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Time to Rethink the Drone War

In light of the 17 civilians killed by a recent drone strike in Afghanistan, as Americans, we must come to grips with an uncomfortable truth. American intervention in the Middle East over the last 7 years has not achieved the stated aims of stemming terrorism. To the contrary. Our low regard for civilian deaths has been and continues to be a leading proponent in creating “terrorists”. It’s time for an alternative.

In his book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, historian Andrew Bacevich makes the provocative statement,

“As an American who cares greatly about the fate of this country, I should state plainly my own assessment of this ongoing war, now well into its fourth decade. We have not won it. We are not winning it. Simply trying harder is unlikely to produce a different outcome.”

It’s hard to argue with him. In the 15 months since the bombing campaign started against ISIL, the U.S. Air Force has fired 20,000 missiles against ISIL targets. There have been so many airstrikes, the U.S. Air Force has issued a warning that it’s running out of bombs. At the start of the air campaign, ISIL was estimated to have an overall force of 20,000 fighters. The Defense Department is estimating that they’ve killed 20,000 fighters, yet the current estimate of ISIL’s overall strength remains 20,000.  It’s an evidentiary indictment of failure.  

It’s important to understand the context. The Bush administration illegally invaded Iraq based on the lie that a link existed between Saddam and 9/11. We killed, by low estimates 500,000 civilians, destabilizing the region, arguably leading to the formation of ISIL.  In a 2003 interview with ABC, Bush candidly admitted that the terrorist organization Al Qaeda was nonexistent in Iraq before the entry of American troops.  America’s presence drew the terrorist to Iraq, not the other way around.

Obama took the helm in 2008 with the goal of decreasing material resources to the Middle East, while maintaining America’s projection of power; the tool of choice being an expansion of the Bush administration’s drone program. Iraq and Afghanistan get most of the attention, but the “War on Terror” is being prosecuted across multiple Muslim countries; Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Syria.  Obama’s problem however is the same as Bush’s; causalities. A report by the Intercept revealed 90% of the people killed by recent drone strikes in Afghanistan were civilians. The results aren’t much better across the rest of the Middle East.

Seeming to acknowledge the problem, at least rhetorically, in 2013 President Obama announced that a lethal strike against a “terrorist” will not take place “without near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”  Acquiescing when confronted with reports of rising civilian deaths, Obama loosened those restrictions, saying the bombing in Iraq and Syria are not held to the ‘near-certainty’ standard. In effect, killing innocent Iraqis and Syrians does not factor into our calculations. They don’t matter. Had this came from the Bush administration , Democrats across the United States would’ve set themselves on fire in protest. But it’s Obama. We trust him.

Despite loosening standards, the Obama administration claims very few civilians have been killed. This is disingenuous at best. The administration considers all teenage boys  in the zone of attack to be “militants” and as such fair game. Independent sources place innocent deaths in the hundreds if you limit the campaign to ISIS. The number spikes to thousands if you include the entirety of the Middle East. To put the problem in gross perspective. Attempts to execute 41 specific people on Obama’s kill list resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1147.

The administration’s policies are more onerous than the flat data suggest. In prosecuting undeclared war across the Middle East, Obama employs various drone kill strategies.

  1. Double Taps. A drone attacks a target. When responders reach the blast site, another missile is launched to kill medical and rescue personnel.  
  2. Signature Strikes. Drone strikes that target behavior at a site, not a specific person.
  3. Death by Metadata. This strategy targets metadata from from cell phones.

The flaw in each is substantively related to why Obama’s strategy in the Middle East is marked by failure. The people in the blast radius – mothers, fathers, and children – are largely unknown, and all too often innocent.

A civilian on the ground in Raqqa (Syria) painfully exclaimed,

‘Not everyone who lives in Raqqa approves of ISIL. I am a citizen of Raqqa and I refused to leave my hometown just like many others did … What the world needs to know is that we live under ISIL control on the ground, and constant airstrikes from the sky. We are trapped.”

He has a point. The ultimate point. War is not without its politics, and American Middle Eastern policy implies the not so subtle argument that incineration by America is preferable to beheading by the sword. This is a consistently losing argument littered with two problematic ironies. In trying to appear strong on defense, Obama weakly capitulated to neo-conservative framing that force is the only answer to terrorism. And in fighting terror with force, we engage in state sponsored terrorism abroad that creates deep and reasonable resentment in the population, driving them to the very people we’re fighting. Motivated not by religiosity, but resistance. You kill my mom – you’re intentions don’t matter. I’m joining the only thing striking back.