Commentary Magazine


Decline in Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes

The major criticism of drone strikes–the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism policy especially in Pakistan and Yemen–is that they cause too many civilian casualties, thereby creating more militants than they eliminate. A new study from the New America Foundation disputes that conclusion.

Authors Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland write: “The estimated civilian death rate in U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan has declined dramatically since 2008, when it was at its peak of almost 50 percent. Today, for the first time, the estimated civilian death rate is at or close to zero.” Their finding is based on analyzing three years’ worth of data in news sources ranging from Reuters and the New York Times to the Express Tribune and Dawn in Pakistan.

Any compilation based on such open-source materials must necessarily be suspect. But then counting casualties from the drone strikes is necessarily an inexact science–Washington has an interest in minimizing the figures while jihadists have an interest in maximizing them. Perhaps there is a better count out there, but I’m not aware of it. If the New America Foundation’s conclusion is accurate, the reduction in collateral damage is a tribute to better technology (e.g., drones that can linger longer over their targets and use better sensors to identify them), better intelligence gathering, and better controls over these strikes.

This is yet another reason why the strikes cannot be stopped–they are the most effective tool to combat Islamist terrorism in areas such as Pakistan and Yemen where U.S. troops are not deployed en masse. Indeed, far from curtailing them, I believe it is imperative to extend the strikes to towns such as Chaman, located near the border with Afghanistan, which is a major staging point for the Taliban–but has been off bounds so far for the drone strikes because it is located outside the tribal areas of Pakistan. That needs to change if the U.S. is going to sufficiently degrade the insurgency to allow U.S. troop numbers to be reduced by 2014 without a catastrophic collapse in security.

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