Droning on: Amnesty and the efficacy of drone strikes

This is a cross-post by Mugwump

As the evidence I’ve previously presented shows: drones rarely kill civilians and they are quite effective at reducing terrorism. This shouldn’t be surprising: there is a general trend for Western military action to cause very little civilian loss and the latter proposition is only surprising to people who still believe in the idea of blowback. But two things have made me want to write this post: firstly, the report from Amnesty and secondly, laying out the evidence on effectiveness far more thoroughly than I previously had.

Amnesty International

The debate about drones is fundamentally about effectiveness and civilian causalities –and once those issues have been handled, the bulk of the debate is over – which is why I think the latest report by Amnesty doesn’t change much about that general debate. Glenn Greenwald stated that the report shows that the report shows ‘far more civilians than the USG claims’ have been killed. But thats been pretty much accepted by everyone outside of the US government. A meta-analysis showed the civilian casualty rate to be 8-17% (when you took out the lowest estimate). The main concern is civilian casualties not what the U.S says – and on that count, they are low. In fact, if you look at the appendix of the Amnesty report which lists drone strikes, only two (the ones documented below) are said to have killed civilians only (p.62).

The Amnesty report is not completely irrelevant as it can, however, raise specific incidents in attempt to spark a debate about those incidents. This is despite the general debate being settled. But it is my view that even in this narrower endeavour it fails. The report draws particular attention to two incidents: the drone strike on October 24 2012 which killed Mamana Bibi and the drone strike on 6 July 2012 which killed 18 individuals. Amnesty is, to its credit, aware of the limitations of their conclusions:

Because the US government refuses to provide even basic information on particular strikes, including the reasons for carrying them out, Amnesty International is unable to reach firm conclusions about the context in which the US drone attacks on Mamana Bibi and on the 18 laborers took place (p.8)

But, as we will see, this doesn’t go far enough. Mamana Bibi’s grandson told Amnesty that his grandmother was outside her home ‘gathering okra to cook that evening’ on October 24 2012. It was then that ‘before her family’s eyes, Mamana Bibi was blown into pieces by at least two Hellfire missiles’ (p.18-19). Amnesty states the following about the incident:

Witnesses and family members, interviewed separately and by different research teams at different times, all denied that any militants were anywhere near Mamana Bibi at the time of the attack. Amnesty International’s investigation found no evidence of military or armed group installations or fighters. (p.22)

It goes without saying that an innocent civilian’s death is regrettable. There does, however, seem to be more to the incident than Amnesty describe. The only thing that Amnesty cites that can be construed as a defence of the action is that a Pakistani source states there was signal intelligence which placed a Taliban fighter on a nearby road. Amnesty states that this is not enough to go on because (i) drones would have had time to see that Mamana Bibi was not a militant and (ii) the nearest roads were over 930ft away. I’m not sure how persuasive these responses really are (the first requires an assessment of the evidence and the second doesn’t seem relevant at all) – but that’s not the main thing thats wrong with their description.

After the drone strikes, source after source came out saying that there were militants not only in the area but were killed in the strike. As noted by the New America Foundation, different sources told CNN, AFP, Dawn, Associated Press and The News that militants had been killed. I stress that this (and everything that follows) is not conclusive. There are, however, two main reasons for siding with the New America Foundation over the Amnesty (and, unfortunately, the family of the victim). First, is the general trend of drone strikes and U.S military policy toward civilians. I have already written a full post on that so will only state the conclusion: U.S policy does not target civilians and does everything to minimise the loss of civilian life.

Second is a fact that Amnesty draws attention to. The reliability of witnesses is in doubt particularly on the question of whether militants are in the area (this response is, for reasons that will become apparent, extremely pertinent to the next incident). Amnesty gives the following example of a drone strike on 24 May 2012:

It is virtually impossible for residents to complain to the authorities about armed groups. For example, four foreign fighters and four local Taliban were killed instantly in a village in Esso Khel when a series of drone strikes hit the building they were resting in on the evening of 24 May 2012. While local residents confirmed details of the incident, most refused to confirm the presence of these fighters or whether they had any choice about them residing in their village (p.34)

There are no good reasons for thinking that the situation changes when Amnesty and their researchers enter the town, it remains ‘virtually impossible’ for people to share what really happened. Additionally, we know that militants were operating in Tappi over the long term, using the area as a shelter. Again, I stress this only gives good, not conclusive, reasons for discounting the Amnesty account.

You can read the rest of Mugwump’s post here.