Latest Data on Drone Casualties

Nov 16, 2010

A study published in the Jamestown Foundations’ Terrorism Monitor a few days ago claims it sheds “New Light on the Accuracy of the CIA’s Predator Drone Campaign in Pakistan.” (Never mind the fact that as civilians, CIA agents are not entitled to wage war and would have to be considered ‘unlawful combatants’ if brought to justice.)

The question addressed here is a simple but very important one from a jus in bello perspective: what is the proportion of civilian deaths to combatant deaths in such strikes? No one is actually keeping track, but the authors aim to develop a good estimate by extrapolating from both Western and Pakistani news sources. On this basis they conclude:

Widely-cited reports of the inaccuracy and disproportionality of civilian to militant deaths in the CIA’s ongoing Predator drone campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan are grossly misleading. The most detailed database compiled to date, assembled by the authors of this article, indicates (among other important findings) that the strikes have not only been impressively accurate, but have achieved and maintained a greater proportionality than either ground operations in the area or targeting campaigns elsewhere

Now, I haven’t studied their coding closely enough to understand how it enabled them to arrive at such wildly different conclusion than this study last year, which used a similar methodology; however simply by reading over the article itself I can already see three problems:

1) Their definition of ‘civilian’ excludes adult men and boys over the age of 13:

All children under 13 and women were assumed to be civilian, along with all of those specifically identified as civilians, bystanders or locals uninvolved in the fighting. Where it was impossible to determine whether a person killed was properly categorized as a suspected militant or civilian, we assigned them to the category of “unknowns.”

Numerous scholars, myself included, have shown how misleading it is to assume all women are civilians and all men and older boys are combatants; and to build this gendered stereotype into one’s dataset immediately prejudices the data in favor of finding fewer civilian deaths.

2) The authors are to be commended for using the label “suspected militants” rather than “militants” – too many right-of-center commentators assume that a terror suspect is in fact a terrorist, just as too many left-of-center commentators use the term “war criminal” to describe individuals who have never yet been convicted of a war crime. Yet these authors somehow fail to notice the ethical implication in the behaviors they are describing: the US is carrying out a mass murder campaign against individuals suspected of committed crimes, in the absence of any sort of effort to determine whether or not they are actually guilty. In short, what renders these individuals putative “legitimate targets” appears to be nothing more than the suspicions of those with their fingers on the trigger. Oh, and possessing testicles.

3) Now that said, the way that they have gone about exploring the concept of discrimination is very interesting: they have compared the ratio of civilian/”suspected militant” deaths with drone to equivalent ground operations by US troops, by Pakistani troops, and by Israel’s targeted killings campaign, and in inter-state wars historically. All of these are interesting and helpful comparisons. I’d be interested to see them replicated with data that properly coded “civilian” dead – which would need to involve a consideration of the context of each attack.

That said, strictly speaking the authors are measuring the concept of “distinction” or “discrimination,” not the concept of “proportionality.” The distinction principle measures the ability to hit combatants while minimizing the costs to civilians. Proportionality measures the overall good of an attack relative to its overall negative side-effects.

From a human security perspective, I would argue the appropriate measure for an analysis of proportionality would not be the number of civilian death to combatant deaths, but rather the number of civilian deaths by drone strikes to some estimate of the number of Pakistani civilians who will not now die as a result of militant activity.

I leave it to the number crunchers to figure out how to calculate this.

[cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money]


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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.