Larry Lewis, a researcher with the Center for Naval Analyses, a group that does contract research for the U.S. Military, claims in a new study that drones are responsible for 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes from manned aircraft in the War in Afghanistan.
Lewis based his research on several independent investigations that claim the occurrence of civilian casualties when the U.S. has reported no evidence of a civilian death.
In a report published by PRISM (no relation to the recently leaked NSA program), a product of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University, chartered by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and funded by the Department of Defense, Lewis illustrates his point by providing three examples where independent reports contradict official U.S. government statements.
March 11, 2011: During a strike on a vehicle, a follow-up strike was reported to have killed rescuers that moved onto the scene. Several reports stated there were civilian casualties, ranging from two to five individuals.
March 17, 2011: During a strike of a suspected militant compound, Pakistani authorities and news reports stated that the gathering was a jirga (a tribal assembly of elders) intended to settle a dispute at a nearby chromite mine. Reported civilian casualties ranged from 13 to 44. Despite U.S. denials of civilian harm, the government of Pakistan recognized and provided compensation to the families of 39 individuals killed during that strike.
May 6, 2011: During a strike on a vehicle, multiple organizations reported that six civilians were killed at a nearby religious school (possibly a militant compound) and a restaurant. The U.S. claimed that all casualties were combatants.
While some casualty discrepancies can be accounted for by variations in the status of a person — whether or not the U.S. government and independent sources define someone as "civilian," "combatant," or "militant" — there are still many questions to be asked about some of these deaths. Even U.S. government officials cannot agree on the civilian death toll caused by drones.
A report released by Columbia Law School's Human Rights clinic and the Center for Civilians in Conflict states:
"According to U.S. officials, covert drone strikes have caused relatively few civilian deaths, and in some periods of time have caused none at all. In numerous leaks to the press, un-named Obama Administration officials have claimed between just 20 and 50 civilian deaths since 2008. According to one report, US officials claimed there were just 50 civilian deaths over a ten-year period (2001 to 2011) or less than 2.5% of deaths from drone strikes overall. In May 2012, the New York Times quoted a senior Administration official as stating that civilian casualties from drone strikes in Pakistan under President Obama were in the "single digits," presumably meaning over the course of one year."
While Lewis was unable to give specific numbers to substantiate his claim, his assertion does follow a trend of several individual reports asserting that there have been more civilian deaths from drone strikes than the U.S. government has stated.
"The government sharply disputes that there have been large numbers of civilian deaths but has never released its own figures. Independent counts, largely compiled from news reports, range from about 200 to around 1,000 for Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia combined over the past decade."
While one or two independent reports may be wrong about civilian casualties, when so many individual organizations claim higher casualty counts, the administration and American public has to start taking notice and wonder if these claims are true.
President Obama vowed to usher in a new era in the war of terror. In his major drone speech in May, he promised "to facilitate transparency and debate on" drone strikes and stated that "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured" in a strike.
This vow came after Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked CIA Director John Brennan earlier this year if the U.S. should acknowledge when it "makes a mistake and kills the wrong person."
While the domestic use of drones is very controversial and a haunting thought, use of targeted drone strikes overseas has wide popularity and serves many useful purposes in combating terror abroad. While the War on Terror is fought in the shadows, there is no reason Americans need to be kept in the dark. Civilian casualties are a sad reality of war and should be avoided at all costs, but they have become commonplace, and we have become numb to its consequences. Instead of avoiding the facts, the U.S. Government needs to face these hard truths and be honest with the American people. Civillian deaths occur and will continue to occur in the War on Terror, but unless this administration truly decides to embrace transparency, we may never know the true extent of the casaulties.