In this op-ed, Azmia Magane explores President Barack Obama’s legacy of drone warfare.
In February, Newsweekreported that great numbers of young people worldwide ages 15 to 21 cited “terrorism” and “violent extremism” as their biggest concerns, followed by continued warfare.
These are valid and legitimate concerns: The United States has been involved in wars for more than half of its existence. Despite this long history, President Barack Obama was the first president in history to be at war every single day of both of his terms.
Obama inherited President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” that began in 2001, after the horrific 9/11 attacks and included the invasion of Afghanistan and the war on Iraq in 2003. By the time Obama took office, many agreed that the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary; in 2004, the secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, had declared the U.S.-led war on Iraq as breaking the UN charter and illegal. In fact, a report by the United Kingdom released in 2016 showed that both the American and U.K. governments were given intelligence reports that cautioned war with Iraq could cause massive instability, societal collapse, and could actually worsen terrorism, and that they were aware of this before making the decision to go to war. Yet both George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair proceeded.
Obama continued — and expanded upon — the Bush administration’s catastrophe. In 2013, an Iraqi refugee filed a motion in U.S. courts against President Bush and his administration’s architects of the war for the consequences that she and her family suffered as result of the Iraqi invasion. In response, the Obama administration filed a petition to grant Bush and his administration immunity against all civil and criminal charges related to the war in Iraq — less than a week before Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for exposing war crimes in Iraq. (She has since been released in May, after receiving a commutation from Obama before he left office.). And in February 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Bush and his executive branch “were entitled to official immunity.”
While Obama’s warfare methodology focused on eliminating the presence of American ground troops in foreign countries, it did nothing to eliminate American interventions or wars altogether. His attempts at reducing “boots on the ground” (and thus American casualties) led to an increased reliance on airstrikes, some say.
Under Obama — in 2016 alone — the United States bombed seven countries: Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, with a total of 26,172 bombs dropped, according to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations.
It’s not uncommon for civilians to be killed during “targeted” drone strikes like the ones ordered by Obama that killed Weinstein and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. But civilian casualties at the hands of the U.S. are difficult to track due to a lack of transparency and what seems to be the manipulation of numbers. In 2012, The New York Times reported that, according to administration officials, calculations of civilian casualties classified all males of “military-age” in strike zones as “combatants” by default.
In 2014, the Council on Foreign Relations found that 500 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia killed an estimated 3,674 people; 450 of the 500 strikes were authorized by Obama. Reprieve, a human-rights group, used data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and found that attempts to kill 41 militants in Pakistan and Yemen resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,147 people — some of them children.
The analysis from Reprieve also reported that in Pakistan, 874 people were killed in attempts to target some 24 militants, including an estimated 142 children. Only six of those militants were killed. In Yemen, 17 militants were targeted in multiple strikes, with a total of 273 people killed, including some children — but not all of the targets were killed in those strikes, either. In 2013, one drone strike in Yemen hit a wedding party whose vehicles were mistaken for those of militants, according to Yemeni officials.
U.S. officials still haven’t commented on the strike, but the government has acknowledged offering money to victims and families when civilians are killed. The victims of the wedding party strike and their families later received payouts from Yemen’s government, according to a Washington Post report.
The Intercept‘s 2015 report, “The Drone Papers” — based on (unverified) classified documents that were leaked — suggested that 90 percent of those killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan during a five-month period were not the intended targets.
Naturally, extremists have used these killings as cannon fodder to justify their own horrific acts targeting civilians. Reports suggest that militants have used both the killing of civilians and the lack of transparency that comes with it as recruitment tools. Faisal Shahzad, the would-be bomber who pled guilty to attempting to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Time Square in 2010, told the judge at his arraignment, “Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody.”
Despite all the criticism — including the valid criticism that killing civilians creates more extremism — Obama has defended drone warfare and its remote-controlled killings. During remarks at the University of Chicago Law School in 2016, the then-president stated, “What I can say with great certainty is that the rate of civilian casualties in any drone operation are far lower than the rate of civilian casualties that occur in conventional war.”
Despite his bombardment of multiple Muslim-majority countries, critics like now-president Donald Trump implied that Obama was a “secret Muslim,” and senator Ted Cruz called him an “apologist” for terrorism, due to his ability to publicly differentiate between Muslims and terrorists. But Obama’s drones showed no such ability to differentiate between the two. His administration set dangerous precedents that are now in the (small) hands of an inexperienced, impulsive, and untruthful commander-in-chief.
According to an analysis by the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trump administration has already approved at least 36 drone strikes in just a few short months, compared to the total of 542 approved during Obama’s eight years in office. Recent strikes in Syria seem to suggest that Trump has begun to target entire families, just as he stated on the campaign trail. On May 25 and 26, the U.K.-based organization, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, alleged that U.S.-led strikes hit a compound in Syria known to house the families of ISIS fighters, reportedly killing at least 106 people. 42 of them children, according to the Washington Post. A spokesperson for the Pentagon confirmed that they’re still assessing the “results” of coalition air strikes that took place on those dates, and that they take “seriously” any allegations of civilian casualties. On May 25, the Pentagon admitted that an air strike in Mosul, Iraq, back in March left at least 105 civilians dead.
Civilians living in conflict areas are not at fault. They are doubly at risk: They must dodge attacks by groups like ISIS while also fleeing Western bombs. If the majority of young people in the United States — hardly a conflict zone — are concerned about terror attacks, violent extremism, and continued warfare, just imagine how young people in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere must feel.
Killing civilians should be a bipartisan issue that the American people should not tolerate. It is with our tax dollars that these civilians — including children — are killed. In March, Trump proposed to increase the military budget by $54 billion. How is it that our government can afford continuous warfare, where civilians die, but cannot afford to house, feed, and insure our own people here in America? What is done by our government, in our name, should require complete and total transparency. Should our government continually commit war crimes — even if remote-controlled — they become no different and no better than the groups they are fighting.