April 10, 2014

Written by

Patrick Galey
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The US should gather accurate figures of civilians killed in its drone strikes and subject them to Congressional oversight, a leading US military analyst has said.

Dr Larry Lewis, principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), a federally funded military research organisation, also called for better training and intelligence analysis in order to minimise the number of non-combatants killed in a report published today.

‘US drone strikes, past and present, should be analysed to identify both levels and root causes of civilian harm,’ Lewis wrote this week in a study published by the CNA. ‘Congress plays a role in shaping and validating US policy through its oversight activities. The issue of civilian casualties is a critical component to consider, as recent history has shown that civilian harm can derail a campaign or undermine US objectives if not handled effectively.’

Related story: UN launches major investigation into civilian drone deaths

Lewis added that civilian deaths in drone strikes were counterproductive to US national security, ‘fuelling threats to the US while simultaneously limiting needed freedom of action and hindering relationships with national partners.’

Last year Lewis analysed classified US military data on drones in Afghanistan in a study on behalf of the military, and found that unmanned aircraft were significantly more deadly to Afghan civilians than manned strikes. In his new report he analyses the available data on civilian casualties in drone strikes in Pakistan.

His call echoes that of a bipartisan bill, announced last week, which would force US President Barack Obama to reveal the number of casualties caused by drone strikes to Congress. The bill received the backing of more than a dozen human rights charities, who said it ‘would give the public and all members of Congress much-needed information’ on lethal drone strikes. However the independent legislative-data-analysis firm GovTrack gives the bill a negligible chance of passing the committee stage.

Last month the United Nations’ special rapporteur on counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson QC said countries that carry out drone strikes had a ‘legal obligation to disclose the results’ of each strike.

 ‘One could imagine that the US is in the best position to know the approximate number of civilian casualties from its drone campaign’

 Dr Larry Lewis, US military analyst 


Since Obama took office in January 2009, there have been at least 397 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. They have killed at least 2,183 people including 279 civilians according to the Bureau’s estimates.

The US has never published its own data on drone strike casualties but one CIA official described claims that hundreds of civilians had been killed by drones in Pakistan as ‘ludicrous’.

‘One could imagine that the US is in the best position to know the approximate number of civilian casualties from its drone campaign,’ Lewis’ report said. ‘But the US government has not shared this information with others, and quotes from US officials, while pointing to very low numbers, are not sufficient for generating an estimate.’

In his paper, Lewis used the Bureau’s data on drone strikes in Pakistan alongside that of the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank that also tracks drone strikes. He also identified some of the potential reasons for the disparity between the rare US estimates of civilian casualties and independent tallies.

Related story – John Brennan marks first year at CIA amid no confirmed civilian drone deaths in Pakistan

As well as the logistical difficulty faced by the US in fighting ‘an irregular enemy’ in the form of the Taliban, al Qaeda or affiliated groups, Lewis said drone operators in Pakistan were sometimes unable to assess the damage inflicted by drone strikes ‘especially in situations when the US relies primarily on air surveillance for this assessment.’

In addition, US forces often mistook civilians for enemy combatants, Lewis said.

‘Individuals should not be counted as enemy personnel simply based on proximity to a known target,’ he said. ‘This approach, if employed, is inconsistent with both international law and US military practice in Afghanistan.’

2013 was the first year there were no confirmed civilian deaths in drone strikes in Pakistan since they began there in 2004. Lewis acknowledged the US’s ‘ability to reduce civilian casualties’ but added: ‘There remains room for improvement as drone strikes conducted since 2011 still appear to cause civilian casualties about 8% of the time, though this number decreased sharply for strikes in 2013.’

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Homepage image credit: This Khan/AFP/Getty Images