Fully armed Reaper UAV takes to skies of southern Afghanistan (photo: Defence Images)

(update below)

Killing by remote control, the escalated use of drone warfare in countries, depends on people believing drones do not kill a large number of innocent civilians. It depends on people believing the program is indeed “precise” and rarely kills anybody other than members of al Qaeda and its affiliates or the Taliban. So, there is no incentive for countries to go to the trouble to count those killed by drones and verify that all killed were “terrorists,” “militants,” or a bad guy that needed to be eliminated.

Today, The Guardian reports on the United Kingdom’s increased reliance on drones to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. More than 280 laser-guided Hellfire missiles and bombs have been fired at “suspected insurgents.” Additionally, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) claims that only four Afghan civilians have been killed.

That would seem to support the narrative being promoted by countries that are increasingly employing drone warfare. But as The Guardian notes, the MoD “has no idea how many insurgents have died, because of the ‘immense difficulty and risks’ of verifying who has been hit.” A spokesperson explained:

…For reasons of operational security, we are not prepared to comment on the assessed numbers of insurgents killed or wounded in Reaper strikes. As you would expect, following any engagement an assessment will be made of the effectiveness of individual mission strikes. However, because of the limited information available from imagery and immense difficulty and risks that would be involved in collecting robust data on the ground, this information is considered speculative and likely inaccurate…

If this is how they handle the issue of counting casualties, how does the MoD know that only four civilians have died? The MoD “relies on Afghans making official complaints at military bases if their friends or relatives have been wrongly killed.” Not surprisingly, there are fundamental problems with this. Heather Barr, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, who has worked in Afghanistan for the past five years, says:

There are many disincentives for people to make reports. Some of these areas are incredibly isolated, and people may have to walk for days to find someone to report a complaint. For some, there will be a certain sense of futility in doing so anyway.

There is no uniform system for making a complaint and no uniform system for giving compensation. This may not encourage them to walk several days to speak to someone who may not do anything about it.

The Guardian does not say if this reliance on drone survivors for civilian casualty counts means only four or less reports on people who were wrongly killed have been filed by victims.

Considering the fact that the UK has been employing drones in Afghanistan for four and a half years, this unbelievable and incredibly low figure of only four killed means the UK has averaged less than one innocent civilian death per year since it began launching strikes. That is impossible, yet this callow policy for counting civilian deaths seems fitting. Those killing are not on the battlefield but are on a base multiple time zones away from the site of the carnage. In the scheme of increased robotization of warfare, submitting some report that will just get filed away, tabulated and maybe lead to a response where the MoD confirms, “Yes, innocent people were killed and we’re sorry but it can happen,” seems like a policy to be expected.

The policy is only marginally worse than the United States’ policy. As revealed in a major New York Times feature story in May, President Barack Obama and his administration use a method for counting civilian casualties that does not “box” Obama in. All “military age males in a strike zone” that are found dead are considered “combatants” unless “there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

Until Obama’s counterterrorism chief (aka “Assassination Czar”) John Brennan gave a speech on April 30, the administration had been maintaining not a “single noncombatant” had died. Brennan admitted that innocent civilians had been killed when he said deaths had happened but were “exceedingly rare.”

The Guardian report does not say whether the MoD uses this method to count casualties. But, one can imagine if keeping innocent civilian casualty counts low was critical to the war effort, one might want to have a criteria like the United States.

Both the US and UK appear to do what Israel has done when counting casualties from drone assassinations in Palestinian territories: focus on patterns of life and engage in profiling of populations when deciding whom to target.

For example, from a Washington Post story published in November 2011 on how drones shape life in Gaza:

Hamdi Shaqqura, the human rights advocate, came downstairs one recent morning in his Gaza apartment to find a note from his daughter, Bisanne, a 22-year-old medical student. She had counted four drones overhead, and she advised her father to skip his morning run.

“But I’m all dressed and I think, ‘I can’t not do this, I can’t change because of this,’ ” Shaqqura recalled. So he set off, only to turn back in fear after about 100 yards, as several drones buzzed above.

“So I get back to my door and I say, ‘Come on, Hamdi, this is Gaza,’ ” he scolded himself, and headed back out. He got as far as he had before when he noticed that, as usual, he was dressed in an all-black track suit — the color of choice for many Palestinian militants. Once again, he headed home, shaking his head at the ridiculousness of the back-and-forth. “It affects every aspect of our lives, all day long,” he said.

These fears come from the use of “signature strikes,” which as Nation journalist Jeremy Scahill has explained, target ”groups of men whose identities are not necessarily known…a great indicator of how bad the US intel is. The idea that you have to make guesses based on patterns of life, rather than actual human intel that result in killing people is a harrowing development.” Additionally:

If you don’t have solid intelligence on the ground, and you are killing people based on superficial patterns of life or because they are “militant,” then you are entering into dangerous territory and the odds of killing a large number of innocent people is real. We are now into “pre-crime” territory, Minority Report-style. That should be disturbing to many Americans.

What’s even more disturbing is, like Israel (which has been developing and using drones for decades), the US has done a good job of propagandizing the press and the public. The idea that anyone nearby a “terrorist” must be a “terrorist” is a mesmerizing piece of propaganda. In a way, it’s a slick variation of Israeli propaganda that says if civilians are killed in Gaza by drones or other means of warfare they were likely being used by militants or terrorists as human shields. This is the routine answer Israeli officials give when asked about civilian casualties.

This is how countries using drones can obfuscate the real number of civilians being killed by drones. They can decide to put the responsibility on victims to complain that their family members have been killed, change the criteria for who is and is not an innocent civilian or argue it was impossible to make sure civilians didn’t die because “terrorists” were surrounding themselves with innocent people to protect them from being targeted. All of which raises doubts about media reports on “suspected militants” killed. Yet, the press continues to report drone deaths without properly contextualizing the reality, which is that nobody really knows who is dying in many of these drone attacks. No country is interested in naming the dead. Few establishment journalists or reporters care or have the conscience or courage to try and figure out the identities of the people being eliminated.

Update

ProPublica’s Justin Elliott crunches the numbers and not surprisingly the administration’s figures on drone deaths don’t add up. This is an additional way that a government can make it seem like their use of drone warfare isn’t killing innocent civilians. Elliott shows that if all claims on civilian casualties to date were true that would mean “there were zero or almost zero civilian deaths between the beginning of 2008 and August 2009, and then again zero deaths between August 2010 and July 2011. Those periods comprise a total of 182 strikes.”

Now, that to any reasonable person would have to be implausible, but there is no way to go back to officials that reported drone deaths to the media and ask about the contradictions because the claims were ”almost all quoted anonymously.” And, as National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told ProPublica: “[W]e simply do not comment on alleged drone strikes.” Another way to keep drone civilian casualty count numbers down—refuse to confirm or deny that the strike in question was in fact a drone strike.

Here’s an infographic put together by ProPublica that exposes the contradictory nature of the government’s claims on drone deaths.

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Additionally, Business Week now reports the three biggest drones in the US military’s are the most accident-prone aircraft in the Air Force’s fleet.

The Air Force in a 15-year period through Sept. 30 recorded 129 accidents involving its medium- and high-altitude drones: the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk. The figures include accidents that resulted in at least $500,000 in damage or destroyed aircraft during missions around the globe.

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Rep. Ron Paul’s “Straight Talk” column this week condemns the “patterns of behavior” and “vague criteria” being used by the US to decide who to target with drones:

The use of drones overseas may have become so convenient, operated as they are from a great distance, that far more “collateral damage” has become acceptable. Collateral damage is a polite way of saying killing innocent civilians. Is the ease of drone use a slippery slope to disregard for justice, and if so what might that mean for us as they become more widely used on American soil against American citizens?

This dramatic increase in the use of drones and the lowered threshold for their use to kill foreigners has tremendous implications for our national security. At home, some claim the use of drones reduces risk to American service members. But this can be true only in the most shortsighted sense. Internationally the expanded use of drones is wildly unpopular and in fact creates more enemies than it eliminates.

While he repeats the false claim that the EPA is using drones to spy on Midwestern farmers, the final sentence is a bold and cautionary warning to all Americans:

We must curtail the government’s ability to use drones right away lest the massacres in Yemen and Pakistan turn out to be crude training exercises for what the administration has in mind on our own soil.

Here’s the bipartisan letter from Congress to Obama that Paul mentions. The letter was part of an effort put together by Rep. Dennis Kucinich.