New Drone Study Casts Doubt on Obama Narrative of Terror-Fighting Strikes With Minimal Civilian Casualties

Law professors at Stanford and New York Universities have just released the results of their nine-month study of drone strikes in Pakistan, mainly in North Waziristan, and its conclusions do not bode well for the truth of the Obama administration. 

Principled lefties and publications — remember those? — including Glenn Greenwald, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, and HuffPost dug into the 150-page study, which involved 130 interviews with Pakistani civilians, half of whom were either survivors of strikes or family members of individuals killed. What they found was that there is a serious psychological toll that comes with the knowledge that drones are permanently patrolling overhead, and if they decide to strike, there's not a damn thing you can do about it. This should be no surprise to an actual humans. The paper's title is "Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civillians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan" so the authors are not hiding their conclusions, which include a plea for transparency, and actually citing the legal justifications for these strikes, particularly when it comes to "signature strikes". 

Greenwald highlights the report's descriptions of the stress caused by repeat drone strikes on the same areas, including secondary strikes on both rescue crews and funeral processions. He also notes that the report says that less than 2 percent of the targets killed by strikes were "high value." And, says the report, "furthermore, evidence suggest that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent, non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks." And really, why wouldn't that be true? Rudy Giuliani and Jay Carney types notwithstanding, even people who work for the Pentagon and CIA often stumble upon the basic truth that populations get angry if you target them with drones (or missiles, or all-out boots on the ground wars, or any kind of intrusive, foreign intervention). 

The authors of the report suggest that the number of those killed in Pakistan is much higher than the Obama administration admits, which should come as no surprise considering the various lawsuits that have been filed in attempt to get the Department of Justice to simply admit that the program is real. The LA Times, in their summary of report says "474 to 884 civilian deaths since 2004, including 176 children" is a credible number, which comes from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The report also skewers the New America Foundation's kill numbers, which CNN repeated earlier this summer, and which do not seem to hold up to scrutiny. It's pretty easy to see, for anyone with a skeptical brain, that if you cannot trust the administration to reveal the existence, the extent, or the names of targets their overseas kill campaign, maybe you cannot trust the way they classify the dead.  

But really, why ever stop when every male killed by a drone strike is a militant? That sounds awfully effective when you put it that way. 

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  • Pip||

    "What they found was that there is a serious psychological toll that comes with the knowledge that drones are permanently patrolling overhead, and if they decide to strike, there's not a damn thing you can do about it."

    Welcome to America! You, know, BO did say that he was going to transform the place.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Look, maybe we're stuck with the world cop role for the time being. Maybe we can't easily stop. But we can limit our use of lethal force to situations where it's a last resort, not as our opening gambit.

    We seriously need to return the war powers to Congress.

  • ant1sthenes||

    You and what army?

  • ||

    The most damning part is that less than 2% have been "high-value targets." Oh, and the estimated number of civilians killed is pretty bad too.

    They already have these things flying (and sometimes crashing http://www.cnn.com/2012/06/11/.....index.html) over American soil, albeit unarmed (for now).

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I'm not sure why the psychological differences between death from above with a cockpit and without. Someone is still pulling a trigger, and either way it's got to be difficult for your average ground-dweller to defend against.

    The real psycholocical difference between drone strikes and traditional military aircraft attacks would be on the attacker's side, I would think. Obviously it's easier to launch an unmanned attack on a target, with only the fear of losing equipment. That would tend to breed a casualness about the affair, a kind of laziness of thinking and a removal from consequences.

  • Gray Ghost||

    Dwell time. The drones can stay overhead for much longer. I guess they're much harder to see, too, than an orbiting manned bomber, though it doesn't matter much if you're shooting at night.

    I don't have a problem with drones as such. You're not going to be able to arrest Ayman Zawahiri, if you should ever find him. In that case, I don't have a problem with killing him. I do have a giant problem with open-ended war and killing people without due process.

    I also have a problem with the continuing insistence that we interfere in every tinhorn dictator's civil war. Identify the 50 or so members of AQ that were responsible for 9/11, the London/Madrid bombings, the Cole, etc... identify and kill/capture them, and go home. Stop conflating AQ with the Taliban or whatever clan in Yemen is out of power. You have a chance at killing and capturing the leaders of the former; you've no chance at getting everyone from the latter.

  • ||

    The military-industrial complex exists to perpetuate itself. It will be the end of the Republic as we know it, just like all of the other great empires throughout history.

    I'm not saying immediately, something on such a huge scale takes time, but IMO the trajectory has been well-established and it would take a veritable miracle to turn it around.

  • Calidissident||

    But John and Cyto assures me that the military does not suffer from the problems that plague the rest of government, and our leaders, who are selfish idiotic uncaring assholes on domestic policy, are wise, selfless, benevolent stewards of foreign policy. Are you saying they're wrong?

  • ||

    Well, the video released on wikileaks a while back of the drone operators laughing it up while they were destroying a target sure didn't look good. Especially considering it turned out to be a foreign media contingent.

  • ||

    I think it's more the understanding that they're always there. With traditional planes, they're not going to be overhead all the time, and when they are it'll be for specific targets. Knowing there's flying robots that will strike nearly anywhere, at any time, and at anyone, seems a bit worse than normal planes to me.If pilots didn't need to eat, drink, or sleep, normal planes could probably do the same thing. Not to mention that the drone planes are much cheaper, so there's likely to be more of them than there would be if they were normal planes.

  • Pro Libertate||

    Always there. And coming soon to American skies! Always here, too?

  • Not an Economist||

    Manned aircraft can stay up for long periods as well. Not as long as some unmanned (and that is a function of design). With planning, you can have an manned aircraft over an area 24/7.

  • Gray Ghost||

    True, but you need more of them if they're manned. I think they're also pricier to operate, though at this point, who's counting?

    I wonder how much automation is involved in drone operation? It seems like much of the en route and steady-state flight can be handled by the autopilot, i.e., you'd only need a person there to tell the drone to scan "X area" or to decide that particular Land Cruiser needs a Hellfire through the windshield. Knowing the military's desire to preserve jobs, they've probably several pilots for each drone, instead of several drones for each pilot.

  • ||

    But it's a DROANZZZZZZZZZ!

    Quite right FoE. No difference between manned and unmanned except you aren't putting our guys at risk. The ROE for pulling the trigger on a drone strike and a manned strike are exactly the same.

    You get intel that a bad guy is there. You see if the strike complies with ROE and is legal (they have a lawyer in the CAOC to consult with at all times). You do a cost benefit analysis wrt the potential for civilian casualties and you decide whether to pull the trigger.

    War fucking sucks. That's why you don't do it unless it's the absolute last option available.

    I invoke Kirk... "Death. Destruction. Disease. Horror. That's what war is all about. That's what makes it a thing to be avoided."

    Droanz got nothin' to do with it.

  • Fluffy||

    The excerpts I've read make it sound like the drones are audible, and can be heard for extended periods of time.

    The drone sits there apparently indefinitely until the operator sees something he wants to shoot.

    I can definitely see that such an experience would be in some ways even worse than being subject to intermittent shelling, like the residents of Sarajevo, or intermittent air attack, like the residents of WWII London. Because the attacks aren't sudden emergencies, that you get through on adrenaline, after which normalcy returns; living under drones sounds like spending the whole day standing in front of a firing squad, wondering if they'll ever decide to shoot.

  • Proprietist||

    The double tap idea is what offends me most amongst many things. Assuming you got your "target", you turn around and strike the first responders? WTF?!

  • JeremyR||

    The IRA used to do that

  • ||

    And mourners at funerals. Don't forget that.

  • ||

    Can we get the drone operators classified as terrorists? Because when AQ or ETA does something like this, they sure get classified as such.

  • Pro Libertate||

    I suppose they are if you're in one of those countries receiving drone process.

  • gaijin||

    This stuff makes me sick. Some FB acquaintances, confronted with the issue of O killing women and children with drones, respond by saying 'Oh, like Bush didn't do it'...

  • Pro Libertate||

    Instead of right and wrong, we now have Bush and Obama. Or is that Obama and Bush? I guess it doesn't matter.

  • Proprietist||

    Tu Quoque, the refuge of the partisan shill.

  • ant1sthenes||

    Firstly, there's no evidence that he did, certainly not on the scale Il Douchey did. Secondly, if your guy is (at best) the moral equivalent of Bush, and you still support him, why exactly do you hate Bush so much?

  • Cytotoxic||

    And, says the report, "furthermore, evidence suggest that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent, non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks." And really, why wouldn't that be true?

    Because it never has been. Overwhelming force is the stuff of victory. Killing bad guys does not make more bad guys.

    What they found was that there is a serious psychological toll that comes with the knowledge that drones are permanently patrolling overhead, and if they decide to strike, there's not a damn thing you can do about it.

    Sounds damn effective.

    Don't tell me this study is based on more than taking the interviewees on their word.

  • Lucy Steigerwald||

    I remember your comments in my Hiroshima blog. There's disagreement and there's actually being frightened by someone's beliefs.

    Sure, you're right, killing EVERYBODY would solve the problem, wouldn't it?

  • ||

    Cytotoxic is a sociopath, and has demonstrated it time and again in these threads. Just ignore him, he's too stupid to be dangerous.

  • ||

    Cytotoxic is the stupidest sort of scum, Lucy. Don't give him any thought.

  • JW||

    He is aptly named.

  • ||

    He is one of many in my Reasonable filter

  • ||

    Overwhelming force is the stuff of victory. Killing bad guys does not make more bad guys.

    Shouldn't you get back to trying to kill that gopher at the Bushwood Country Club?

  • ||

    Sandy: I want you to kill every non-combatant on the course!

    Cytotoxic: Check me if I'm wrong Sandy, but if I kill all the innocents, they're gonna lock me up and throw away the key...

    Sandy: Non-combatants, ya great git! The non-combatants! The little brown furry people!

    Cytotoxic: We can do that; we don't even have to have a reason.

  • ||

    License to kill Muslims by the government of the United Nations. Man, free to kill Muslims at will. To kill you must know your enemy, and in this case, my enemy is a varmint. And a varmint will not quit, ever. Like the Viet Cong, Varmit Cong. The only thing you can do is just fall back with superior fire power and superior intelligence.

  • Gray Ghost||

    +1 Gopher.
    (Www.carlspackler.com/sounds/164.mp3 will get you the sounds the spam filter won't let me link directly.)

  • JW||

    Shouldn't you get back to trying to kill that gopher at the Bushwood Country Club?

    Thread won.

  • Calidissident||

    As much as you wish this was a conventional war, Cyto, it isn't. You cant fit a square peg into a round hole no matter how hard you hit it

  • CE||

    Killing bad guys does not make more bad guys.

    So, ignore the evidence and reach your own conclusions?

  • Whahappan?||

    "Killing bad guys does not make more bad guys."

    Though I often disagree with you, you're not stupid, so I must conclude you're arguing in bad faith. Of course you are aware that the assertion is that killing random people makes more enemies.

    "Don't tell me this study is based on more than taking the interviewees on their word."

    And of course, it's equally bad to base your conclusions on the government's word, yes?

  • Cytotoxic||

    Is replacement of people-manned aircraft with unmanned aircraft a possibility in the near future?

  • ||

    The paper's title is "Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civillians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan" so the authors are not hiding their conclusions, which include a plea for transparency, and actually citing the legal justifications for these strikes, particularly when it comes to "signature strikes".

    Yo yo Barry O, how many dead kids won't you show?

  • OldMexican||

    Principled lefties and publications — remember those? — including Glenn Greenwald, Gawker's Hamilton Nolan, and HuffPost dug into the 150-page study, which involved 130 interviews with Pakistani civilians, half of whom were either survivors of strikes or family members of individuals killed[.]


    Principled lefty publications: "This is serious, this is murder"
    Unprincipled lefty publications: "It's only murder when Bush does it!"
    Principled lefty publications: "Uh... What?"

  • ||

    I'm going to be attending a forum on civil liberties and the War on Terror featuring Greenwald (liberal), Jacob Hornburger (libertarian), and Bruce Fein (conservative) next month. Should be an interesting dialogue, I am fascinated by arguments about the gray areas in dealing with terrorism.

  • Gray Ghost||

    How should it be dealt with, ASM? Seriously, I don't have a good answer, except that I'm pretty sure this way isn't it.

    I guess we could go back to making it a criminal justice matter, and supplement that with Letters of Marque and Reprisal, or equivalents to same.

  • ||

    Yeah, I'm not an ivory tower idealist. I can support using drones in a very limited and precise sense, like killing one high value target that is otherwise uncapturable.

    But what we're seeing is drones being used as a blunt instrument, like a giant global game of whac-a-mole. So I really don't know either, other than that the best long-term strategy is to simply mind our own business and stop intervening in other countries.

  • Gray Ghost||

    I'd be happier if there was some public, adversarial process involved. We don't do the trials in absentia thing, but perhaps we should? Get some way out there that we can try the accused, give them a chance to defend themselves from their charges, and have some assurances that the U.S. isn't just bombing every mud hut that belongs to someone who some two-bit clan leader owes money to. Which is what I think is actually happening.

    It's horrible that we still have guys in custody, who can't dispute the charges that justify holding them, who we the public have no idea why they're being held. I like the proposal that John's put out here a few times: hold military tribunals, get the evidence out as to why we're holding them, and then either hang them as unlawful combatants or let them go.

    It's the secrecy and lack of accountability surrounding this that concerns me. You know this shit is coming to a Mexican drug lord terrorist near you, real soo

    What's the forum that you'll be attending? Will they be releasing a publicly available transcript or white papers?

  • CE||

    Letters of Marque and Reprisal -- the legal tool already exists. If there's someone who has clearly committed acts of terror and admitted them, you announce publicly that he's fair game.

    Otherwise, make the arrest, show the evidence in public court, and then hand down the sentence.

  • JeremyR||

    As bad and disgusting as the carnage we're causing is, the truly scary part is that in our lifetimes, we'll be seeing this used by law enforcement agencies in the US. Think SWAT teams are bad?

  • Chupacabra||

    I suppose there will be large anti-war protests leading up to the election, right? Right??

  • JW||

    Don't be silly. They're saving their strength for President Romney.

  • CE||

    Not to mention that an official government policy allowing the president to murder people sort of yields the moral high ground when he wants to complain about other people committing murder.

  • Lucy Steigerwald||

    Pshaw, America always has the moral high ground! That is the rules!

  • ||

    The paper raises some legitimate concerns, but this really is a no-good-options situation.

    According to the paper, US drones have killed 2562-3325 people, including 474-881 civilians, during 8 years and 3 months of war.

    So it sounds like the US is killing mostly enemy militants, though some civilian deaths are unavoidable in war.

    Should the US simply ignore the militants in Pakistan? The Taliban and its allies have bases of operation there. These insurgent groups have killed large numbers of ANA and ISAF forces, and more than 1000 Afghan civilians per year (most civilian casualties are caused by anti-government forces). If drone strikes were simply stopped, many militants who would otherwise have been killed will be able launch such attacks so there will simply be a higher death toll elsewhere.

    Should the US try to make peace with these armed groups? There has been an offer on the table for years by the Afghan government and its western allies to negotiate peace with the Taliban. All the Taliban would have to do is stop fighting, cut ties with terrorist groups, and accept the Afghan constitution (including human rights protections). The Taliban keep rejecting this offer.

    It is possible that there are some changes the US should make in terms of target selection methods, and probably more generally to its war and anti-terrorism strategy. But there is no action the US can take that will bring peace to this area or prevent all civilian casualties in the short term.

  • JW||

    Should the US simply ignore the militants in Pakistan?

    Yes. Next question?

  • ||

    The next questions would be:

    If drone strikes are stopped, should the US do anything to offset the fact that the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and their allies would be in a better tactical situation than they are now? And if so, what?

    Or do you dispute that there would be a tactical benefit for these groups? If jihadists can launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan and then retreat to parts of Pakistan where they effectively have safe haven, it seems clear that this would be a tactical gain for them.

    The up side of ending the drone strikes would be the US killing and injuring fewer civilians. It is also possible (though I don’t think proven) that this would result in decreased recruitment by extremist groups in the long term, since they would have less material for anti-American propaganda. But in the short term at least, reducing the amount of killing of enemy militants will tend to result in increased opportunities for those militants to kill Americans and our allies.

    It could still be that the least bad strategy option involves ending or reducing drone strikes. But I don’t want to pretend that the choice before us is “evil killing of civilians with drones for no reason” versus “just end the drone strikes and everything will be OK”.

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