LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Last week, the Pentagon admitted an airstrike said to be targeting a would-be car bomber in Afghanistan actually killed only civilians - 10 people from the same extended family, including seven children. This isn't the first time civilians have been killed in drone strikes under the broad banner of the war on terror. Studies say as many as tens of thousands of innocent people may have been killed in strikes like these in the last 20 years.
Joining us now to break down some of these numbers and what they mean is Neta Crawford, co-director of the Cost of War Project (ph) at Brown University.
NETA CRAWFORD: Hi there.
FADEL: So let's start by putting this airstrike we just mentioned in context. Do you have a sense of how many civilians in Afghanistan were killed by airstrikes in the last 20 years?
CRAWFORD: Well, over the last 20 years, about 5,900 civilians - at least the most recent numbers that we have, mostly provided by the United Nations. Of those, most of them were killed by international forces - the U.S. and its allies.
FADEL: Now, the U.S. has waged air campaigns in other countries since 2001 as well, most notably Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen. Why did you and your team decide to start this project? What is important about counting these deaths, specifically in drone strikes like this?
CRAWFORD: Well, I'm talking about deaths by all different kinds of aircraft - drone, fixed-wing or helicopters. And we decided to count because we've noticed that when the United States and other powers have the eyes of the world on them, they get more careful, and airstrikes diminish, and the number of people killed and injured declines.
FADEL: You've mentioned a lot of innocent people being killed in airstrikes, but is there a case to be made, as the U.S. military does, that sometimes they're necessary to protect troops in a critical situation or when a military target is particularly valuable?
CRAWFORD: Right. The way the U.S. makes that decision about when to use airstrikes is based on consideration of the importance of the military objective - yes. And they also take into consideration the number of civilians in the area and whether or not those people might be killed or injured. So they are working to avoid harming civilians.
And sometimes they don't do a strike. And I believe that the U.S. military has made a great effort there. They'll argue that many of their strikes kill militants. When the U.N. goes to count, they don't count as many militants killed. They often count more civilians. So there's a basic disagreement about who is killed in the strikes.
FADEL: Now, in this particular case, this last airstrike that prompted this discussion, no militants were killed. Ultimately, the person who was the target was putting what appeared to be water bottles into his truck, had a laptop in a plastic bag. I mean, how common is it that a strike is completely a mistake like this and only civilians are killed?
CRAWFORD: It's not uncommon, unfortunately. I don't have a precise number because the U.S. doesn't actually release all this information. We know that in one case in Afghanistan, the United States struck the International Committee for the Red Cross twice in October 2001. And there were no militants there. They just struck the Red Cross building.
CRAWFORD: We know that there are wedding parties that are unfortunately targeted and killed. It happens not infrequently. Now, if the U.S. did an investigation of every one of its strikes, we might find that they would see more civilians were killed sometimes than militants or it's completely the case that civilians were killed. But they really don't make those counts public. It would be useful if they did.
What we have and what we know is based on the United Nations in the case of Afghanistan and other international observers like Airwars in the case of Iraq and Syria. And we need more transparency on this. So I really can't answer the question because we don't know.
FADEL: That's Neta Crawford, co-director of the Cost of War Project.
Thank you so much for joining us.
CRAWFORD: Thank you for having me, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.