U.S. Reveals Death Toll From Airstrikes Outside War Zones

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Partially lifting the secrecy that has cloaked one of the United States’s most contentious tactics for fighting terrorists, the Obama administration on Friday said that it believed that airstrikes it has conducted outside conventional war zones like Afghanistan have killed 64 to 116 civilian bystanders and about 2,500 members of terrorist groups.The official civilian death count is far lower than estimates compiled by independent organizations that try to track what the government calls targeted killings in chaotic places like tribal Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. Most of the strikes have been carried out by drones, though a small number have involved traditional aircraft or cruise missiles.

At the same time, President Obama issued an executive order making civilian protection a priority and requiring the government in the future to disclose the number of civilian deaths each year. The order, which could be canceled or altered by a future president, tries to commit his successors to greater openness than he achieved in the first seven years of his presidency.

In a seeming acknowledgment that the long-anticipated disclosure would be greeted with skepticism by drone critics, the administration released the numbers on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. The use of a range of estimated civilian deaths underscored the fact that the government often does not know for sure the affiliations of those killed.

“They’re guessing, too,” said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who has tracked civilian deaths for more than a decade. “Theirs may be a little more educated than my guesses. But they cannot be completely accurate.”

The decision to make public the numbers, the subject of months of bureaucratic deliberations, carried broader significance. 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.

 The civilian death numbers between Mr. Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and the end of 2015 were contained in a report issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It said the numbers came from 473 strikes, which also killed 2,372 to 2,581 “combatants.”

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Obama Administration Releases Death Toll from Airstrikes

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an official count for the number of civilian and combatant casualties from airstrikes outside of war zones from 2009 to 2015. President Obama also issued an executive order requiring the government to release an annual set of such numbers going forward. In addition, the White House released a fact sheet describing the policy.

The report named Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria as “areas of active hostilities” excluded from the policy. A senior administration official said tribal Pakistan — which the government treats as an extension of the Afghan battlefield in certain contexts — is not such an area; so casualties there are part of the official civilian death numbers.

It is an open secret that the majority of America’s drone strikes have taken place in tribal Pakistan as Central Intelligence Agency covert operations, which has meant that the administration’s periodic pledges to be more transparent about targeted killings have not been completely fulfilled.

The executive order also said that the annual reports from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence should address any discrepancy between the official body count and what outside groups estimate. That gap is striking.

The administration’s count of civilian deaths is about half of the lowest estimate from independent watchdogs, which base their estimates largely on press reports and information from local officials. Mr. Roggio’s Long War Journal, the Washington-based security policy organization New Americaand the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that 200 to 800 civilians have been killed by American airstrikes outside war zones since 2009.

Human rights advocates, reacting to rumors about what the administration would release, have already been critical. In a recent blog post, Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union said that releasing only aggregate statistics would be “unfortunate” because it would thwart the ability to check the government’s data against that of independent groups.

“The public has a right to know who the government is killing — and if the government doesn’t know who it’s killing, the public has a right to knowthat,” he wrote.

The government report acknowledged that the count made by outside groups “generally estimates significantly higher figures,” but said their numbers relied on reports about events in remote and inaccessible areas which may be inaccurate or tainted by “terrorist propaganda.”

The government, it maintained, has access to superior information when counting civilian deaths, drawing on “video observations, human sources and assets, signals intelligence, geospatial intelligence, accounts from local officials on the ground, and open source reporting” to determine whether people killed in its strikes had “undertaken certain acts that reliably connote meaningful integration” into an enemy group.

Supporters of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity affiliated with a Pakistani militant group, demonstrated last month in Islamabad against an American airstrike in Baluchistan Province.CreditAamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images 

The administration also declined to break down its retroactive estimate of civilian death by year, a decision that permits it to avoid fights about how it addressed several well-known American airstrikes that generated accusations of dozens of civilian deaths — including one in Yemen in December 2009 and another in Pakistan in March 2011 that together would seem to surpass the low end of its range.

“The U.S. government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by non-governmental organizations,” the report said, cryptically.

Lumping all seven years together also makes it harder to analyze, for example, how trends may have changed since May 2013. That’s when Mr. Obama issued a “presidential policy guidance” limiting airstrikes away from war zones to targets that present a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” and cases where there was a “near certainty” of avoiding civilian casualties.

While there have been credible reports of some strikes involving civilian casualties since then, the overall pace of airstrikes appears to have dropped significantly.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the order, said Mr. Obama pushed for the new policy as a coda to the May 2013 guidance. Both were motivated by his desire to drain the suspicion surrounding drone strikes in order to bolster public support, at home and abroad, for a tool he believes will continue to be necessary, the official said.

Targeted killings away from battlefields — a practice denounced by some critics as assassinations — have grown as the United States has waged an open-ended war against a splintering, morphing terrorist adversary whose members flow into ungoverned regions where no ground forces are engaged in combat, and as the rise of drone technology has lowered the barriers to carrying out strikes in inaccessible places.

The report also pushed back against the claim, first reported in a 2012 New York Times article, that the government, when counting civilian casualties, presumes that any military-aged male killed in a strike zone is a combatant. It said a dead person from such a strike about whom nothing is known is presumed to be a noncombatant.

The order also generally required agencies that carry out such strikes to acknowledge United States government responsibility for civilian deaths and offer condolence payments.

To date, the United States has publicly acknowledged responsibility for only two civilian deaths — the accidental killing in 2015 of two aid workers in Pakistan who were being held hostage inside a compound of Al Qaeda when it was struck. An administration official said such acknowledgments and payments are rarely public.

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