An Important New Study of the Drone War

It’s been evident for a long time now that the Obama administration has been offering a wildly embellished account of the drone war that it’s been covertly waging in Pakistan and elsewhere. An important new report, released by researchers at Stanford and NYU law schools, helps make clear just how embellished.

For reasons that the report spells out in detail, it’s extremely difficult to figure out just how many people have been killed by drones and how many of them have been civilians. Most American media reports on the strikes come courtesy of anonymous US government officials, who have every incentive to euphemize the civilian toll of the drone war. (Furthermore, according to a May New York Times story, the administration has been counting every military-age male killed in a drone strike as a “militant” until expressly proven otherwise.) Some of the most widely-used indicators of the death toll, such as those offered by the Ammo¬†and the Long War Journal, similarly suffer from an overreliance on US intelligence accounts that minimize civilian deaths.

But according to the numbers compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which the report suggests is the most accurate tally currently available, drone strikes have killed between 474 and 881 civilians in Pakistan over the past eight years, including 176 children. Given an overall death toll that is estimated between 2,562 and 3,325 people, this means that civilians have accounted for roughly 14 to 34 percent of those killed.

As the report makes clear, however, the civilian death toll is only the most obvious human cost of the drone war. David Rohde, the New York Times journalist who spent months in captivity with the Taliban, has described life in the Pakistani tribal areas during the war on terror as “hell on earth,” and the accounts of the damage drones inflict on everyday life back up this assessment. Civilians living with the perpetual buzzing of drones overhead have been increasingly afraid to send their children to school, attend social gatherings, and even to provide first aid or burials for the victims of previous drone strikes. While the authors do not engage in diagnosis, their accounts suggest that an enormous chunk of the population of these areas must be living with something like PTSD.

Finally, the much-touted strategic benefits of the drone war appear to be quite overblown. An extremely low percentage of the “militants” killed seem to have been significant operational leaders responsible for terrorist attacks, and the deep unpopularity of the drone strikes has further alienated the Pakistani public and raised the likelihood that the next government might swing in a sharply anti-American direction.

As I’ve written before, there seems to be no major constituency at present pushing to hold the Obama administration accountable for its conduct of the drone war. Democrats have been more than happy to prove their toughness by claiming “terrorist” scalps — witness Osama bin Laden’s starring role at the Democratic convention earlier this month — while Republicans’ down-the-line opposition to the administration’s every move does not seem to extend to a concern for the rights of dark-skinned civilians in far-off Muslim countries. Until that changes, sad to say, the domestic political benefits of the drone war seem likely to ensure that it will continue.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.