Guest Opinion: Hard questions about drone deaths

The Orange County Register, July 13
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In a show of shocking imprecision, the White House recently released statistics on the number of civilians killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Africa during President Barack Obama’s time in office.

The imprecision is evident in two ways, and it encourages practical and philosophical questions about the drone attacks that play a large role in America’s war on terrorism.

First, there are the statistics themselves. They’re an insult to the word “estimate.” According to the administration’s first report of this kind, as few as 64 and as many as 116 non-combatants have been killed, along with between 2,372 and 2,581 enemy combatants, in 473 unmanned aircraft strikes aimed at suspected terrorists and their leaders.

That’s quite a range: 64 to 116. Americans wouldn’t accept such inexactitude in a calorie count; we certainly shouldn’t accept it in a casualty count of innocent people.

And an accurate number of dead civilians may not fall within that range, given that independent organizations that keep track of reports of U.S. drone strikes believe the real toll is as high as about 800. The website Long War Journal counts 207 civilian deaths in Pakistan and Yemen, the think tank New America counts 216 in those countries, and the news organization Bureau of Investigative Journalism says the range is 380 to 801.

Second, there’s what the statistics say about those strikes.

Part of the supposed point of using armed drones is that compared to bombs from manned aircraft, they’re more accurate at hitting small targets. Collateral damage is supposed to be minimized. Civilian deaths should be few — the strikes more humane.

But these numbers, especially the larger private estimates, suggest that advantage is overstated.

The implications are fodder for critics of President Obama’s stepped-up use of drones. Maybe that’s why the administration rolled out the numbers on the Friday before the Fourth of July.

Note that the numbers don’t include civilian deaths from drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. They cover only places where the U.S. is not engaged in active hostilities.

To his credit, the president issued an executive order on the day of the data release making protection of civilians a priority for military planning. But good intentions won’t satisfy those who say drone strikes, controlled by personnel at video screens thousands of miles away, sanitize the tragedy of civilian casualties.

While Americans debating how to fight terrorism may disagree on how many dead foreign civilians is too many, we shouldn’t ignore the question of drone-strikes’ big-picture effectiveness. Do they debilitate the enemy and discourage would-be terrorists? Or does anger at the killing of civilians drive more men and women toward terrorist recruiters? Isn’t the killing of civilians what we’re fighting against?

Last month, we called on Congress to give the president authority to use military force against the Islamic State. At the same time, we said U.S. leaders must clearly delineate our aims — as well as limits that keep military and police action within the bounds of American values.

They can begin to better define the mission by asking hard questions about the vague, barely believable data released on July 1 and the drone strategy itself.