We know there have been at least a few hundred drone strikes over the last eight years. We know Obama keeps a kill list and is intimately involved in the ordering of those strikes. We know drones are routinely used to take out multiple ‘enemy combatants,’ one of which happened to be a US citizen. But we don’t really know how many civilians they’ve taken out along the way.
No administration is particularly eager to broadcast a tally of the innocent lives its unmanned aerial killers have claimed: “Hey, Pakistan, our remote controlled airplanes killed 60 of your citizens, most of whom were just going about their business, and some of whom were children” isn’t exactly a diplomatic ice-breaker. This is all further complicated by the fact that Obama’s administration considers any military age males ‘combatants’ if they happened to be in the vicinity of team USA’s target when hell rained down on.
This is about as preposterous as a guilty-by-association assumption gets. Really? Every single combatant is surrounded only by dangerous fellow co-conspirators, at all times? Not likely, obviously. Further feeding this great uncertainty about drones’ total impact on civilians is the host of conflicting statements uttered by both Obama and Bush administrations (but especially Obama’s).
Propublica has put together a graph charting all of the different estimates of civilian deaths alongside the drone activity over the years. It reveals that many of the stats and statements released by the Obama administration contradict each other: (Click through for the interactive version)
One response to this new data is to allege that the Obama administration is covering up the true body count. And certainly, its formula for determining combatants seems designed to help do precisely that. But I think the more important revelation is in line with Kevin Drum’s analysis: “it’s a miracle that the administration has fessed up to any civilian deaths. If there’s a lesson from this, I’d say it’s not that officials sometimes give differing estimates of civilian deaths. I’d say it’s the fact that, in truth, they probably don’t have the slightest idea how many civilian deaths they’ve caused.”
Which means the administration is accepting a rather unknown number of civilian deaths as collateral damage every time it orders a strike. And remember, every one of these civilian deaths isn’t simply tragic (it’s that, certainly), but a potential so-called threat multiplier, too. Every civilian we kill, sweep under the rug, and brand an ‘enemy combatant’ gives other nearby military-age males a pretty compelling reason to actually become one.
So it’s probably a good idea for the administration to start looking harder at its methodologies, and answering questions about the civilian death count beyond what amounts to: ‘who the hell knows?’