MINNEAPOLIS — As President Barack Obama reaches the final stages of his presidency, for the general public, he will most likely be remembered for denuclearizing Iran and opening the door back up to Cuba. But will the Drone King also be remembered for normalizing targeted killings as a pillar of U.S. counter-terror policy?
On his third day in office, Obama authorized two drone strikes in Pakistan, killing over a dozen civilians.
It set the tone for an administration that’s killed thousands by weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles, the vast majority of whom did nothing to deserve their fate except for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; the vast majority of whom the U.S. fails to recognize as victims in the ever-expanding “war on terror.”
Perhaps that’s why, when it was announced in October 2009 that Obama would be that year’s recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, the president himself said he was “surprised” and felt undeserving of the award.
After all, he’d been in office for less than a year. And in that year, the U.S. was fighting two wars. Most of the Nobel Committee’s consideration of the green president revolved on campaign promises of helping to build a more peaceful world by scaling down U.S. militarism — promises distilled into two words: “Change” and “Hope.”
Let’s go back to look at those first two drone strikes, on January 23, 2009.
The first CIA drone flattened a house. Despite initial reports that the attack was a success, killing as many as 10 militants, including foreign fighters and possibly even a “high-value target,” later reports revealed something else: at least nine civilians were killed.
The lone survivor, Fahim Qureshi, suffered severe injuries — shrapnel wounds in his abdomen, a fractured skull, a lost eye. He was 14.
The second drone strike of the day killed five to ten people — all civilians.
This loss of innocent human life didn’t deter the Nobel Peace Prize winner from continuing to authorize drone strikes throughout both terms of his presidency. Even today, weaponized drones continue to rain down death and destruction as part of CIA efforts or other covert operations. These attacks have occurred most notably in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan, though coalition airstrikes have occurred in Iraq and Syria, as well.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism maintains an active database of reported drone strikes and casualties in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. The bureau’s figures largely come from news sources and NGOs operating in these countries, not the official government figures that grossly misrepresent the deaths of civilians as “enemies killed in action.”
Since 2004, according to the bureau, Pakistan has been hit with the most drone strikes — an astounding 423. The vast majority of those strikes were authorized not by Dubya, who first got the drone program off the ground, but by the Nobel laureate himself, President Barack Obama.
In fact, the Bureau notes: “More strikes were launched during President Obama’s first year in office than during both terms of the Bush presidency.” Not quite the “Change” and “Hope” voters were expecting.
According to Pitch Interactive, of the 3,341 people have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, “Less than 2% of the victims are high-profile targets. The rest are civilians, children and alleged combatants.”
The Intercept provides an even more damn ing indictment of Obama’s drone program in its series called the Drone Papers, and in Jeremy Scahill’s recent book “The Assassination Complex.”
Scahill’s team at the Intercept analyzed classified documents provided to the organization by a whistleblower, who exposed the inner workings of Obama’s “drone wars.” Those documents highlight the program’s expansion of unconventional warfare both on and off “declared battlefields,” as well as an alarming lack of transparency and due process.
Drones, Scahill writes, “are a tool, not a policy. The policy is assassination.”
Indeed, the horrifying reality is that in this system devoid of transparency and accountability, innocent civilians are dying in far higher numbers than the “imminent threats” the drones are supposed to be targeting.
The leaked documents, which cover Operation Haymaker in northeastern Afghanistan, reveal that “during one five-month period of the operation … nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets.” And the ratios may be much higher in Yemen and Somalia, where intelligence is more limited.
Speaking to Shadowproof’s Kevin Gosztola, Scahill explained the dehumanizing way in which drones seek and destroy their targets:
In addition to being dehumanizing, Obama’s drone wars rely on unreliable data and metadata — something even the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Task Force, a Pentagon entity, has acknowledged. In a secret 2013 report leaked to the Intercept, the ISR stated bluntly: “Kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available.”
Aside from the obvious failings in intelligence, and without even broaching the morality of targeted killing campaigns, the drone wars operate in a hazy legal context. In 2013, Obama put forth policy guidelines that were theoretically meant to stop, or at least curtail, the use of drones. But, as Trevor Timm wrote for The Guardian last year, “it has become increasingly clear that the ‘rules’ are virtually meaningless and the Obama administration is setting a terrifying precedent for the next president who can change or expand them on a whim.”
Now, you’re probably thinking, “Ok, but drone strikes must at least be conducted within the framework of international law.” Actually, they’re also in contravention of international humanitarian and human rights law, as Amanda Bass and J. Celso Castro Alves point out in a Truth-Out report on divesting from drone manufacturers. They further note that “U.S. targeted killings arguably fit under the definition of crimes against humanity as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.”
But how could this possibly be? Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner!
Well, even Geir Lundestad, the former non-voting Director of the Nobel Institute, wrote in his 2015 memoirs that awarding Obama the prize was “only partially correct” and “did not achieve what the committee had hoped for.”
In announcing the deliberately vague, and thus mostly useless, guidelines on drone use in 2013, Obama said: “It is a hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, a risk that exists in every war. And for the families of those civilians, no words or legal construct can justify their loss.”
Of course, there is nothing that can soothe the pain of a grieving family. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. A good place to start might be in bringing an end to the program that’s normalized targeted killings as a pillar of U.S. counter-terror policy and pushing harder for greater transparency and accountability.
Hopefully the “Change” Obama promised is on the horizon.
Learn more about Obama’s assassination policy; Media censorship & war on whistleblowers:
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