Most Precise Bombing Campaign Ever

Marc Garlasco helped plan the shock and awe campaign in Iraq. As soon as the war ended, he went straight to the scene of devastation to work for Human Rights Watch, standing in places he’d destroyed to meet people impacted by his detailed planning. Money quote:

Once that’s established, they’ll work up these collateral damage estimates. And tell you, OK, in this strike 10 people are anticipated to be killed– civilians. Or 20 civilians, or whatever. And in this war in Iraq, there was a magic number, and the magic number was 30. And for any target where it was anticipated that 30 civilians or more would be killed, it required the signature of either the President or the Secretary of Defense for that strike to actually occur. (Emphasis mine)

You really should listen to the entire show, because this nugget comes couched in a story about that Lancet study that found the best NGO body counts were probably far too optimistic. American aircraft had flown tens of thousands of sorties in Iraq by then. Readers may recall the horror of “shock and awe,” Rumsfeld’s pornographic fireworks display, and draw their conclusions

Readers may also recall the swiftness with which the Bushies turned away from Pakistan and Osama bin Laden and forgot all about them. A different president has maintained a laser-like focus on al-Qaeda, exiting Iraq and surging in Afghanistan. He has also used drones to bring fire on Taliban militants who were killing Americans and allied with al-Qaeda.

This last move has been a source of anger from the peace party; drone strike news is quite linkworthy, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism earned some link love on Saturday:

But research by the Bureau has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children.  A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.

Although the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004, they have been stepped up enormously under Obama.

There have been 260 attacks by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan by Obama’s administration – averaging one every four days. Because the attacks are carried out by the CIA, no information is given on the numbers killed. (Emphasis mine)

Bear in mind that more than four hundred civilians were killed by a single bomb in the 1991 Gulf War.

The Bureau is a solid outfit, and writer Chris Woods is an honest accountant of the dead. Taking their upper number and dividing by reported attacks, we have

525 / 260 = 2.06 civilian casualties per drone strike

Which makes drones the most precision weapons in military history, and the CIA’s Pakistan drone campaign the most precise precision bombing campaign ever. Moreover, the campaign appears to have worked because the Taliban are talking. That wouldn’t be happening if they were not feeling the heat in their “lawless tribal zones.”

We’re not talking about nice guys. Militants hit in an SUV on their way to Afghanistan to kill Americans and Europeans and Afghans cannot claim immunity — they are combatants. Pakistan shows no willingness to arrest or interdict them. An arrest by US forces in Pakistan is an enormous risk, one that that may easily kill more Americans as well as a lot more Pakistanis.

Those who command or aid and abet those militants are not immune either. High-ranking leaders lose their right to be safe anywhere. The U.N. says the Taliban is responsible for 77% of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. That’s because unlike the CIA drone strikes, civilians are the primary targets of terrorism:

The report said the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented 3,021 civilian deaths in the conflict in 2011 – up 8 percent from 2010, which saw 2,790 deaths, and an increase of 25 percent from 2009, when 2,412 civilians were killed.

[...]

The report said 410 civilian deaths, or 14 percent of the 2011 total, were caused by operations by “pro-government forces,” or Afghan, U.S. and international security forces – a drop of 4 percent from 2010. (Emphasis mine)

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has covered drone strikes exhaustively, finding that “between 2,347 and 2,956 people” have been killed by drones in Pakistan since 2004. That’s less than the number of Afghans killed by the Taliban last year alone. According to the Bureau’s own research, civilian casualties make up less than 18% of all deaths in Pakistan. The New America Foundation offers similar data:

Our study shows that the 283 reported drone strikes in northwest Pakistan, including 70 in 2011, from 2004 to the present have killed approximately between 1,717 and 2,680 individuals, of whom around 1,424 to 2,209 were described as militants in reliable press accounts. Thus, the true non-militant fatality rate since 2004 according to our analysis is approximately 17 percent. In 2010, it was more like five percent. (Emphasis mine)

Two points need addressing, because they are not pretty. First, combatants almost always treat responders as co-belligerents. Bright red crosses on military ambulances have never been a protection. Today’s medic is trained to render aid without ever rising from the ground, and doesn’t wear a special symbol on their helmet.

Second, for some of the more reclusive Talibanis a funeral may be a rare occasion of vulnerability. This scenario appeared in the first five minutes of the movie Eagle Eye, a mostly-forgettable paranoid thriller that gets such an operation exactly wrong. There is no time limit: a drone can loiter for as long as necessary waiting for the target to leave the funeral, and then target their vehicle.

If the ‘victim’ of this ‘assassination’ has a child in the car, then they knew the risks of their lifestyle but took the child with them anyway, and more’s their blame. It should be dangerous to kill Americans and their allies. It should be dangerous to live with, or gather with, such people. They are not immune from the violence they do to others.

We might invade North Waziristan, or convince the Pakistani government to do it, but at what cost? Bringing the Taliban to terms without carpet bombing North Waziristan, or landing Rangers Blackhawk Down-style, is to America’s credit in this conflict. The word for it is “restraint.”

About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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