Obama Still Searching for the Magic Formula on Drones

by Derek Davison

On July 1, the Friday before a long holiday weekend, the Obama administration released a long-awaited estimate of the number of civilians killed in U.S. airstrikes—primarily delivered via unmanned drone—against suspected terrorist targets in “non-war zones.” These official figures are unexpectedly, maybe even insultingly, low:

The United States has inadvertently killed between 64 and 116 civilians in drone and other lethal air attacks against terrorism suspects in non-war zones, the Obama administration said Friday.

In releasing only aggregate figures that did not include when or where the strikes occurred, the administration shielded those claims from meaningful public scrutiny, even as it sought to bolster its own assertions about the accuracy and effectiveness of the operations.

Independent groups, whose own tracking of civilian deaths have produced far higher numbers, said they appreciated the administration’s effort. But they said it fell far short of President Obama’s repeated promises of greater transparency about his administration’s extraordinary reliance on armed drones in overseas counterterrorist operations.

Without any context for these numbers, it’s very difficult to know what they mean. But they are significantly lower than any independent estimate that’s been done to date:

Organizations such as the Long War Journal, the New America Foundation, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that at least 200 and as many as 1,000 civilians have been killed by American drone strikes in nations where the U.S. is not at war since Obama took office. The administration offered no individualized accounts to explain where its numbers came from, or who the civilian casualties were. Without the government addressing individual cases, disclosing the identities of those killed, or providing detailed information on the investigations undergirding its conclusions, Shamsi contended, little could be done with the disclosures.

A 2013 Human Rights Watch report, for example, found that seven U.S. airstrikes in Yemen (one of the “non-war zones” included in the White House estimate), conducted between 2009 and 2013, killed at least 57 civilians, almost half of the administration’s highest estimate. When pressed on the method by which it calculated these figures, the administration responded, essentially, that “we have more information than anybody else, so you’ll have to trust us.”

Although it inherited drones as a counter-terror tactic from the Bush administration, the Obama administration has vastly expanded their use and, as the Council on Foreign Relations’ Micah Zenko once noted, it has gone to great lengths to “institutionalize and normalize the practice.” And as John Feffer recently pointed out in this space, drones have been the most troubling aspect of the administration’s overall counter-terrorism program for several reasons. Data—though admittedly not using the White House’s dubious casualty estimates—shows that considerably more civilians are killed per drone strike than in other kinds of airstrikes. A strong case can be made, which UN agencies have been making, that drone strikes violate international law. The use of one particular kind of drone strike, the so-called “signature strike,” is particularly problematic from both legal and moral perspectives, as Feffer notes:

These attacks target not specific people, but anyone who fits the general profile of a terrorist in what’s deemed a terrorist-rich territory. They do not require presidential approval. These strikes have resulted in some huge mistakes, including the killing of 12 Yemeni civilians in December 2013 that required a million dollars in “condolence payments.” The Obama administration shows no sign of retiring this particular tactic.

Drone strikes are also wildly unpopular in almost every country for which public opinion data on the issue is available, including those countries that have felt the brunt of the U.S. drone program. Their unpopularity has led to fears of blowback—i.e., that these strikes may radicalize more terrorists than they take out. Although some research, conducted by the University of Oklahoma’s Aqil Shah, now suggests that drone strikes are actually popular among the populations that they have most directly affected, that research does little, contrary to Shah’s overstated conclusions, to directly dispel the notion that drones may have a radicalizing effect on some people in the Muslim world.

Along with the release of the civilian casualty estimate, the Obama administration also quietly announced a change in U.S. policy on July 1 that places more emphasis on protecting civilians. Rachel Reid of the Open Society Foundations explains:

The July 1 executive order on civilian casualty mitigation demonstrates that the lessons of Afghanistan have not been forgotten. The order enshrines a commitment to the appropriate use of force, to monitoring civilian casualties, to provide compensation to victims of civilian harm, and other appropriate consequence management policies. The assistant to the president for national security affairs is now required to conduct periodic interagency reviews of casualty trends and revise guidance as necessary. Despite continued concerns about undercounting, this at least raises the issue of civilian casualty mitigation to senior levels in government and provides an ongoing commitment to review and revise policy — revisions that are essential in the dynamic environments in which the United States executes counterterror operations.

This is a positive but woefully inadequate step. As Reid notes, its focus on direct civilian casualties means that the other ways in which U.S. military activity harms and potentially radicalizes civilians—through the destruction of local economies and infrastructure, or the destabilization of political systems—will continue to be ignored. And the bottom line is that, even with these changes in policy, U.S. airstrikes outside of declared conflicts are still very likely illegal under international law.

Derek Davison

Derek Davison is an analyst covering U.S. foreign policy and international affairs and the writer/editor of the newsletter Foreign Exchanges. His writing has appeared at LobeLog, Jacobin, and Foreign Policy in Focus.



  1. When will the US ever learn that killing people creates not reduces terrorism. (My fear is that they know but terrorism is just the excuse to feed the bloated corporations who make their fortunes on chaos)

  2. Islamic state burns victims after murdering them. This was meant to be a great disrespect to.the tradition and religion. Drones eviscerate their victims. Burying bodies of your loved ones is a long tradition in most of the world which can’t be done in this case. This mode of death is similar to what IS does in destroying the corpse. I know Mr. Obama is thinking of his legacy and wants to exonerate himself when he is out of office from the fallout of drone warfare but the helpless nations who have born the brunt of this barbaric form of extrajudicial killing will never
    forget it One of the things the mass murderer in Orlando said to police was “don’t bomb Afghanistan and Pakistan.” His heinous crime was presented as a hate crime against gays but his aforementioned statement was never presented

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