As I am (at last) moving into the finishing stages of my ‘Dirty Dancing’ essay on CIA-directed drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, it’s time to round up some of the latest work on drones and civilian casualties across multiple theatres.
First, Afghanistan: the principal theatre of US remote operations. I’ve noted Larry Lewis‘s remarkable work before (here and here), based on classified sources, and in particular this claim (see also here):
Drone strikes in Afghanistan were seen to have close to the same number of civilian casualties per incident as manned aircraft, and were an order of magnitude more likely to result in civilian casualties per engagement.
As I said at the time, the distinction between an ‘incident’ and an ‘engagement’ is crucial, though most commentators who have seized on Larry’s work have ignored it and focused on the dramatic difference in civilian casualties per engagement. Despite my best efforts, the Pentagon were unwilling to clarify the difference, so here is what Larry himself has told me:
An engagement is probably intuitively what you would expect – the use of force against a target. The distinction is the term incident, which is borrowed from ISAF definitions. I should have said “civilian casualty incident.” This refers to an engagement that results in civilian casualties.
This means that, if you look at the collection of civilian casualty incidents, the average number of civilian casualties is close to the same for manned and unmanned platforms. At the same time, the rate of civilian casualties for the two platforms is markedly different, with unmanned platforms being ten times more likely to cause civilian casualties than manned platforms. That doesn’t mean that drones caused more civilian casualties than manned aircraft, by the way, since the denominators (number of engagements of manned aircraft versus drones) can and in fact were very different. But it does suggest that the relative risk of civilian casualties was higher for one kind of platform versus the other.
And this is in the specific context of Afghanistan and for a specific time. I wouldn’t want to say that this specific rate would be repeated, necessarily. Yet there were certain risk factors I observed in the civilian casualty incidents that I would expect to continue to be factors unless steps were taken to mitigate them.
Larry’s most recent report, Improving lethal action: learning and adapting in US Counterterrorism Operations, is available here. It includes an analysis of the Uruzgan air strike that is central to my ‘Angry Eyes’ essay (next on my to-do list).
[The short clip above is from Baden Pailthorpe‘s stunning animation MQ-9 Reaper (That Others May Die) (2014) – you can find much more here]
You might think that all of this is now of historical interest since President Obama has declared the end of the Afghanistan war. Not so. Here is John Knefel writing in Rolling Stone this week:
Though many Americans may not have realized it, December 28th marked what the U.S. government called the official end of the war in Afghanistan. That war has been the longest in U.S. history – but despite the new announcement that the formal conflict is over, America’s war there is far from finished. In fact, the Obama administration still considers the Afghan theater an area of active hostilities, according to an email from a senior administration official – and therefore exempts it from the stricter drone and targeted killing guidelines the president announced at a major speech at the National Defense University in 2013.
“Afghanistan will continue to be considered an ‘area of active hostilities’ in 2015,” the official tells RS. “The PPG does not apply to areas of active hostilities.” (PPG stands for Presidential Policy Guidelines, the formal name for the heightened drone rules.)
That perplexing distinction – that formal combat operations are over but that the U.S. still remains in an armed conflict – in many ways exemplifies the lasting legacy of Obama’s foreign policy.
If you assume the situation in Pakistan is somehow less ambiguous, read Ryan Goodman on ‘areas of active hostilities’ over at Just Security here (I’m having to sort all this out for ‘Dirty Dancing’, of course).
Second, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has released its end-of-year report on US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in 2014, which includes these tabulations of casualty rates for the first two countries:
The Bureau comments:
While there have been more strikes [in Pakistan] in the past six years, the casualty rate has been lower under Obama than under his predecessor. The CIA killed eight people, on average, per strike during the Bush years. Under Obama, it is less than six. The civilian casualty rate is lower too – more than three civilians were reported killed per strike during the past presidency. Under Obama, less than one. There were no confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistan in the past year, as in 2013….
The frequency of strikes [in Yemen] may have fallen in 2014 but more people were killed, on average, per strike than in any previous year. The casualty rate for last year even outstrips 2012 – the bloodiest year recorded in the US’s drone campaign in Yemen when at least 173 people were reported killed in 29 strikes. In 2014 at least 82 people were reported to have died in just 13 strikes.
You can find the Long War Journal‘s tabulations for Pakistan here and Yemen here.
Third, Israel. I’ve commented previously on an interview with an Israeli drone pilot, but it’s been difficult to put his observations in context (though see here and scroll down to the tabulations). Now Ann Rogers, who wrote Unmanned: drone warfare and global security (Pluto, 2014) with John Hill – as good an introduction to drone wars as you will find – has just released an essay on ‘Investigating the Relationship Between Drone Warfare and Civilian Casualties in Gaza‘. It’s in a special issue of the open-access Journal of Strategic Security 7 (4) (2014) on ‘Future challenges in drone geopolitics’. Here’s the abstract:
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, are increasingly touted as ‘humanitarian’ weapons that contribute positively to fighting just wars and saving innocent lives. At the same time, civilian casualties have become the most visible and criticized aspect of drone warfare. It is argued here that drones contribute to civilian casualties not in spite of, but because of, their unique attributes. They greatly extend war across time and space, pulling more potential threats and targets into play over long periods, and because they are low-risk and highly accurate, they are more likely to be used. The assumption that drones save lives obscures a new turn in strategic thinking that sees states such as Israel and the US rely on large numbers of small, highly discriminating attacks applied over time to achieve their objectives. This examination of Israel’s 2014 war in Gaza argues that civilian casualties are not an unexpected or unintended consequence of drone warfare, but an entirely predictable outcome.
It’s an interesting essay, but I fear that it takes the Israeli military at its word. Ann repeatedly refers to Israel’s ‘discriminating’ targeting:
‘The central point is that drones enabled the IDF to undertake detailed, extensive, and discriminating targeting of Gaza, before and during the actual fighting. The killing of civilians may be down to differing interpretations of military necessity, or in some cases, in how combatants and non-combatants are distinguished from one another. But it is the drone gaze that enables these targets to be ‘called into being’ (p. 102)…
‘As Israeli targeting of Gaza appears to have been highly discriminating, a more serious problem may lie in how its view of legitimate attacks differs from the global “norm.” (p. 104).’
I commented on Israeli attacks on hospitals and ambulances last summer here, here and here, and on the wholesale destruction of Gaza here and here, so I confess I am at a loss for words. But she is right to emphasise the operative power of international humanitarian law and its protocols of distinction (discrimination) and proportionality – though, as often as not, these seem to have been inoperative in anything other than a rhetorical sense. For much more on this, and the way in which military lawyers are incorporated into Israel’s kill-chains, you should click across to Craig Jones‘s War, Law and Space. All of which makes the Palestinian decision to seek membership of the International Criminal Court all the more important (there’s a good commentary on the wider legal issues by David Luban at Jus Security here and by a clutch of commentators at the Middle East Research and Information Project‘s blog here). Perhaps not surprisingly, Daniel Reisner, the former head of the Israeli military’s International Law Department, has condemned the Palestinian application as ‘a belligerent act within the framework of the non-physical and kinetic world of lawfare.’
Finally, the US-led air strikes on IS/ISIL targets in Iraq and Syria. Here we know much less than we should, not least because the Pentagon knows much less than it should. Here is Nancy Youssef reporting earlier this week:
In a war fought largely from the air and in places no one can safely go, the impact is as opaque as the war itself, making it difficult to measure whether the U.S. and coalition effort is working.
“We don’t have the ability to count the nose of every guy we schwack,” as Pentagon spokesman Adm. John Kirby told reporters Tuesday, using military jargon [sic] for killing. “That’s not the goal.”
Presumably, that also means the Pentagon can’t count how many civilians it has accidentally killed in the name of ridding the region of ISIS.
Drone Wars UK has an excellent survey of the logistics of air operations over Iraq and Syria from Chris Cole here, and the New York Times has produced a useful interactive map of US-led air strikes from which I’ve snipped this summary:
We don’t know how many of these were carried out by drones or even orchestrated by them, but as their limitations are becoming clearer it’s reasonable to assume that most involved conventional strike aircraft. We do know that targeting involves the analysis of video feeds from both remote and conventional platforms, and that CENTCOM has had considerable difficulty in juggling the competing demands for ISR from Afghanistan and from Iraq/Syria.
According to a report this week from W.J. Hennigan, who visited the USAF’s 480th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia:
In a vast windowless room, several dozen intelligence analysts worked under the glow of more than 100 computer screens, quietly studying video streaming from U.S. drones and spy planes hunting for Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
One team searched the incoming video to find a firefight underway between Iraqi security forces and militants somewhere south of the insurgent-held city of Mosul in northern Iraq.
For four hours, the analysts pored over the imagery before identifying 20 positions where the militants were dug in with machine guns and other weaponry. After the analysts called in the coordinates, 15 jets from five countries pounded the targets with more than two dozen bombs.
The Dec. 5 airstrike, one of 462 last month, underscores the Pentagon’s increased reliance on personnel far from the battlefield… Air Force analysts here stand — or rather sit — on the virtual front lines by tracking Islamic State fighters in a war zone some 6,000 miles away.
But here’s the rub:
Unlike in past wars, when U.S. troops on the ground helped provide targeting information and intelligence, commanders in the battle against Islamic State rely chiefly on airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter, signals intelligence and other material that is processed by analysts here.
U.S. officers said the video-watching analysts working half a world away are no match for spotters and other troops feeding intelligence from the front lines.
“We don’t have anywhere near the level of intelligence we used to,” Lt. Col. Marc Spinuzzi, a senior intelligence officer, wrote in an email from Baghdad. The analysts are under “a lot of pressure … to clearly distinguish friend from foe, and to pick out the enemy from the civilian population” on the battlefield.
That is precisely how mistakes are made and civilians killed. And, as Robert Naiman pointed out,
“There is a big danger here that U.S. air strikes in Syria are going to resemble the drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in the sense that there is no accountability for who is killed. We have reports of civilian casualties from people in the area and the U.S. government says, ‘No, they are bad guys.’ There has to be some public accountability for what happens when there are allegations of civilian casualties.”
At least the Pentagon has now gone some way towards recognising the problem. Previously it had insisted that it was unaware of any civilian casualties, which is disingenuous: it beggars belief that 1,000 air strikes could have resulted in no civilian casualties – but if your ISR is inadequate it’s scarcely surprising that you would be ‘unaware’ of the consequences. Even so, on 6 January the Pentagon announced that it had investigated 18 allegations of coalition airstrikes causing civilian casualties between 8 August and 30 December. It determined that 13 were ‘not credible’, but was continuing to review three others; a further two, one in Iraq and one in Syria, are now the subject of formal military investigations. But before you gold your breath, both Iraq and Syria are also exempt from the Presidential Policy Guidelines that require a ‘near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’. Here is Harold Koh (really):
‘They seem to be creating this grey zone… If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.’