The US government has released numbers estimating that targeted air strikes have killed 64 to 116 civilians outside war zones since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. The New York Times reports that 473 strikes, mostly carried out by drones, also resulted in between 2,372 and 2,581 "combatant" deaths. The statistics offer a rare official look at casualties from the drone program, albeit one that is significantly lower than unofficial estimates.
The report doesn’t count deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, which are designated "areas of active hostilities." That leaves anti-terrorism strikes in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has previously reported that hundreds of civilians — including 256 in Pakistan and 64 in Yemen — have been killed outside war zones during the period in question, between the beginning of 2009 and the end of 2015.
The government admits these numbers are much lower than unofficial counts
The report admits that there is a discrepancy, comparing its numbers to unofficial estimates of roughly 200 to 900. It claims that this difference could be due to non-governmental organizations relying on media reports or propaganda with inaccurate death counts, or that the government "may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants" by outsiders.
Still, the estimate is far from precise, and it doesn’t break down the seven years of strikes in a way that could be independently checked. As the Times notes, it does refute an earlier claim that the government counted all military-age males killed in strikes as combatants. But the report also says its numbers "should be considered in light of the inherent limitations" on determining civilian and non-civilian deaths after a strike.
The release came alongside an executive order that lays out best practices for reducing civilian casualties, and requires that the government release a count of civilian deaths every year, though future presidents could reverse it. It’s a show of transparency from the Obama administration — but only compared to the secrecy with which it’s operated for the vast majority of its existence.