Spencer Ackerman has a piece up at The Washington Independent flagging an upcoming study that purports to show that U.S. drone strikes in northern Pakistan kill significantly fewer civilians than has been previously thought or reported:
It’s the most controversial counterterrorism program there is. The CIA’s remotely piloted aircraft, operating with the tacit consent of the Pakistani government, fire missiles at suspected militants in the Pakistani tribal areas where U.S. ground troops are prohibited from operating and where the Pakistani military is often hesitant to tread. The United Nations’ special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings plans to formally request the Obama administration stop the program out of fears that civilians inevitably die in the strikes. Recent research from the New America Foundation finds that 30 percent of drone strike fatalities are Pakistani civilians. It’s an enormous issue in bilateral relations with a major non-NATO ally, and experienced counterinsurgents like David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum have warned that the incendiary attacks may create more militants than they kill. Even John Brennan, President Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, indicated on Wednesday that he shares Kilcullen and Exum’s fears and gives scrutiny to ensure that the much-valued program doesn’t become “a tactical success but a strategic failure.”
But a forthcoming study, led by Brian Glyn Williams, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, finds that the civilian death toll from the drones is lower than most media accounts present. “We came to the conclusion that the drones have a unique capability for targeting militants, as opposed to civilians,” Williams said in an interview.
There are a number of caveats to Williams’ findings. For one thing, they have not even been reviewed by the journal that’s supposed to publish them yet. For another, both Williams and the two authors of the above-mentioned research conducted by the New America Foundation “appeared to agree that New America was more methodologically aggressive than Williams in counting as civilians all who could not be clearly identified as militants, which perhaps accounts for the variance in their results.” Finally, it’s far from clear that, even if the number of civilian deaths due to drone strikes were closer to Williams’ estimate than to the New America Foundation’s, that that would meaningfully reduce the strategic harm done by the drone strikes (emphasis is mine):
Bergen [one of the two authors of the New America Foundation study] now pegs the civilian death rate from the drone strikes at 20 percent. Williams pegs it at 3.53 percent. What no one knows, however, is how many outraged Pakistanis take up arms against the U.S. or its allies as a result. There are media reports suggesting that Faisal Shahzad, the naturalized U.S. citizen of Pakistani origin accused of attempting to detonate a car bomb in Times Square, claimed to investigators that his attempted terrorist act was vengeance for civilians killed by the drones. Leaving aside the question of the legality of the drones — which the State Department’s legal adviser claims to result from a September 2001 act of Congress that doesn’t mention the program — only policymakers can determine if the benefits of the drones outweigh the risks of blowback.