24 October 2013

How Big Is The Drone War?

The United States has been fighting at least two CIA managed, covert wars that have been conducted with armed drones and possibly also with airstrikes from manned aircraft with guided munitions.  One has taken place principally in Northern Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan and has been targeted at both Taliban organizations and terrorist organizations there.  There other has taken place in Yemen and has been directed at terrorist organizations there.

There have been CIA led covert operations to capture and kill suspected terrorists elsewhere, but these operations are believed to have been comparatively small in scale.  Probably fewer than a thousand people have been captured and probably far fewer have been killed outside Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  With only a handful of exceptions, these other anti-terrorist covert operations do not seem to have involved armed drone strikes or airstrikes.

The Data

A recent post at the Lawfare blog summarizes what is known from open media sources about the militant and non-combatant civilian casualties that have been inflicted by U.S. armed drones and airstrikes in Pakistan and Yemen. The key conclusions reached are as follows:
In his widely discussed May 23 speech at the National Defense University, President Obama acknowledged that “much of the criticism about drone strikes—at home and abroad—understandably centers on reports of civilian casualties. There is a wide gap between U.S. assessments of such casualties, and non-governmental reports.” This gap is wide indeed. The range of public estimates of civilian deaths from drone strikes, at the low end, includes the June 2011 statement by then-White House Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan that there had not been “a single collateral death” in a year as a result of American drones. At the other extreme, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based non-profit organization, puts the number of civilian casualties between 84 and 193 in 2010, and between 52 and 146 in 2011—the years that together encapsulate the period in which Brennan said there had been none. . . .
Number of Deaths from U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan in 2011
303 – 502
330 – 575
57 – 65
52 – 146
72 – 155
32 – 37
392 – 604
447 – 660
456 – 661
Civilian Casualty Death Rate
9% – 17%
8% – 33%
11% – 34%
. . . 
Number of Deaths from U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan from 2004-Present 
1,585 – 2,733
258 – 307
411 – 890
196 – 330
2,039 – 3,370
2,566 – 3,570
Civilian Casualty Death Rate
8% – 15%
12% – 35%
[In Yemen, from 2002 to the present the] NAF reports between 557 and 760 militant deaths and a total of 596 and 832 total casualties. LWJ puts AQAP deaths at 349 and civilian deaths at 82. And BIJ’s estimates are between 15 and 52 civilians killed and 239 and 349 total deaths as a result of “confirmed” drone strikes—and between 23 and 48 civilian casualties and 283 and 456 total casualties as a result of “possible” US drone strikes. 

John Brennan's public statement that there was not a single collateral death from U.S. drones is nothing less than a bald faced intentional lie.  It isn't true.  And, given his position, he knew that it wasn't true at the time he said it and made a false statement regarding this fact with an intent to deceive the American and the global public.  It is so completely unbelievable and contrary to facts that are well established from multiple sources that it does not deserve to be taken seriously and undermines the credibility of the entire United States government on the issue.

The number of deaths from drone strikes is not insignificant.  The number of U.S. drone caused deaths in 2011 are similar in number, for example, to the number of justified homicides by law enforcement in the entire United States in any given year, and the percentage of "collateral damage" deaths from U.S. drone strikes far exceed those associated with justified homicides by law enforcement.  Far more "innocent" people are killed each year in drone strikes than in criminal justice based anti-terrorism activities, and the U.S. government provides no remedy to the families of these bystanders who are killed merely because they were in the vicinity of the drone strike target.

We have no good way to determine if there were any U.S. drone strikes or airstrikes in which no militants were killed due to bad intelligence, although this was consistent with the historical record in a small number of cases of overt military operations in Afghanistan by the United States involving similar kinds of strikes.  The CIA is not forthcoming on this issue and there is nothing that a member of the general public or journalist could do to determine who the CIA intended as a target in a particular strike - sometimes the target is obvious, but sometimes there may be a bona fide target who is not obvious, especially years into the campaign that has made it clear to people in the region that open affiliation with terrorist groups or the Taliban is likely to result in your death.  It is the answer to this question that Brennan may have used to deceive himself into thinking he was providing when he lied about collateral damage deaths.

On the other hand, the overall scale and pace of operations in the drone wars is not huge.  In Pakistan we are probably talking about no more than one or two drone strikes a day, or less.  In Yemen, the average pace of operations appears to be about one or two drone strikes a week, or less.  The volume of strikes is no so great that it is inconceivable that someone as senior as the President's National Security Advisor or a designated chief deputy in that office might review a dossier on every single proposed drone strike in advance and flag proposals at the highest level for approval or denial.  It isn't clear that this actually happens, although leaked White Papers from the Executive Office of the President suggest that something fairly similar does happen.  But, it could.  And, the number of people who are known by the U.S. government to be U.S. citizens who are at risk in these drone strikes is clearly so small that you could count them on your fingers, and these cases probably are reviewed by the President with his advisors in every single instance because of their rarity and political importance.

Footnote: Historical Background on the War on Terror

Afghanistan's monarchy unified the country in the 1700s and reigned until 1973 when a military coup established a Republic.  Pro-Soviet communists replaced the Republic in a 1978 coup and another Soviet backed coup with a leader more loyal to the Soviets was carried out in 1979.  A succession of civil wars ravaged Afghanistan almost continuously from then until 2001, leading to more than two million deaths and leading to the exile of more than six million refugees.  But, eventually the balance in this never ending, but ever mutating civil war had tipped decisively in favor of the strict Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime.  The Taliban controlled 90% of the territory of the country from 1998 to 2001, with an opposition group of remaining warlords called the "Northern Alliance" on the verge of total defeat in the country's remaining territory.

The drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen are basically a spin off from the overt war U.S. has fought an overt war against the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan since shortly after 9-11 in 2001.  When the Taliban was unable or unwilling to deliver up the 9-11 terrorists to the United States, Congress included the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had been just about to win a long civil war in Afghanistan as an enemy upon which it declared war in the Authorization For Use of Military Force (AUMF) that it adopted in the fall of 2001.

The term "war on terror" has sometimes been used to refer to all military activity and covert operations in support of the AUMF, although it is sometimes used instead to refer to AUMF operations other than the Afghan War itself (also called Operation Enduring Freedom), and to non-AUMF authorized anti-terrorism efforts domestic and foreign as well.  By any reasonable definition, however, the "drone wars" in Pakistan and Yemen clearly count as part of the war on terror.

The Northern Alliance, once they secured the post-9-11 assistance of the U.S. military and CIA, routed the Taliban in about two months, and the U.S. and an international coalition of military forces recruited by George W. Bush's administration to join them then assisted them in the process of reconstituting a civilian government for Afghanistan and providing military support for it from insurgent forces.

In the almost twelve years since then (the longest war in U.S. history other than the "Indian Wars" which is itself really a series of smaller domestic counterinsurgency campaigns over almost a century), the U.S., as part of an international coalition of military forces which has dwindled over time, has helped the new civilian regime's security forces fight a counterinsurgency operation against the remnants of the Taliban regime.

Many remnants of the Taliban regime and the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist groups that had operated in the territory it had once controlled sought greener pastures from a base of operations in Northern Pakistan.  For example, Osama bin Laden, the leader of the group that conducted the 9-11 attack, was killed in Pakistan by U.S. Special Forces during President Obama's first term of office.

President Obama has firmly declared that U.S. combat units and the bulk of other U.S. military forces will leave Afghan forces to fight the ongoing counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan by itself and will withdraw its forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 (apart from an embassy guard and perhaps also some U.S. troops training Afghan security forces and/or operating a small U.S. military base or two in the country).  The administration has indicated that this withdrawal may happen sooner in 2014 than year end.

At first, the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was quite modest in terms of number of troops, number of casualties, and funds expended despite its fairly great successes, and the CIA component of the action was significant.  In more recent years, CIA involvement in Afghanistan targeted operations has dwindled (although drone strike and airstrike operations in Pakistan have apparently been based in Afghanistan).  Meanwhile, Taliban activity and the number of coalition troops (increasingly predominantly American) have both surged, and developed into a more conventional counterinsurgency operation focused on the more restive Afghan provinces.  Some of this surge was made possible by a contemporaneous draw down of U.S. troop levels in Iraq (from which all U.S. troops except the Marine guard at the U.S. embassy there were withdraw early in President Obama's first term).  At the peak of U.S. involvement in this counterinsurgency action in Afghanistan there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops stationed in the country.

On balance the Afghan insurgents have been less effective militarily than those in Iraq.  U.S. casualties in Afghanistan (which is about the same size in population and geographically as Iraq and like Iraq has large swaths of territory that are virtually uninhabitable) have been lower, as have civilian casualties caused by all sides in the conflict.  Afghan suicide bombings and ambushes have been less effectual than in Iraq, and the civilian government has been more cohesive (which is not to say that it is not without serious internal conflicts).  Improvised explosive devices called IEDs (basically crude bombs often activated with cell phones or based upon weight) have been the characteristic means by which casualties have been inflicted on U.S. and coalition forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq.  The Afghan IEDs have been less potent, but have also inflicted a larger share of insurgent caused casualties.  In the last couple of years, Afghan insurgents have also used deadly attacks by insurgents who have infiltrated the Afghan security forces and gains the trust of the coalition partners and loyal to the regime colleagues as an effective tactic.

The insurgents in Afghanistan are often young, ill equipped and ill trained.  Coalition forces have killed large numbers of them for each coalition soldier who has been killed in the campaign.  The insurgents have targeted their efforts on foreign military forces and Afghan security forces and key senior Afghan government regime targets.  The Coalition forces have tried to kill only Taliban militants and terrorist group members.  Both have killed civilians in the course of the campaign, sometimes by accident, sometimes due to lack of discipline on the part of coalition and/or insurgent fighters, and at least in the case of insurgents, sometimes by design to punish people who arguably have violated Islamic law or betrayed the Taliban by supporting the Coalition or the new Afghan government in some way or being associated with someone who has done so.
The share of conflict caused deaths which involve civilians is a much larger share of the people killed by the insurgents than of the people killed by Coalition and Afghan security forces.  But, Coalition forces have paid a much higher reputational cost for the civilian casualties that it has inflicted than the insurgents.

In Pakistan, the U.S. covert operation's relationship with Pakistani security and intelligence agencies has been tenuous.  There is an insurgency in Northern Pakistan that is completely separate from the one in Afghanistan.  In the Pakistani insurgency, the Taliban groups that fled Afghanistan have been enemies of the principal insurgent groups that the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies are trying to put down, so these Pakistani government agencies have been reluctant to give more than lip service to high level agreements between the U.S. and Pakistan to allow the U.S. to carry out its war on terror with CIA operatives and armed drones in Pakistan.  Rare instances in which Pakistani security forces have been killed by U.S. forces, often after being fired upon themselves, have exacerbated the tensions between Pakistani security forces and U.S. forces.

While the CIA led operation in Pakistan is officially "covert" and the operational details of the operation generally remain secret, its existence and the broad outlines of the campaign are an open secret and a major leak of secret communications related to the operation by a U.S. soldier have shed further light on what is going on there.  U.S. and foreign media sources have also been able to determine a great deal about the operation by turning to non-U.S. government sources for information on airstrikes or armed drone strikes and aggregating the information.  Several non-governmental organizations have made organized efforts to aggregate the available information to provide a coherent overall story of the drone war in Pakistan and the parallel conflict in Yemen.

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