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Usaid Siddiqui

Obama's flimsy claims over civilian drone casualties

From Pakistan to Yemen, public uproar against America’s loose drone policy has been unanimous [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 July, 2016

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Comment: US drone strikes are killing innocent men, women and children. They are mired in controversy and only serve to stoke further violence, aiding America's enemies, writes Usaid Saddiqui.

A long awaited report on civilians killed by US military and CIA drone strikes was released on Friday 1 July by the White House. The report claimed that approximately 64-116 (between January 20th 2009-Dec 31st 2015) innocent people were killed in drone strikes that took place in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The move came as calls for more transparency around the technology have become louder over the course of Obama's two term presidency. 

"The president believes that our counterterrorism strategy is more effective when we're as transparent as possible" White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

However, hard questions are being raised about the accuracy of the report; as independent organisations claim the number of civilians killed is a lot higher. Considering the ambiguity around who is legitimate target and who isn't, drone attacks have been mired in controversy, often described as a tool of collective punishment that only helps to stoke more violence.

Independent research

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), the range of civilian casualty numbers provided by the Obama administration is only a "fraction" of civilians killed in the 473 drone strikes in the period specified by the White House. The TBIJ states that 380-801 civilians have been killed in these drone strikes, a figure that is six times higher than the Obama administration's estimate.

"Since becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama has significantly extended the use of drones in the War on Terror", wrote Bureau reporter Jack Serle who proclaims that most of these strikes have occurred outside "declared battle zones" (Iraq and Afghanistan) in Pakistan and Yemen. In addition, Serle points out that the US figures also did not include strikes conducted before the Obama era under George Bush, which reportedly killed 174 people.

According to officials in the Obama administration, all military-age males in a strike zone are considered combatants, explaining in part why the White House has adamantly claimed a low number of civilian casualties

An independent study jointly conducted by Stanford Law school and New York University have supported the findings of the TBIJ, claiming that the popular US government justifications that drones are precise and help American efforts to defeat terrorism are "false".

The study - a nine-month long exercise that derived its results from numerous media reports, government sources and victim testimonies - criticises the US government's refusal to acknowledge the death of civilians throughout most of Obama's two four-year terms; calling it "emblematic of an accountability and democratic vacuum".

Often, the White House or the CIA has failed to identify those killed in these strikes, only making their claims on minimal civilian casualties more conspicuous. A classified CIA report in 2013 showed that many of the people targeted were simply designated as "other militants" and "foreign fighters", with no evidence provided that these combatants were a threat to the American people. In a series of papers leaked to the online news publication The Intercept, the documents show that nearly 90 percent of those killed in these attacks were unintended targets.

Collective punishment

According to officials in the Obama administration, all military-age males in a strike zone are considered combatants, explaining in part why the White House has adamantly claimed a low number of civilian casualties. 

"Al-Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization - innocent neighbors don't hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs," said one administration official, to The New York Times. In using such parameters and guilt by association tactics, the administration is essentially holding a whole population responsible for the crimes of a small minority, collectively punishing thousands for actions they didn't commit or intended to carry out in the future.

In a series of papers leaked to the online news publication The Intercept, the documents show that nearly 90 percent of those killed in these attacks were unintended targets

This reality becomes even more egregious when one looks at the example of the tribal areas of Pakistan (a region with one of the highest numbers of drone strikes) where a draconian colonial legacy of collective punishment exists to this day.

The American mainstream media has readily accepted this narrative, often peddling government propaganda labelling all those killed as militants, and relying on US military and White house sources for its reporting. This narrative only helps to absolve the Obama administration of any blame; as US audiences are primed to believe anyone in the vicinity of a US strike zone was directly or indirectly aiding America's enemies.

Increased anti-Americanism

Whether in Pakistan or Yemen, public uproar against America's loose drone policy has been unanimous. To this effect, some of the most damning indictments of the programme have come from US military personnel themselves, who fear that drones are only helping to exacerbate anti-American sentiment.

Retired General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command in Afghanistan, and an avid supporter of the War on Terror said: "The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes... is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who've never seen one or seen the effects of one."

'An unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population' wrote journalist Sudarsan Raghavan in 2012

The General's words ring true when recalling the December 2013 bombing of a wedding caravan in Yemen. The event sparked outrage in the country when 12 people were killed due to US drone operators mistaking the caravan for an al-Qaeda convoy. Yemini activist Farea Al-Muslimi says "It is far from the only instance of the US indirectly assisting al-Qaeda's PR machine - and even its human resources department".

"An unintended consequence of the attacks has been a marked radicalization of the local population" wrote journalist Sudarsan Raghavan in 2012, based on over a dozen interviews with tribal leaders, human rights activists and local officials in Southern Yemen. The research revealed that "a strong shift in sentiment toward militants" affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

In the 15-year-old "War on Terror", where winning the hearts and minds of Muslims is often touted as a primary goal, the Americans are clearly losing on that front; as innocent men, women and children in some of the poorest areas in the world see their lives being gambled so recklessly.


Usaid Siddiqui is a Canadian freelance writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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