US releases figures of civilians killed by drones

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Jul 02, 2016 23:47 IST
A US airman guides an Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. According to figures released by the US, between 64-116 civilians were killed in drone strikes outside ‘areas of active hostilities’. (Reuters)

The US on Friday released figures for the first time that showed that between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in drone strikes outside “areas of active hostilities” on President Barack Obama’s watch.

These casualties, the US’ count of which is significantly lower than that estimated by non-governmental bodies, occurred outside Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, the so-called “areas of active hostilities”.

The release by the Director General of Intelligence (DNI), which oversees the US intelligence community, did not, however, give a location-specific breakdown of these numbers.

But Pakistan is likely one of them, especially its northwestern parts where the US has used drones to kill terrorists — such as Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour last May.

The US has also used drones extensively against al-Shabaab terrorists in Somalia, killing 150 of them in strikes last March, according to an announcement made by the Pentagon then.

The DNI said between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants, intended targets, were killed in a total of 473 drone strikes outside “areas of active hostilities” from January 2009 to December 2015.

Figures cited by non-governmental bodies are significantly higher — at least 325 by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 219 by New America Foundation and 212 by Long War Journal.

Acknowledging these differences between its figures and those of non-governmental bodies, the DNI said the first official count is based on “post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over the years and that use information that is generally unavailable to non-governmental organisations”.

And, it added, non-governmental bodies sometimes count combatants as non-combatants because they do not have the kind of follow-up information available to officials.

Second, US government post-strike reviews based on multi-source intelligence from before, during and after the strike are unique and not available to non-governmental bodies.

Third, finally, non-government counts may have been compromised “by deliberate spread of misinformation by some actors, including terrorist organizations, in local media reports”.

An executive order issued by President Obama along with DNI release makes if incumbent upon the president, those who follow him, to publish these figures every year.

And it also enjoins upon the government to “offer condolences, including ex gratia payments” to civilians killed in such strikes, and coordinate casualty figures with non-government bodies.

This is “a very deliberate attempt to ensure that the architecture . . . is durable, sustainable and lasting well beyond next seven months,” a senior official said, according to Washington Post.

President Obama has aggressively pursued the use of drones to hunt terrorists as an alternative to sending in forces, which he has also done as the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

“All armed conflict invites tragedy,” Obama said in a speech in 2013, explaining his reasons for using drones. “But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

But he has also tried to bring a certain transparency to the process, laying out in the same 2013 speech the standards and procedures followed in carrying out such strikes outside areas of active hostilities. 

Friday announcements were a step in that direction, the White House said in a statement — to “provide greater transparency and accountability regarding these operations”.

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