The New York Times reported this morning that in the past two years the US military has killed more than 400 militants in 80 drone strikes for the loss of only 20 civilian casualties.
Pentagon sources credit the increased sophistication of modern weapons systems and intelligence collection platforms for this record of success. This is a bold claim and one that Amnesty International has been trying to investigate on the ground in a very hostile operational environment.
At present, reliable facts are hard to come by. However, we can say with the confidence derived from hard-earned experience that these numbers are unlikely to stand up to scrutiny. A similar conflict in which airborne platforms have been used by a sophisticated modern military to target insurgent and other armed groups is the second Intifada which engulfed the Gaza Strip in September 2000.
Between September 2000 and September 2002 Israel’s intelligence-led policy of targeted killing claimed the lives of approximately eighty Palestinian militants and fifty innocent bystanders.
In one well-documented incident in July 2002 the Israelis dropped a laser-guided bomb on a house occupied by Hamas official Salah Shahada. Shahada was killed along with thirteen others, ten of whom were children.
This was a sophisticated program with significant prior action review that killed two civilians for every three militants. Bare in mind this is an environment and target with which the Israelis were intimately familiar and on which they possessed excellent intelligence. Both factors are absent from US drone operations in Pakistan.
The United States also has a well-established track record of overstating the effectiveness of its aerial operations. At the end of the 1999 air war in Kosovo US Secretary of Defense William Cohen claimed that the US had crippled the Serb military, destroying half of the Serb Army’s artillery and a third of its armored vehicles.
The United States Air Force after-action review team that spent months combing the territory of Kosovo to find evidence to support only 58 out of 744 supposedly confirmed hits – 32 destroyed armored vehicles, not the 340 claimed, and 20 destroyed artillery pieces, not 450.
The claim made by Defense Department sources in the New York Times is that the technology has improved to a point that there is almost no room for error.
Yet friendly fire incidents and wrongful targeting have been commonplace features of the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan – as a recent scandal in Germany illustrates all too well.
In September 2009 German NATO troops called in an air strike on two petrol tankers that killed as many as 90 people near the town of Kunduz. German officials initially reported that all 90 casualties were Taliban insurgents but were forced to retract this claim and admit dozens of civilian fatalities.
A German government minister and a senior general were forced to resign for the roles they played in the attempted cover-up.
This was hardly an isolated incident. In November 2008 a US airstrike killed as many as 37 wedding guests, including 23 children, at a family celebration in Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar.
This is one of several incidents in which wedding parties have been mistakenly targeted with dozens of innocent victims killed each time. On at least two occasions in Afghanistan US aircraft have even engaged and killed Canadian NATO troops.
So what do you think? The reports of the clinical efficiency of the drone campaign come from the same Department of Defense that in January 2009 issued a statement claiming that as many as 61 former inmates of Guantanamo had “returned to terrorism.”
On closer inspection this number proved to consist of 18 supposedly confirmed cases and 43 suspected cases. It next emerged that the DoD was defining ‘terrorism’ so broadly that 8 of those on the list were accused of nothing more than making critical statements about US detention policy.
The final figure for the number of confirmed cases in which former GTMO detainees have subsequently been engaged in terrorist activities, including support functions such as recruitment, comes out at 15 – a quarter of the original figure put out by the DoD.
History teaches us that the claim that US drone strikes have killed only one civilian for every twenty combatants is unlikely to be true. But of greater concern is the apparent hubris behind the claim itself.
The fog of war in Afghanistan and Pakistan has not dissipated. If anything, the situation on the ground is as confused as it has ever been. Mistakes have been made and will continue to be made.
As modern warfare becomes more and more like the hit videogame of the same name, those with their fingers on the trigger can’t just close their eyes and put their faith in technology. It will let them down, as it has every warrior before them, and innocent civilians will pay the price.