28 Deaths Per Target: Are Drone Strikes Causing More Problems Than They Solve?

Most Americans are familiar with groups like Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and ISIS, and know that the American military is currently involved in the fight against these groups in countries like Iraq and Syria.

However, most Americans have no idea that we have also been carrying out strikes on extremist targets in Pakistan and Yemen since 2004.

Still, this revelation is probably pretty inconsequential to many people – since drone strikes began ten years ago, the U.S. government has billed them as a highly accurate and extremely precise way to take out key targets.

As a result of all of these assurances, most Americans just trust that the government is using drone strikes wisely, putting the issue out of sight and out of mind. But are drone strikes really as accurate and precise as the government says they are?

As of October 2013 (Courtesy of The Independent)

As of October 2013 (Courtesy of The Independent)

Recently, the human rights group Reprieve released a detailed analysis of the publicly available data about American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. The report’s findings were sobering. From The Guardian:

“A new analysis of the data available to the public about drone strikes, conducted by the human-rights group Reprieve, indicates that even when operators target specific individuals – the most focused effort of what Barack Obama calls “targeted killing” – they kill vastly more people than their targets, often needing to strike multiple times. Attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people, as of 24 November.”

If you’re doing the math, that’s basically 28 lives lost as “collateral damage” for each of these 41 high-level targets. The worst part? Some of those targets are still alive today after multiple strikes.

Ayman al-Zawahiri has been an important Al-Qaeda operative since he first met Osama bin Laden in 1987. Zawahiri eventually became bin Laden’s personal physician and one of his most trusted deputies. He became the new leader of Al-Qaeda in the summer of 2011.

U.S. drone strikes targeted Zawahiri in January and November of 2006. Both strikes failed to kill Zawahiri, who is still alive and well today. 76 children and 29 adults – who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time during those two strikes – are not.

Ayman al-Zawahiri with Osama bin Laden

Ayman al-Zawahiri (R) with Osama bin Laden (Courtesy of Al Arabiya News)

And when drone strikes do succeed at taking out a target, it’s often at an extremely heavy price in terms of loss of human life.

Baitullah Mehsud, former leader of the Pakistani Taliban (or TTP, as they’re known), was targeted seven times before he was finally killed by a drone strike in August of 2009. 164 “unintended targets” were killed during those seven strikes.

President Obama and other government officials have defended the government’s use of drone strikes on a number of occasions.

During a Google-sponsored online “hangout” session back in 2012, a man named Evan asked the president if all of the drone strikes were worth it, citing numerous reports of unintended civilian casualties. From the Washington Post:

“I want to make sure that people understand that drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties,” Obama replied.

“For the most part, they have been very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”

The perception that, “we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly,” Obama said, is incorrect.

January 31, 2012: President Barack Obama participates in a "hangout" interview sponsored by YouTube and Google (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

January 31, 2012: President Barack Obama participates in a Q&A “hangout” sponsored by YouTube and Google (Photo Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

But while the President denied claims that drone strikes had caused a huge number of civilian causalities, a New York Times article from May of 2012 raises a lot of questions about who’s actually considered a “civilian” when the government does their official tallies for these drone strikes. The article reads,

“It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent. Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”


To make matters worse, the Pakistani government doesn’t allow journalists or human rights workers to visit the sites of American drone strikes, so it is virtually impossible for any independent sources to ascertain exactly how much collateral damage is caused by these attacks.

And even for those who support the government’s campaigns against groups like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the unintended consequences of drone strikes are of very serious concern.

Earlier this week, Wikileaks released an internal CIA review from 2009 that seems to show that some people in the CIA were indeed worried about the residual effects of drone warfare. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Drone strikes and other “targeted killings” of terrorist and insurgent leaders favoured by the US and supported by Australia can strengthen extremist groups and be counterproductive, according to a secret CIA report published by WikiLeaks.

According to a leaked document by the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence, “high value targeting” (HVT) involving air strikes and special forces operations against insurgent leaders can be effective, but can also have negative effects including increasing violence and greater popular support for extremist groups…

The 2009 CIA study lends support to critics of US drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen by warning that such operations “may increase support for the insurgents, particularly if these strikes enhance insurgent leaders’ lore, if non-combatants are killed in the attacks, if legitimate or semi-legitimate politicians aligned with the insurgents are targeted, or if the government is already seen as overly repressive or violent”.


Wikileaks also notes that “US drone strike killings rose to an all-time high” after the internal review was prepared.

The front cover of the internal CIA review

The front cover of the internal CIA review (Via Wikileaks)

It’s easy to see how civilian casualties can be used to fuel anti-American sentiment and to recruit angry young men set on exacting revenge for the deaths of their loved ones.

But I think it’s crucial that we also take the time to think about what kind of environment we are creating in the regions that are regularly targeted by drone strikes.

Zubair Ur-Rehman was 13 years old when a drone strike took the life of his grandmother (Zubair and his 9-year-old sister narrowly escaped with their lives).

In October of last year, Zubair and his remaining family testified in front of members of Congress, telling the politicians how American drone strikes had altered their lives.

In this excerpt, Zubair discusses how the strikes have changed people’s relationship with the sky itself:

Children in countries like Pakistan are already susceptible to recruitment by extremist groups just by virtue of living in a region where these groups have a lot of influence. Do we really want kids in these countries growing up learning to fear a blue sky because of the possibility that it is hiding a cloaked American drone?

Fighting extremist groups isn’t like fighting a rouge nation or a group of rebels or anything like that. Combatting extremism means fighting against an ideology- an ideology that portrays America as the evil oppressor of Muslims.

Killing the individuals who promote this ideology will not make it go away, and, as the CIA pointed out in its internal review, it could actually serve to strengthen that ideology and garner it even more popular support.

I don’t claim to have the answers on how to fight against extremism, but I do know one thing: if we keep killing innocent civilians along with the evil men we are targeting, we may be simply sowing the seeds for the next generation of extremists.

NOTE (from The Guardian): “The data cohort is only a fraction of those killed by US drones overall. Reprieve did not focus on named targets struck only once. Neither Reprieve nor the Guardian examined the subset of drone strikes that do not target specific people: the so-called “signature strikes” that attack people based on a pattern of behavior considered suspicious, rather than intelligence tying their targets to terrorist activity. An analytically conservative Council on Foreign Relations tally assesses that 500 drone strikes outside of Iraq and Afghanistan have killed 3,674 people.”

BONUS: Back in September, John Oliver did an excellent segment on drones for his show “Last Week Tonight”. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you watch it- it’s extremely thorough and Oliver throws in some humor as well:


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