Obama’s drone war: too many mistakes, too little contrition

Ilustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Ilustration by Pep Montserrat for The National

An American citizen was among the victims of a US drone strike abroad. President Barack Obama did not take to the podium, did not give a laudatory obituary for the dead American, did not express his regret. In fact, the Obama administration took almost two years to even acknowledge its role in the death, but without any explanation other than to suggest, in anonymous comments to the press, that the American was collateral damage in a legitimate attack.

This was not 2015, and the American citizen was not Warren Weinstein, the elderly aid worker killed in captivity in Pakistan during a January drone strike, whose death prompted Mr Obama to begin a press conference last week by expressing “grief and condolences”. This US citizen, whose death has still not been explained, was 16 years old. His name was Abdulrahman Al Awlaki.

Al Awlaki died in a drone strike – itself an anodyne euphemism for a missile attack – in Yemen in October 2011. Two weeks earlier, his father Anwar, a suspected terrorist with American roots, was killed in another attack, despite never being charged with a crime. In May 2013, the Obama administration finally took responsibility for killing the younger Al Awlaki. And yet it offered up no rationale beyond saying that Abdulrahman Al Awlaki had not been “specifically targeted and killed”.

That same year, journalist Jeremy Scahill reported that Mr Obama was “surprised and upset and wanted an explanation” for young Alwaki’s death. The public has not been offered any explanation at all – and neither has Alwaki’s family, which has sued the US government to no avail. An internal CIA review, launched by the agency’s now-chief John Brennan, even looked into whether Abdulrahman Al Awlaki’s killing was intentional. But, save Scahill’s reporting, the review’s existence, let alone its conclusions, remain shrouded in secrecy.

The accidental deaths of Weinstein and another Al Qaeda hostage, Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto, marked what The New York Times called “a searing moment in a drone war that has come to define the nation’s battle with Al Qaeda, especially since President Obama took office”.

Mr Obama wrestled publicly with the deaths: “I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni,” he said. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”

How must Nasser Al Awlaki, Abdulrahman’s grandfather, feel hearing those words? Where, he must ask, are Mr Obama’s apologies to him? How, he must wonder, did this moment of reckoning not arrive with Abdulrahman’s death in 2011? Instead, Nasser Al Alwaki’s campaign for justice, and for better policies in the war on terror, have been met with contempt and stonewalling by the US government.

Indeed, this latest chapter appears poised to do just as little to change the course of Mr Obama’s covert war of targeted killings as did Al Awlaki’s case. “Our initial assessment indicates that this operation was fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism efforts in the region,” Mr Obama said.

Vowing to continue the drone war, a US defence official dismissively told The Daily Beast, of Weinstein’s death: “It’s a war. Tragedies unfortunately happen.” And the administration promised that if the “lessons” of a final review pointed to reforms, they would be made. But the history of failing to implement even modest reforms doesn’t inspire optimism.

The similarities between the deaths of Warren Weinstein and Abdulrahman Al Awlaki are striking. Al Awlaki, like Weinstein, died in a so-called “signature strike” – the name given to missile attacks by drones where, instead of targeting specific suspects, they target patterns of behaviour or known terrorist hideouts.

In these circumstances, US intelligence can be in the dark about who is in the crosshairs. Just as Al Awlaki’s death caught American officials unaware, intelligence officials reportedly did not know that innocents were in the alleged Al Qaeda compound when it was attacked, leading to Weinstein’s death.

The compound where Weinstein died at his own government’s hands had been under surveillance for hundreds of hours, according to the New York Times. But the surveillance was imperfect: it took weeks for American intelligence to confirm Weinstein’s death after the fact.

So the US isn’t flying blind, but it is firing blind, unaware of who it is firing at. The result is a deadly twist on Russian roulette, where the mystery isn’t which chamber has the bullet, but who the barrel of the gun is pointed at. The consequences have been devastating: Micah Zenko, a Council on Foreign Relations expert, was quoted as saying after the president’s press conference that “most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names”.

What’s more, policy experts like Zenko and human rights advocates have been raising these targeting problems for years now; Abdulrahman Al Awlaki’s death was but one data point in a growing history of what can only be described as a string of the most severe kind of mistakes a government can commit.

Confoundingly, Mr Obama has said that, despite this sorry state of affairs, he carries out his covert war seeking “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured”. But the record of civilian deaths – one that must involve guesswork because of the lack of transparency – tells another story.

The Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which tallies civilian deaths using open-source data, has found that, since the early 2000s, as many as 1,270 civilians have been killed by secret US military action in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – none of which the US is officially at war in.

Few of the civilian casualties of Mr Obama’s targeted killing programmes have had their deaths acknowledged. Even fewer merited apologies. What must their families think when they see Mr Obama apologising to the families of two westerners accidentally killed? How hollow must they have found Mr Obama’s remark last week that “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”?

Mr Obama has not confronted most of these civilian deaths, but in his contrition for two of them, he invoked all their memories. The only near-certainty in the drone war seems to be that it will continue unabated, no matter how many mistakes are made, and whether they’re acknowledged or not.

Ali Gharib is an independent journalist

On Twitter: @Ali_Gharib

Published: May 2, 2015 04:00 AM

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