In July 2016, the U.S. government released a report in which it said that between January 20, 2009 and December 31, 2015, between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” were killed by U.S. “strikes” against “terrorist targets” in certain unspecified countries other than “Areas of active hostilities”, which “include”, the report says, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Therefore, we are left to assume that the report is speaking of the numbers of people killed by drones, cruise missiles, or airplanes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, countries where we know there have been drone attacks. It could be that the statistics include those killed by special forces troops.
The report lists the number of “combatants” who were killed by U.S. “counterterrorism strikes” during the reporting period at between 2,372 and 2,581 people.
Before discussing the accuracy of the government figures, it is important to realize that simply by speaking of “combatants” and “non-combatants” the government is creating categories of guilt and innocence that can, under international law, only be established in a court of law.
Moving to the question of the accuracy of the government figures with respect to the number of people killed, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the most authoritative accountant of casualties of U.S. drone attacks, assuming the government report was referring to drone attacks only, said:
“The US government today claimed it has killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in 473 counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015.
“This is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian casualty range recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports by local and international journalists, NGO investigators, leaked government documents, court papers and the result of field investigations.”
The New York Times, reporting on the government statistics, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/02/world/us-reveals-death-toll-from-airstrikes-outside-of-war-zones.html noted:
“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.”
But viewing the impact of U.S. drone attacks simply in terms of numbers of people killed ignores the human, political and military impact of wounding, trauma and community disruption, as suggested in the section on trauma in this website.
As noted earlier on the website, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that 7, 511 people have been killed by U.S. drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia between January 1, 2017 and the first drone attack in 2001. This does not include people killed by drones in Afghanistan before 2015 or people killed in Iraq, Syria and Libya, nations in which the U.S. is conducting drone surveillance and attacks. The U.S. has also launched drone attacks in the Philippines, but there has been no accounting of casualties there either. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/pakistan/Most-wanted-Filipino-militant-killed-in-US-drone-attack-in-Pak/articleshow/5485500.cms
To arrive at a conservative estimate of the total number of people impacted by U.S. drone attacks since 2001, let’s take the 7,511 figure and estimate that 10 people have been wounded for every person killed. We now have 75,000 who have been physically harmed by U.S. drone attacks. If we then factor in another 10 people who have been severely traumatized for every person killed or injured by a drone attack, we have 750,000 people significantly harmed by drone killing. This is, again, an extremely conservative estimate.
Needless to say, this figure does not fully address the psychological and traumatic impact of living in perpetual fear of drone killings for those living all across the Middle East and North Africa.