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New Remote Control report: Lack of information around Afghanistan drone strikes

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24 July 2014


An MQ-9 Reaper comes into land at Kandahar Airbase in Helmand, Afghanistan. Creative Commons, Source: UK Ministry of Defence

London, 24th July – A new report published today finds that despite Afghanistan being the most heavily drone-bombed country in the world, the reporting of air strikes is far less comprehensive than in other theatres.

Commissioned by the Remote Control project, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s report Drones in Afghanistan: A scoping study assesses the feasibility of using open-source materials to track drone strikes in Afghanistan, modelled on its existing databases of drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It reveals the challenge of this task, due to the limited reporting of strikes and the poor security situation in the country. 

The report found that drones are playing an increasingly important role in Afghan air campaigns in recent years (in 2011 drones fired 5% of all missiles fired in air strikes, by 2012 this had risen to 18%). It also found that an increased reliance on drones after the US drawdown this year is expected for counterterrorism operations in the country.  Drones now account for a third of all civilian deaths in Afghan air strikes but little is known about the details of these strikes.

The report conducted a ‘sample month’ exercise to see how comprehensively drone strikes are reported, gathering media reports and other open-source data on all strikes occurring in September 2013.  The exercise revealed that almost 60% of reported air strikes are reported by only a single source, and many strikes appear to go unreported.  This was largely due to the poor security situation and a lack of official reporting of incidents by Afghan authorities.

The research concludes that media reports would not be sufficient as a primary source to develop a full record of drone strikes, but instead would require networks of local contacts to compile additional data, along with urging the military forces involved to release their own data. Despite these challenges, the report stressed the vital importance of developing a database of strikes in Afghanistan. 

Alice K Ross, lead author of the report says,

TBIJ’s research to date has focused on covert drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, but we realised that almost nothing is known about drone strikes in Afghanistan. There is no systematic record of where and when strikes took place, or who they killed. This is a major gap in our understanding of how this weapons platform has evolved. An attempt to track drone strikes in Afghanistan is an important step to a fuller understanding of how remotely piloted systems are being used – and a more informed debate about their impact.

Caroline Donnellan, manager of the Remote Control project says,

This report is important given the drawdown in Afghanistan at the end of this year and the role of US forces in the country next year and beyond. It is highly probable that, along with US special forces remaining in the country after 2014 for counter-terrorism missions, drones will be heavily relied upon for counter-terrorism operations also.  The absence of any detailed information on drone strikes in Afghanistan means we have no way of assessing their impact, both in terms of the civilian costs involved and their effectiveness as a counter terrorism strategy.



Alice K Ross
020 7040 0073
07515 865711

Editor’s notes:

The Remote Control project is a project of the Network for Social Change hosted by the London based think tank Oxford Research Group.  Remote Control examines changes in military engagement, in particular the use of drones, special forces, private military companies and cyber warfare.  The project acts as a facilitator for the exchange of information and commissions and publicises work undertaken in the area, aiming to examine the long term effects of remote warfare. 

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is an independent not-for-profit organisation. The Bureau pursues journalism which is of public benefit, undertaking in depth research into the governance of public, private and third sector organisations and their influence. 

Alice K Ross is project leader of the Bureau’s work on drones. Along with the other members of the Bureau’s drones team, she won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2013 for the Covert Drone War project. The team was also shortlisted in the Foreign Press Awards 2011. She worked as a freelance reporter and editor before doing an MA in Investigative Journalism at City University London and won the university’s Richard Wild prize for journalism in 2011.

Jack Serle studied biological sciences at the University of Edinburgh, from which he graduated in 2010. After gaining a distinction in his MA for science journalism, he joined the Bureau in 2012. He has worked predominately on the Bureau’s drones project and was part of the team that won the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism in 2013 for their work on drones and the covert war.

Tom Wills is an investigative data journalist. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the Daily Mirror, the Financial Times and Which?. His approach to research combines advanced data journalism with traditional investigative techniques. He is a graduate of the Investigative Journalism M.A. programme at City University, London and the International Relations B.A. at the University of Sussex.

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