Last Friday, the Obama Administration released its estimate of civilians killed in US airstrikes outside of war zones. The figures covered President Obama’s first 7 years in office, and they appear to have significantly underestimated the actual civilian death toll. The Obama Administration put the range of civilian casualties between 64 and 116 over this span. Meanwhile, independent organizations place the number far higher. For example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 380 and 801 civilians have been killed by US airstrikes outside of war zones over the same period.
Since the United States long-ago dispensed with the tedious business of actually declaring war, it may not be obvious what countries count as war zones these days–or countries with “active hostilities” to use the government’s term. For the purposes of this data, the government has defined the relevant non-war countries to be Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. It was not immediately obvious whether Libya would have been considered a country of “active hostilities” during the NATO intervention in 2011. Based on how low the overall numbers are, however, it seems safe to assume casualties from that conflict are not included.
As a general rule, steps toward greater transparency in government tend to be a good thing. Unfortunately, these estimates are so low that it’s fair to question the objectivity and thoroughness of the government’s investigation. The US Government likely has access to more extensive resources and tools to gather information on these events than journalists scouring the news. This may explain some of the gap in estimates. However, it cannot explain all of it. Indeed, as a casual observer of this subject, I can think of a few isolated atrocities perpetrated by US strikes that, by themselves, eclipse the lower estimates provided by the government:
- Cruise missile strike on al Majala in Yemen, killing an estimated 41 people (on the low-end), in late 2009.
- Drone strike on a wedding convoy in Yemen, killing between 15 to 27 civilians, in 2013
- Drone strike on Pakistani tribal meeting, killing at least 40 civilians, in 2011
I can get to nearly 100 casualties using just 3 attacks. Thus, for the government figures to be reliable, they would need to have killed no more than 20 civilians in the remaining 470 airstrikes they acknowledged. Who thinks they achieved that?
Of course, the real story here is not about numbers. Numbers matter because they help us understand the scale and scope of the injustice that US policies have perpetrated against people in other countries. Ethically, however, there isn’t a number above zero that can be justified. The US should not be engaged in a continuous global assassination campaign. Full stop.
I realize this may seem like a radical position given that “even” the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Obama has used assassination missile strikes as his tactic of choice in the War on Terror. However, this position becomes the obvious one when we attempt to place ourselves in the shoes of the countries being attacked. A quick thought experiment may be helpful to prove this point.
Imagine a suspected terrorist is identified in Topeka, Kansas and the guy’s house happens to be located next to an elementary school. Let’s further assume that the government actually has very compelling evidence to support the idea that this individual truly is a dangerous terrorist. And explosions being what they are, it’s not possible to hit the house without also damaging the nearby playground and school buildings. In this circumstance, would it be okay for the government to launch a drone strike on his house to neutralize the threat? What if the government did it on a weekend, so they could be nearly certain that no children would be around to be killed at the adjacent school? Then would it be okay?*
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that most Americans would reflexively oppose missile strikes on Topeka. But why do we feel that way? Most likely, it’s because the concept of collateral damage, even when it’s accidental, becomes instantly toxic when it is changed from an abstract phrase to a real world policy that is close to home. This is particularly true when we’re discussing places that do not have active hostilities (at least not with the US).
But if we can’t justify a missile strike on Topeka (or any other Western city), how can we justify such a strike in Yemen? Practical distinctions can be made here, but ethical distinctions cannot. Unless your concept of justice involves preferential treatment to certain nationalities, races, religions, etc. we must conclude the hypothetical drone strike on a Kansas school is essentially equivalent to the very real assassination strikes carried out in Yemen and elsewhere.
Returning to our main story, the Obama Administration’s new civilian casualty disclosures are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it appears to be a step toward transparency. On the other, the data appears to clearly underestimate the casualties, and it fails to provide a sufficient level of detail that would allow different reports to be reconciled. It is important to keep an eye on the bigger issue–namely whether America can or should be entitled to assassinate people in other countries. We may never determine exactly how many civilians have been killed in America’s global assassination strike program, but we can know how many such deaths would be acceptable. None at all.
*And yes, I realize that no likely US government would seriously consider such a tactic. It could be argued that this hypothetical is invalid since the US justifies its assassination decisions partly on the idea that it cannot conceivably capture the individual, due to the lack of a strong / friendly enough government to assist us. In a US context, this clearly would not be true.
I would argue that the capture alternative technically exists in the foreign context as well, even if the host government will not do so. The US has set a precedent (just or not) that this option is on the table, after it engaged in a cross-border night raid to capture Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, without the Pakistani government’s permission. Additionally, the US also has the resources to do it since special forces are deployed throughout the Middle East. The resulting cost might be higher than a local SWAT raid, but it is an option.