to 2008, which has caused the death toll from these weapons so far in 2009 to exceed the death toll for all of 2008.

History will not be kind to us if we continue to use these indiscriminate weapons that kill ten times as many civilians as suspected combatants.

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Comments
  1. Susan says:

    I don’t think the bank analogy goes far enough.

    Rather, it is like this: Someone in the community does not like a particular bank (maybe they were cheated, maybe it is competition)…. and there are local police who like to catch the “bad guys” no matter what it takes. Someone tells them about ABC Bank, and that it is being held up right now.

    The police arrive, and they have the best of weapons (and it has rifling), and training, and the exact location. They go into the bank, and cannot tell who is the bank robber and who is not…. so they shoot up everyone. It’s pretty deadly.

    And afterwords, they figure out that the intel telling them there was a bank robbery was a lie.

    In Pakistan, there are locals on the ground who drop a ‘chip’ at the location of the Taliban and then get out of there. Sometime later, the drones make a precise and accurate bombing on the chip. The original people may or may not have been Taliban, or may have left by the time the US drones arrived. Maybe the local with the ‘chip’ has a grudge to settle. But the drones are damn accurate.

    Bombing Pakistan to get al Qaeda/Taliban makes as much sense as bombing Murphy NC to get Eric Rudolph.

  2. Larry Gilman says:

    Good post, good links, correct moral reasoning about what is really wrong here. And let us note that all this is going on — and escalating — under Obama. His thumbprint is now on every missile that lights up each Afghan wedding party. I wince when I see those bumper stickers (they have barely had time to begin weathering, yet, on the bumpers of liberal America) with a peace sign for the “O” in “Obama” . . .

  3. […] and civilian casualties in Afghanistan under McChrystal’s much ballyhooed new orders. We know that drone strikes kill far, far more civilians than they do suspected militants, and that drone operators in other branches of the U.S. government are firing their weapons even […]

  4. […] strategy will reduce civilian casualties. After all, experience in Pakistan shows that drones strikes kill 10-15 times as many civilians as they do suspected militants. And if we withdraw troops on the ground from remote areas and replace them with drones, […]

  5. […] strategy will reduce civilian casualties. After all, experience in Pakistan shows that drones strikes kill 10-15 times as many civilians as they do suspected militants. And if we withdraw troops on the ground from remote areas and replace them with drones, […]

  6. […] and civilian casualties in Afghanistan under McChrystal’s much ballyhooed new orders. We know from experience in Pakistan that drone strikes kill far, far more civilians than they do sus…, and that drone operators in other branches of the U.S. government are firing their weapons even […]

  7. […] think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a […]

  8. […] think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a […]

  9. […] think for a second that “fewer troops, more drones” is an answer in Afghanistan. Drones have an indiscriminate track record already in Pakistan, and their expansion in Afghanistan would violate any formulation of just war ethics, causing a […]

  10. […] be designated a legal target and who cannot.  The memo also makes no effort to analyze whether the collateral deaths of innocent civilians during these “lawful killings” are […]

  11. […] be designated a legal target and who cannot. The memo also makes no effort to analyze whether the collateral deaths of innocent civilians during these “lawful killings” are […]

  12. […] červencové Brookings report zabijí americké řízené střely v Pakistánu minimálně desetkrát více civilistů než […]

  13. […] that have killed only five militants while the Brookings Institute believes the ratio is more like ten to one.    So to my mind, Anwar al-Awlaki and the others on the government hit list are innocent until […]

  14. […] that have killed only five militants while the Brookings Institute believes the ratio is more like ten to one.    So to my mind, Anwar al-Awlaki and the others on the government hit list are innocent until […]

  15. […] in Pakistan. Last summer, the Brookings Institution reported that the drone bombing campaign kills ten civilians for every single terrorist. And that’s if you use a very broad definition of the word […]

  16. […] and in large numbers (there’s a 10-to-1 civilian-to-insurgent kill ratio, according to a recent Brookings Institute study); that intentional, targeted killing is a war crime; and that, according to Nuremberg […]

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  18. […] the region can be terrifying. I could hold forth for quite some time on the disconnect between the experience on the ground, the Pakistani public and private presentations of the issue, and the American filtered version of […]

  19. […] from his native country Pakistan where the US is continuing a drone bombing campaign killing an inordinate amount of civilians without knowing for certain who it is killing. Nor is it a coincidence that al Qaeda in Yemen sent […]

  20. […] from his native country Pakistan where the US is continuing a drone bombing campaign killing an inordinate amount of civilians without knowing for certain who it is killing. Nor is it a coincidence that al Qaeda in Yemen sent […]

  21. […] and more importantly, it is morally objectionable to continue bombing policies that consider a 10- or 15-to-1 civilian-to-militant death ratio acceptable. Wake Someone […]

  22. […] and more importantly, it is morally objectionable to continue bombing policies that consider a 10- or 15-to-1 civilian-to-militant death ratio acceptable. var addthis_config = {"data_track_clickback":}; […]

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  24. […] Left out, of course, are the use of drones in undeclared wars, continuous bombing raids that are killing more civilians than “terrorists,”and the president’s use of drones to kill American […]

  25. […] Left out, of course, are the use of drones in undeclared wars, continuous bombing raids that are killing more civilians than “terrorists,”and the president’s use of drones to kill American […]

  26. […] of having zero empathy.  Even the warmongering Brookings Institution has concluded that there are 10 civilians killed to every 1 “militant” in Pakistan alone.  Obama denies this, and a range of other documented evidence, when he states that only […]

  27. […] of having zero empathy.  Even the warmongering Brookings Institution has concluded that there are 10 civilians killed to every 1 “militant” in Pakistan alone. Obama denies this, and a range of other documented evidence, when he states that only […]

  28. […] of having zero empathy. Even the warmongering Brookings Institution has concluded that there are 10 civilians killed to every 1 “militant” in Pakistan alone. Obama denies this, and a range of other documented evidence, when he states that only […]

  29. […] uprising which the PA had to subdue. Just one of so many examples where the drones did more damage than targeted strikes on militants. 2 – Ground intelligence provided is way out of course than […]

  30. […] Journal, which estimated 885 dead militants, 94 dead civilians. Not cited, for some reason, was a Brookings Institution study, which found that for every militant killed by drones, 10 civilians are taken out. This is a […]

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