“Throughout America’s War on Terror, whistleblowers have been warning that drone strikes have frequently killed people who were neither terrorists nor insurgents, just innocent civilians trying to survive in a war zone.
Over the weekend, in a detailed, heavily reported two-part story, The New York Times documented how Washington’s “precision drone strikes” have been anything but precise. Not only did they repeatedly kill innocents, including children, but more often than not the military failed to examine adequately why these mistakes were made, failed to correct its procedures, and failed to hold anybody accountable.
When an ill-advised August drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed aid worker Zamari Ahmadi and nine of members of his family (including seven children), military officials first insisted the strike had hit terrorists plotting to attack the airport as American troops were leaving the country. Only after the media began investigating the strike did the truth came out. Yet last week, the Pentagon announced that no troops involved in the misbegotten strike would be disciplined. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “What we saw here was a breakdown in process, and execution in procedural events, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership.”
An alternative way to read that quote, based on the massive Times report from the weekend, is that what happened to Ahmadi and his family was an example of how America’s drone program actually works. It has not, in fact, operated as a tool to surgically take out ISIS terrorist leaders and destroy individual cells, as Americans have been told again and again. The military will admit to killing at least 1,300 civilians in these strikes. That’s just the number of civilians documented in Pentagon reports the Times analyzed. The actual (uncertain) number of civilian deaths due to drone strikes is much higher—between 22,000 and 48,000.”
“Airwars, an independent nonprofit that tracks strikes and casualties in conflict areas like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, provides regular assessments of civilian deaths. And in their latest data which spans the first year of Biden’s presidency, civilian deaths and strikes plunged in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.
The differences are striking, even keeping in mind we’re comparing just one year of Biden’s presidency with four years of President Donald Trump and eight years of President Barack Obama.
During the length of Trump’s four-year presidency, Airwars documented more than 16,000 air and artillery military strikes in Iraq and Syria, which itself was a decline of more than 1,500 strikes when compared to Obama’s second term. During Biden’s first year, there have been 39 total military strikes spread between both countries.
Alleged civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria skyrocketed under Trump’s four years in office to more than 13,000 compared to 5,600 during Obama’s second term. Thus far, Airwars reports only 10 under the Biden administration. There have been no reported civilian deaths in Somalia thus far during Biden’s term, compared to 134 under Trump and 42 under Obama over both of his terms. Strikes in Yemen, which had declined each year throughout Trump’s administration, have dropped to just four this year (Airwars did not provide civilian deaths for Yemen).
This follows reporting earlier this year that Biden had quietly imposed restrictions on the use of drone strikes outside of active war zones. Trump had eased restrictions and allowed the military and CIA to decide when to strike, thus explaining the dramatic increase in strikes and civilian deaths in Somalia during his term. Biden is now requiring the White House to vet and approve these strikes, for now, until the administration sets up new formal policies (about which we know very little, but observers hope will require more procedures to ensure that civilians aren’t killed).”
“As commander in chief, Biden is still operating under the authority of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which, on paper, grants the president only authority to bring the military to bear against those responsible for the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but in reality has been used by multiple U.S. presidents to authorize very broad military interventions throughout the world.
Furthermore, the 2002 AUMF, which directly authorized the military invasion of Iraq, is still in force. The House voted in June to repeal the 2002 AUMF, but that repeal hasn’t passed the Senate yet. We still have thousands of troops in Iraq and are currently planning to keep them there indefinitely. The plan is that these troops will serve as logistics and advisory help for Iraq’s government, but they will most definitely still be involved in fights against the Islamic State.
We may have pulled troops out of Somalia, but we’re still performing airstrikes there against Al Qaida affiliate al-Shabab. In June, the Pentagon announced that it is considering putting troops right back in there.
And none of that gets into the countless—well, not countless, but the numbers are deliberately concealed from the American public—drone strikes in places like Somalia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Libya. We don’t really have data on drone use under the Biden administration yet, save the disastrous one from late August in Kabul that killed 10 civilians, including 7 children. Biden has reportedly quietly implemented stricter rules on the use of drones outside of war zones and the White House is evaluating the legal and policy “frameworks” for continuing to use them.
Biden might not see all of this piecemeal military intervention as “war,” but let’s be clear here: We’re talking about thousands of U.S. troops overseas involved in potentially killing armed combatants. And Biden currently still has congressional permission to wage war.”
“Over the past 20 years, the U.S. has launched more than 13,000 drone strikes in Afghanistan. We don’t really know for certain how many people have been killed, let alone how many of those people were civilians and not terrorists. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism tracked the drone war in Afghanistan up until February 2020. It calculates that between 4,000 and 10,000 deaths in Afghanistan were from drone strikes. Of those, it says, between 300 and 900 were civilians and somewhere between 66 and 184 were children.
These wide variances in these estimates reflect the lack of transparency and reliable data. It wasn’t until the last couple of years of President Barack Obama’s administration that the Pentagon even provided data about drone strikes. And then President Donald Trump’s administration ended that practice.”
“The evidence increasingly indicates that a U.S. drone strike that took place outside Kabul as America withdrew from Afghanistan killed not a terrorist but an aid worker, along with nine other civilians, including several children.
On August 29, the U.S. military launched a strike on what Central Command said was a vehicle transporting explosives on behalf of the Islamic State. According to the Pentagon, the target posed an “imminent” threat to the Kabul Airport. This was just days after suicide bombers killed at least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops, and tensions were high.
A military spokesperson said there were “significant secondary explosions” as a result of the drone hit. Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it a “righteous strike” that foiled a potential attack.
In reality, that strike hit a car that had been driven by humanitarian aid worker Zamari Ahmadi. Ahmadi was killed, along with two other adults and seven children. And follow-up media investigations are casting serious doubt on the military’s account.
Credit both The New York Times and The Washington Post for reconstructing what actually happened. The Times has assembled an account of Ahmadi’s final day, with the help of security surveillance footage, to show that what military intelligence may have assumed as suspicious behavior was Ahmadi’s typical work. He worked for Nutrition and Education International, a California-based charity, and the sedan belonged to the organization. He is seen on camera loading the back of his white sedan with not explosives, but containers of water. The president of his group has denied that Ahmadi had any connections with the Islamic State.
Even more damning is what both the Post and the Times heard from experts analyzing the wreckage of the drone strike. Ahmadi’s car was hit by a Hellfire missile with a 20-pound payload. The damage to the car and the courtyard where he was parked matched the amount of destruction associated with the missile, but the evidence that there were explosives in the car is sorely lacking. According to eyewitnesses, the “significant secondary explosions” did not take place.”
“The drone strike seemed to have been carried out with about as much evidence that it would require for a police officer in the United States to get a search warrant.”
“The military was tracking communications it believed were from Islamic State terrorists. And the day after Ahmadi was killed, the Times reports, Islamic State terrorists did launch a rocket attack toward the airport from a neighborhood Ahmadi had traveled through the previous day. The vehicle they launched the attack from was a white Toyota, a sedan that looked a lot like Ahmadi’s. Did they get the cars mixed up during surveillance?”
“We have no idea how frequently these types of seemingly mistaken strikes happen, partly because the military has been deliberately secretive and partly because what information we’ve gotten has not been trustworthy. Outside observers estimate that between 300 and 900 civilians killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan during the two decades Americans were there. There have been dozens, possibly even hundreds, of strikes like this.”
“A federal judge has sentenced a leaker to prison for helping keep Americans informed about abuses being perpetrated in their name.
Daniel Hale is a former Air Force intelligence analyst who revealed how America’s secret drone assassinations in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia were likely killing untold numbers of innocent people. On Tuesday he was sentenced to 45 months in prison after he previously pleaded guilty to passing along classified documents to a reporter that were subsequently published in 2015.”
“The government insisted that its secret “kill list” of terrorists was carefully vetted, and the drone strikes were only deployed to kill those the government and military believed it was unfeasible to arrest.
The reality, Hale revealed, was the drone strikes regularly resulted in the death of innocents, and the government covered it up by automatically classifying anybody killed as “militants” even when they weren’t the targets of the strikes. This allowed the government to insist that civilian casualties were being kept to a minimum.”
“The feds finally caught up with Hale in 2019 and arrested him, charging him with espionage. After the arrest, Hale pleaded guilty and essentially threw himself at the mercy of the court, acknowledging that he violated the law while refusing to apologize for it. In a lengthy handwritten letter to U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady, Hale described an incident where a drone strike he helped arrange failed to kill its target (an Afghan man allegedly involved in making car bombs) and instead killed his 5-year-old daughter. He wrote, “Now, whenever I encounter an individual who thinks that drone warfare is justified and reliably keeps America safe, I remember that time and ask myself how I could possibly believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness.””
“The documentation matters. The Washington Post notes that Hale’s leaking of documentation showing how the government put people on secret terrorism watchlists helped civil rights lawyers fight for due process for their clients.
Hale is yet another case where the federal government has used espionage laws not to punish spies who reveal classified information to our country’s enemies, but to punish people who reveal the government’s unethical and illegal behavior to our country’s own citizens.”
“The Turkish military’s devastating display of power against the Syrian army last week — which saw the destruction of hundreds of regime tanks, artillery pieces and armored vehicles — came from a cheap but effective domestic drone program that NATO officials say has changed the military equation against Russia in Syria’s Idlib Province.
The confrontation began in late February. Syrian regime forces, backed by Russian air support and “special forces advisors”, began to push into Idlib, the last major area held by rebels against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s regime. Syria’s civil war has lasted nearly a decade.”
“Turkey’s response was to send thousands of regular army units into Idlib to prevent the pocket’s collapse.”
“Turkey has a new ace up its sleeve, one that forced Russia to think twice about escalating against President Recep Erdogan’s government, military sources told Insider.
Turkey’s offensive was conducted with about 100 domestically produced drones launching cheap guided munitions with deadly efficiency.”
“US policies restricting sales of armed drone technology to Turkey out of concerns the technology would be used on Kurdish targets as critical to the development of a domestic program. By 2007 the Turkish military had tired of limitations on what it could buy from the Americans. Disappointed by the poor performance of Israeli drones on the market, it then began to develop their own program.”
“While Turkey guards the exact cost of producing the Bayraktar TB2 as a state secret, it sold 12 drones and three ground command centers to Ukraine last year for $69 million. At less than $6 million per drone, the TB2 is about a third of the cost of the similarly capable US produced Reaper MQ-9, which retails for US allies at about $16 million a piece.”