Researcher Exposes Government, Military Lies About Civilian Drone Deaths in Afghanistan

A tweet this morning by Daphne Eviatar alerted me to a very important article by Spencer Ackerman at his new home with the Guardian. Ackerman interviewed Dr. Larry Lewis, who is a research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses but is also described by National Defense University as a Current Field Representative to the Joint Staff J7, Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis Division. In speaking with Ackerman, Lewis referred to a study he conducted with access to classified data, where his work had a remarkable finding:

Larry Lewis, a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, a research group with close ties to the US military, studied air strikes in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011, using classified military data on the strikes and the civilian casualties they caused. Lewis told the Guardian he found that the missile strikes conducted by remotely piloted aircraft, commonly known as drones, were 10 times more deadly to Afghan civilians than those performed by fighter jets.

Ackerman points out in the article that Lewis mentions some of this work in a recently published article in Prism, which is published by NDU (note: To make things clearer to folks reading Marcy’s work on Snowden, I will call the journal Prism and not PRISM, even though the Guardian is once again breaking the news and the journal uses all caps in its name). Although NDU doesn’t make it easy to find the most recent issue of Prism, I finally found a pdf of the entire latest issue here, where the article by Lewis and coauthor Sarah Holewinski (who is at the Center for Civilians in Conflict) can be found on pages 57 to 65.

Lewis and Holewinski open by framing the issue of protection of civilians as a lesson that the US military has to learn repeatedly:

Civilian casualties can risk the success of a combat mission. While not new, this is a lesson us defense forces have had to repeatedly relearn. Historically, civilian protection and efforts to address harm became priorities only when external pressures demanded attention. As the Pentagon reshapes its defenses and fighting force for the next decade, continuing this ad hoc pattern in the future is neither strategically smart nor ethically acceptable.

As Ackerman notes in the Guardian article, the Prism article makes mention of the finding regarding civilian drone casualties in Afghanistan outpacing those from conventional aerial attacks:

The assumption that UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) strikes are surgical in nature is also belied by research on recent combat operations in Afghanistan. There, UAS operations were statistically more likely to cause civilian casualties than were operations conducted by manned air platforms.

Lewis and Holewinski describe the impact of both failing to protect civilians and lying about operations in which civilians have died. After describing relatively well-known examples of drone strikes in Pakistan that included such horrors as a double-tap targeting rescuers, the strike on a jirga addressing mining issues that killed up to 40 civilians or deaths at a restaurant, Lewis and Holewinski move back to Afghanistan:

Independent investigations are not always correct in their assessment of civilian deaths; however, the inability of the U.S. to adequately investigate the outcome of its clandestine UAS strikes calls into question official denials of civilian harm. The U.S. has stated that these strikes kill only combatants; however, operations in Afghanistan are replete with examples where all the engaged individuals were believed to be combatants, but a later investigation found many or all were civilians misidentified as combatants.

The continued claims of lack of civilian deaths despite hard evidence to the contrary takes a huge toll both on US credibility and on what takes place in the war theater:

A growing body of research, including that conducted by this article’s authors, shows that civilian casualties (CIVCAS) and the mishandling of the aftermath can compel more people to work against U.S. interests. Indeed, America’s image has suffered for years under the weight of anger and dismay that a nation, which stands by the value of civilian protection in wartime, seemed indifferent to civilian suffering.

Sadly, this is a lesson that has not been learned by such luminaries as Barack Obama, Diane Feinstein and John Brennan. As Ackerman points out:

While the drone strikes remain classified, several senior Obama administration officials and their congressional allies have described them as notable for their precision. John Brennan, now the CIA director responsible for the agency’s drones, said in 2012 they provide “targeted strikes against specific al-Qaida terrorists”. While defending the strikes as legal and “targeted”, Obama conceded in May that “US strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in all wars”. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the Senate intelligence committee, said in February that drones kill only “single digits” worth of civilians annually.

It does not appear that we have even gotten to a “least untruthful” official US accounting of the civilian casualty rates due to drones. In the meantime, our credibility will continue to suffer and our enemies will continue to accumulate.

16 replies
  1. Garrett says:

    It has always been this way, I think.

    A new weapons technology comes out. The greater precision is touted, that it will reduce civilian casualties. But the opposite actually happens.

  2. harpie says:

    On page 61:

    As the U.S. expands its UA S fleet and uses these assets in declared and non-declared theaters of armed conflict, U.S. defense leaders should be willing to objectively examine common assumptions regarding UA S strikes and civilian harm.

    The existence of “non-declared theaters of armed conflict” is not even remarked upon.

  3. C says:

    @Garrett: Yes but I think the tendency is more general. During Vietnam the “surgical precision” of the bombing campaigns were emphasized despite all evidence to the contrary. This same was true in the later gulf wars. You don’t need a new technology to motivate bad PR just a group focused on looking good.

  4. please says:

    Hopefully this puts a stake in the ridiculous lie behind the euphemism of ‘target, surgical’ strikes.

  5. please says:

    Hopefully this puts a stake in the ridiculous lie behind the euphemism of ‘targeted, surgical’ strikes.

  6. Garrett says:

    Afghanistan Analysts Network has an important new report out:

    Tell Us How This Ends. Transitional Justice and Prospects for Peace in Afghanistan.

    From an international law and responsibility framework: What does a nation do, when it has an entrenched political and justice problem, like Afghanistan has?

    We have the very same issue here in the U.S.

    Given the severe problems we’ve got from our war on terror conduct, and our current political situation, what do we do, what are our responsibilities, what are our options, how do we proceed?

  7. joanneleon says:

    There has to be some accountability for the lies that have been told, as recently as last month. The public is being misled in a huge way.

    There has to be some accountability.

  8. MD Rackham says:

    I’m curious as to the reason for the difference in civilian casualties. Is a manned strike better able to recognize wedding parties, or is a laser target designator more accurate, or are civilians more likely to hear an incoming A-10 and run for cover?

    I suppose it’s possible that a pilot seeing real people might be more careful, whereas someone sitting in a trailer watching a bad video image might not care since those shapes don’t register as human beings.

    Seems like we’d want to figure that out and (if possible) improve drone targeting. Of course, if one doesn’t admit that there’s a problem….

  9. tinao says:

    People don’t realize how maintenance of an educated populace effects a nations notions. Thank you omphaloscepsis. And that’s all besides what a corporate news info pipe creates. Stay strong people despite what self interest, misguided humans tell you!

  10. john francis lee says:

    Changing of the Guard: Civilian Protection for an Evolving Military

    The good news is that measures to integrate civilian protection into the heart and soul of America’s military operations – and, importantly, the new security strategy – are as inexpensive as they are critical.

    The “good news” … they’re Evangelists ? .. is that America’s “new security strategy” is founded on terrorism:

    1. unleashing terrorist gangs : ‘Special Operations Forces Out Front’ (SFO),

    2. remote control terroism : ‘Reliance on Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)’, and

    3. playing CAPO to hired guns : ‘ Partnering with Local Forces Towards Mutual Goals’

    and that’s because we’re broke : “are as inexpensive as they are critical”.

    The US can no longer afford full-scale aggression and so is officially adopting terror : the poor man’s weapon.

    Still plenty of money to pay these PR men, though : “integrate civilian protection into the heart and soul of America’s military operations”. No problem …

    simply entail putting someone at the Department of Defense in charge of this issue, giving the troops proper training on civilian protection, and establishing policies for responding to harm when it happens – all efforts that can provide a big gain at minimal cost

    Terrorism with a human face. Military operations are about killing people and terrorism is about killing civilians. They’re taking their their cue from Obama though : saying one thing and doing the opposite. The ‘progressives’ will applaud their ‘humanism’.

  11. Jeff Kaye says:

    One has to understand that the targeting of civilians is deliberate. This kind of strategy as been a matter of both discussion and research. It is counterinsurgency as “counterterrorism.”

    First, inflicting civilian casualties is not inherently counterproductive; on the contrary, the evidence strongly suggests that killing civilians can significantly increase governments’ chances of defeating insurgencies. Second, however, killing civilians has diminishing military returns: Incumbents who killed massive numbers of civilians were much less likely to defeat insurgencies than incumbents who inflicted lower levels of civilian casualties. These findings support an alternative theory that explains why (1) targeting civilians as part of a “strategy of coercion” is effective; and (2) killing massive numbers of civilians as part of a “strategy of annihilation” is not.

  12. greenharper says:

    “The US can no longer afford full-scale aggression and so is officially adopting terror : the poor man’s weapon.”

    That goes clunk for me. Cf. Jeremy Scahill’s terrific movie, Dirty Wars.

    Of course, it can be a poor woman’s weapon, as well.

Comments are closed.