Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, Versus Drone Strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia

by Micah Zenko
November 10, 2016

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing undergoes a postflight inspection (Reuters/U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez/Handout)


Yesterday, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) published an updated estimate of civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Previously, the Pentagon had acknowledged just 55 civilian casualties for the air war that began in August 2014. The new CENTCOM estimate listed a total of 24 civilian casualty incidents, which “regrettably may have killed 64 civilians.” This makes the new official estimate of civilian fatalities 119.

During this period, the United States conducted 12,354 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, which killed “45,000 enemies taken off the battlefield,” according to Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland in the latest publicly provided body count for the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Thus, using the U.S. government’s data, 12,354 airstrikes over 27 months have killed 45,000 ISIS fighter and just 119 civilians. This means that for every 103 airstrikes there is a civilian fatality, and for every one airstrike there are 3.64 IS fighters killed.

As I have written previously, this claim of nearly infallible target discrimination and weapon precision is simply unbelievable in a combat environment where civilians and combatants are so closely intermingled. IS fighters have employed civilian-designated facilities for its own purposes, and reportedly used human shields in its headquarters sites and during the movement of its fighters. Meanwhile, as noted, U.S. military officials, analysts, and pilots make inevitable human errors of judgment and violate established protocols, resulting in unintentional civilian deaths. It is misleading to believe U.S. airstrikes are so precise.

It is also important to recognize that a “strike” does not mean one single bomb dropped. The definition of a strike used by CENTCOM is, “one or more kinetic events that occur in roughly the same geographic location to produce a single, sometimes cumulative effect for that location.” There was a single “strike” that destroyed 283 IS oil trucks on November 22, 2015, of which the Pentagon released a video. That strike was actually a series of A-10 strafing runs, using depleted uranium rounds, which a CENTCOM spokesperson admitted to reporter Samuel Oakford.

Finally, Amelia Mae Wolf and I demonstrated in April that U.S. drone strikes in non-battlefield settings were far less precise than manned airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, using the best available data at the time—this included non-governmental organizations and the U.S military. Now, we can revisit this claim by exclusively using U.S. government data.

On July 1, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities.” That release claimed that between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, there were 473 strikes that killed between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and 64 and 116 noncombatants. Therefore, using the average of the range provided by ODNI, 473 drone strikes killed 90 civilians.

Or, 0.19 civilian is killed for every drone strike in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

And, 0.009 for every airstrike (almost all are manned airstrikes) in Iraq and Syria.

That means that airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are more than 20 times more likely to kill a civilian than those in Iraq and Syria.

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