After months of bureaucratic wrangling, the Obama administration has disclosed its official count of civilians killed in airstrikes outside of conventional war zones: Somewhere between 64 and 116 since 2009. Strangely enough, the administration chose to release the numbers on the Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend.
The deaths were culled from 473 strikes, which also killed somewhere between 2,372 to 2,581 “combatants,” as strictly defined by the government. Civilian and combatant deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, defined by the government as “areas of active hostilities,” were not included in the report at all.
Most independent observers estimate the number of civilians killed by American airstrikes in places like tribal Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya—which are not officially war zones—to be much higher. According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as many as 1,000 civilians have been killed by American drones.
For most of his presidency, Obama has maintained a policy of opacity around what are dubbed “targeted killings,” though it is an open secret that the Central Intelligence Agency and Joint Special Operations Command routinely conduct deadly operations outside of conventional war zones. The president ordered his first strike on his third day in the White House; the victims weren’t terrorists, but a pro-government Pakistani tribal leader and his family, which included two children.
In releasing the numbers, Obama also issued an executive order requiring the government to disclose the number of civilian deaths annually. Unless Congress passes Obama’s executive order into law, however, the president’s successor could dismiss it. From the New York Times:
The order, issued six months before Mr. Obama leaves office, further institutionalized and normalized airstrikes outside conventional war zones as a routine part of 21st-century national security policy.
The executive order declares that “civilian casualties are a tragic and at times unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict or in the exercise of a state’s inherent right of self-defense,” and lays out the “best practices” necessary to reduce their likelihood and “take appropriate steps” when they occur.
In an interview with Al Jazeera last year, retired Army General Mike Flynn—who served as JSOC’s director of Intelligence during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—was deeply critical of the administration’s use of drones.
“When you drop a bomb from a drone,” Flynn said, “you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good.” He went on to call the approach “a failed strategy.”