Will America's Military Reckon with the Reckless Murders Perpetuated by Its Drone Wars?

A new, heavily investigated report shows a Pentagon uninterested in correcting its deadly errors.


Throughout America's War on Terror, whistleblowers have been warning that drone strikes have frequently killed people who were neither terrorists nor insurgents, just innocent civilians trying to survive in a war zone.

Over the weekend, in a detailed, heavily reported two-part story, The New York Times documented how Washington's "precision drone strikes" have been anything but precise. Not only did they repeatedly kill innocents, including children, but more often than not the military failed to examine adequately why these mistakes were made, failed to correct its procedures, and failed to hold anybody accountable.

When an ill-advised August drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed aid worker Zamari Ahmadi and nine of members of his family (including seven children), military officials first insisted the strike had hit terrorists plotting to attack the airport as American troops were leaving the country. Only after the media began investigating the strike did the truth came out. Yet last week, the Pentagon announced that no troops involved in the misbegotten strike would be disciplined. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, "What we saw here was a breakdown in process, and execution in procedural events, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership."

An alternative way to read that quote, based on the massive Times report from the weekend, is that what happened to Ahmadi and his family was an example of how America's drone program actually works. It has not, in fact, operated as a tool to surgically take out ISIS terrorist leaders and destroy individual cells, as Americans have been told again and again. The military will admit to killing at least 1,300 civilians in these strikes. That's just the number of civilians documented in Pentagon reports the Times analyzed. The actual (uncertain) number of civilian deaths due to drone strikes is much higher—between 22,000 and 48,000.

Don't expect accurate accounting from the government. The military has regularly failed even to analyze fully what happened in most of its mistaken strikes. Pentagon's records calculate that in only 4 percent of cases of civilian deaths did misidentification of targets play a role. But when the Times went to the locations of these strikes and investigated, the paper found that misidentification of targets accounted for nearly a third of civilian deaths and injuries.

In one 2016 strike in Syria, the Pentagon claimed to have bombed a staging area and trucks being used by the Islamic State and to have killed 85 militants. There were also immediate reports of civilian deaths, and the Pentagon acknowledged that 24 civilians "intermixed with the fighters" may have been killed. But when the Times went to the village for a thorough accounting, it found that the strike had probably killed more than 120 civilians—and may have killed absolutely zero ISIS soldiers.

As with the more recent cast in Kabul, the military's own analysis of the strike found that there was no evidence of wrongdoing. The military didn't even arrange for condolence payments for victims.

A small but shocking detail is buried deep in the Times report: When reviewing the legitimacy of its strikes, the military does not even send anybody in person to investigate what happened. The Times reports, "Of the 1,311 assessments from the Pentagon, in only one did investigators visit the site of a strike. In only two did they interview witnesses or survivors."

Instead, the same type of distant surveillance video that was used to justify mistaken drone strikes was often used to examine the consequences. Often there was no footage to review, which led the Pentagon to reject allegations that civilians were killed because nobody in their own operation had evidence otherwise.

So New York Times journalists spent years doing the investigative work that the Pentagon failed to do. This story focuses entirely on drone strike reports in Iraq and Syria, based on what they've been able to force into the public eye from Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits. The paper has a separate lawsuit trying to wrest out reports about drone strikes in Afghanistan.

Right now, whistleblower Daniel Hale is in federal prison in Illinois, sentenced to 45 months for leaking some documentation to journalists that shows these very problems with how U.S. drone strikes operate. To judge from this Times report, Hale's leaks were just the tip of the iceberg. The Times shows that time and time again, these drone strikes not only kill innocents but fail to take out the insurgents being targeted. Even under the cruel calculus that innocents may end up as collateral damage, this is a failure: Sometimes those innocents were the only people killed or injured.

In a follow-up story, journalist Azmat Khan wrote a first-person account of what it was like investigating these strikes on the ground, reading these Pentagon reports, and then reconciling them with what actually occurred. She ends her piece going over a strike in West Mosul, Iraq, that took place in 2017. The military believed a location—a home—was being used solely by Islamic State militants. The government planned a strike, but then military observers noticed via surveillance three children playing on the roof.

Nevertheless, they military believed that ISIS was manufacturing weapons there. Even though children had been seen there, the strike was authorized due to the "military advantage" of taking out an ISIS location. The Pentagon then reported that three ISIS members were killed by the strike. But ISIS-linked media reported that, in fact, they had killed 11 civilians.

Khan went to the site of the strike in June and talked to people who lived there. They told her 11 members of a family had been killed. She tracked down witnesses and the sole survivor. They all said the family had nothing to do with ISIS. There was an ISIS bunk house across the street they said, but it had been vacated before the strike (and was not damaged by it).

The sister of one of the victims told Khan that she thought there must have been some mistake: They must have seen an ISIS truck nearby or meant to target something else and hit them by accident. Khan told her that the military intelligence officials actually knew about the children before ordering the strike. They had concluded the deaths were acceptable because they'd gain an advantage over ISIS by destroying a weapons facility. But there was no weapons facility.

"But they didn't gain any advantage," the sister told Khan. "The only thing they did is they killed the children."