A little over a week ago, a somber President Obama delivered early morning remarks on the tragic deaths of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, two hostages who were accidentally killed by U.S. drone strikes in the tribal regions of Pakistan. It was a rare moment for several reasons: the President openly acknowledged the loss of these men through a covert program, and he took personal responsibility for all of our counter terrorism operations, including these recent ones. But as he offered condolences to the families of Weinstein and Lo Porto, and promised a thorough review of intelligence failures, the President opened himself up to criticism of an unmanned aerial program that has killed thousands – including thousands of civilians according to some reports – in a host of countries.
The question remains, who apologizes and takes full responsibility for the deaths of those innocents? Do the dead, maimed and devastated children, women and men who had nothing to do with either terrorism or our war on terror deserve recognition by someone that their lives mattered as well? When drones are dropped in nations where we have not declared war and little, if any, information is released to the public, the message we are once again sending is that only the lives of Westerners matter and that the lives of other civilians are simply expendable.
Shortly after being sworn into office in 2009, one of the first decisions President Obama made was to increase and expand our drone campaigns. In fact, he exponentially increased strikes in places like Pakistan, and later to countries like Yemen, Somalia and more. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in just five years, President Obama launched 330 strikes on Pakistan, whereas President Bush conducted only 51 strikes in four years. While President Bush was an obvious hawk who took the nation into an unnecessary war in Iraq under false pretenses, the notion that Obama is some sort of peacemaker is inaccurate at best.
Yes, it’s better for our troops when bombs can be dropped with the push of a button in Nevada or elsewhere. Yes, fewer lives are lost in a drone strike than with traditional bombing or ground invasions. But the idea that drones don’t kill hundreds (some argue thousands) of civilians is preposterous. And the expansion of the drone program to a multitude of nations not only goes against our stated ideals of bringing stability to the world, but it tremendously increases anti-American sentiment in those countries and in areas that sympathize with them
In 2010, I traveled to Pakistan and witnessed the rise in anti-American attitudes firsthand. While our popular culture was still being absorbed by the population through music, movies, food, etc., there was also a clearly visible segment of disaffected youth and adults who grew increasingly angry at U.S. intrusion. Virtually every morning, headlines in major newspapers and newscasts led with captions citing the number of civilians killed from American drone strikes. Pictures of dead children and mothers were regularly viewed by the public, and it’s no coincidence that as the strikes rose, so too did the anti-American feeling on the ground.
The Guardian published a piece in November of 2014 with some startling figures regarding civilian casualties. According to the article, on October 15, 2010, Hellfire missiles fired from a drone killed the deputy commander of the Pakistani Taliban, but in the process of doing so, they also killed 127 others – 13 of them children. The piece also cites data from human-rights group Reprieve stating that attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people (http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/nov/24/-sp-us-drone-strikes-kill-1147).
Such tragic realities aren’t confined to Pakistan alone. Who can forget the December 2013 incident when a drone accidentally struck a wedding convoy in Yemen killing a dozen or more? And when we conduct drone strikes in several countries including Somalia, Libya, Mali, Afghanistan and more, the number of casualties is difficult to comprehend especially when they aren’t even considered murders. The deaths of these civilians are simply swept under the rug of ‘collateral damage’, and we are therefore able to wipe our hands clean of what is clearly murder plain and simple.
The New York Times recently printed a piece titled ‘U.S. Attacks in Afghanistan Go Beyond White House’s Pledges’, and in that article, the following sentence summarizes the situation: “Rather than ending the American war in Afghanistan, the military is using its wide latitude to instead transform it into a continuing campaign of airstrikes — mostly drone missions — and Special Operations raids that have in practice stretched or broken the parameters publicly described by the White House.” Will the public ever receive an accounting of how many civilians we killed during this process? Likely not.
It wasn’t that long ago when President Obama proudly proclaimed our counter terrorism victories in places like Yemen and Somalia. Just last September, he stated: “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” In fact, the President often touted Yemen as a perfect example of why droning works. And now look at Yemen; it is more destabilized than ever. Extremist factions there are arguably more powerful today than they were prior to our drone strikes. Once again, the instability and abject chaos that is left following our intervention gives rise to more radicals and an opportunity for them to gain power. For all the talk of getting terrorists where they hide and being proactive, what is the reward?
President Obama himself once said that when people get disillusioned or are frustrated, they may cling to their religion or guns. The same can be said for people in areas where high poverty rates, lack of jobs, massive wealth gaps and unequal access to education and upward mobility plague society as it does in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. When religion binds the majority of the population, and when they see outside forces attacking them and other Muslim-majority nations, it’s very easy for people to cling to their religion.
Several years had gone by before I went to Pakistan in 2010, and there was a visible difference in the environment – even in major cities. In Karachi, the largest city, there were more conservative and religious folk roaming the streets than I can ever recall on previous trips. There was increased tension in the air, and most residents were weary to congregate in crowded areas for fear of suicide attacks and bombings. It’s important to note that prior to 9/11, there was only one suicide bombing in the entire country; but following our war on terror, they are now sadly a regular occurrence.
For the people of Pakistan, accountability and answers for drone strikes and growing volatility have been few and far. On the forefront, the Pakistani army and government denounce the drone campaign, but behind-the-scenes they often provide the launching pads from where drones take off and even sometimes supply coordinates. The U.S. and Pakistani intelligence services, military and governments have a complicated and convoluted relationship; both publicly call the other out for failing to do enough, but both work together for mutually shared interests. But what leaders of both nations fail to realize is that bombing people does more to fuel terror than to resolve it.
When a person loses an entire family because of a drone strike, who do you think they sympathize with? When a village loses dozens of families, who do you think they begin to align themselves with? When a nation sees regular images of dead countrymen, who do you think they hate? When Muslims around the world only see Muslims dying through wars, covert actions, drone strikes and more, how hard is it for them to feel that they and their religion are under attack? Couple this sense of alienation with poverty and diminished opportunities in many places, and you have a recipe for disaster.
It’s difficult to know the exact number of civilians killed by drones and there is much debate about it in newsrooms, at think tanks and in various political discussions. For one, it is a clandestine program, and even when information is requested, those requests go largely unfulfilled. Secondly, journalists who cover this topic are few and far. Jeremy Scahill, one journalist who has focused on drone strikes extensively, recently pointed out in a piece for The Intercept, that a U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany serves as “the high-tech heart of America’s drone program”. According to his article and documents the Intercept apparently received, Ramstein is the site of a satellite relay station that enables drone operators in the U.S. to communicate with their remote aircraft in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and other countries. And neither the U.S. nor Germany will admit to the existence of such a facility.
In 2013, President Obama gave a speech at National Defense University where he stated: “before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.” But in those same remarks he added that “it is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties” and that those deaths “will haunt us as long as we live”. While those deaths may haunt the President and those in military and intelligence communities both here and abroad, they have traumatized and likely riled up families, neighborhoods and public sentiment in multiple countries. So much for winning the hearts and minds of people.
“It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes — sometimes deadly mistakes — can occur,” said the President last week. “But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.”
One of our greatest imperfections in recent times has been our inability to acknowledge and take responsibility for innocent casualties from our drone strikes. If we are to confront squarely our mistakes as the President so aptly stated, perhaps the families of drone victims deserve an apology and some sort of restitution.
After all, President Obama’s legacy may very well depend on it – as may the legacy of the United States itself.
written by Independent Journalist Nida Khan Follow her on twitter @NidaKhanNY