Over at LobeLog, I look at a couple of recent developments in the, oh, let’s say “controversial,” drone program, including the so-low-it’s-insulting White House estimate that it’s killed as few as 64 civilians in airstrikes of all kinds, outside of war zones, since President Obama took office:
Without any context for these numbers, it’s very difficult to know what they mean. But they are significantly lower than any independent estimate that’s been done to date:
Organizations such as the Long War Journal, the New America Foundation, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that at least 200 and as many as 1,000 civilians have been killed by American drone strikes in nations where the U.S. is not at war since Obama took office. The administration offered no individualized accounts to explain where its numbers came from, or who the civilian casualties were. Without the government addressing individual cases, disclosing the identities of those killed, or providing detailed information on the investigations undergirding its conclusions, Shamsi contended, little could be done with the disclosures.
A 2013 Human Rights Watch report, for example, found that seven U.S. airstrikes in Yemen (one of the “non-war zones” included in the White House estimate), conducted between 2009 and 2013, killed at least 57 civilians, almost half of the administration’s highest estimate. When pressed on the method by which it calculated these figures, the administration responded, essentially, that “we have more information than anybody else, so you’ll have to trust us.”
Along with its lowball casualty count, the administration also issued an executive order on July 1 that requires agency heads to periodically review civilian casualty figures in order to take steps to prevent civilian casualties, but as I say in the piece, this is woefully inadequate to the nature of the problem. For one thing, direct casualties aren’t the only harms that US airstrikes visit on civilians. There are indirect casualties, caused by, say, the maybe-accidental destruction of a hospital or any unexploded ordinance that gets left behind, and there are other issues to consider like the degradation of local economies and the traumatic psychological effects of these strikes. And for another thing, if this ridiculously low figure is anything to go by, then it’s not clear that the US government is really capable of producing, or inclined to produce, an accurate casualty count anyway.