US drone war un­der scru­tiny af­ter botched strike


U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­mis­sion Thurs­day that a drone strike accidentally took the lives of two hostages has raised fresh ques­tions about the lim­its and the risks of the coun­try’s “tar­geted killing” cam­paign.

Since tak­ing of­fice in 2009, Obama has re­lied heav­ily on drone raids to hunt down al-Qaida lead­ers and other Is­lamist ex­trem­ists from Pak­istan’s tribal ar­eas to So­ma­lia and Ye­men.

But the botched strike re­vealed that the U.S. had no idea an Amer­i­can aid worker, War­ren We­in­stein, and an Ital­ian hu­man­i­tar­ian, Gio­vanni Lo Porto, were in the same com­pound as al-Qaida mil­i­tants when the drone raid was launched in Jan­uary.

The White House also ad­mit­ted that U.S. in­tel­li­gence was flawed for an­other drone strike at about the same time, which killed two U.S. cit­i­zens who were al-Qaida op­er­a­tives but who Wash­ing­ton did not know were present.

“I think this is go­ing to push the de­bate about the ef­fec­tive­ness of drones,” said Seth Jones, a for­mer ad­viser to U.S. spe­cial forces and a fel­low at the RAND Cor­po­ra­tion.

Hu­man rights groups and some law­mak­ers have long ques­tioned the le­gal­ity and the moral­ity of the drone air war, cit­ing es­ti­mates of thou­sands of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties caused by the strikes. Mil­i­tary ex­perts have cast doubt on the ul­ti­mate ef­fect of the raids on ex­trem- ist groups.

“It just adds to the con­cerns about the use of drone strikes,” Jones told AFP. “There has been no ma­jor ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion in the world that has been de­feated by drones.”

The White House promised the mis­take would be thor­oughly in­ves­ti­gated but in­sisted that the drone pro­gram was cru­cial and car­ried out un­der new rules set out two years ago by Obama. The U.S. pres­i­dent has por­trayed the new pro­to­cols as a way to im­pose bound­aries on the covert as­sas­si­na­tion cam­paign.

‘Near cer­tainty’

The Jan­uary strike that ended trag­i­cally was in keep­ing with the new rules, which re­quire of­fi­cials to have “near cer­tainty” that al-Qaida mil­i­tants are present and that civil­ians will not be en­dan­gered, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told re­porters.

The “near cer­tainty as­sess­ment” that no civil­ians would be harmed turned out to be in­cor­rect, he said, lead­ing to “this tragic, un­in­tended con­se­quence.”

Be­fore the strike, there were “hun­dreds of hours of sur­veil­lance” car­ried out on the al-Qaida com­pound, Earnest said. This in­cluded “near con­tin­u­ous sur­veil­lance in the days lead­ing up to the op­er­a­tion.”

U.S. law­mak­ers said Congress will need to take a closer look at how the strike went wrong but most de­fended the tac­tic as a suc­cess­ful way of tak­ing out ter­ror sus­pects.

“I blame the al-Qaida ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion for their deaths, not the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment,” said Se­na­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham.

The Repub­li­can se­na­tor said he felt “ter­ri­ble” for the hostages killed “but we’re at war and we’ve got to keep pros­e­cut­ing this war.”

He added: “The drone pro­gram has been a good tac­ti­cal weapon in the war on ter­ror and I am all for keep­ing it.”

Se­na­tor Dianne Fe­in­stein called for more trans­parency, say­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion should is­sue an an­nual re­port on the num­ber of mil­i­tants and civil­ians killed in the drone op­er­a­tions.

Un­named Tar­gets

Micah Zenko, a vo­cal critic of the drone cam­paign, said the White House had vi­o­lated its own guide­lines in the strike that killed the hostages, ac­cus­ing it of “an­thro­po­mor­phiz­ing” a com­pound as an al-Qaida leader.

Zenko, a fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, said the in­ci­dent “raises ques­tions about the al­leged prin­ci­ple of ‘ near cer­tainty’ that ap­plies to drone strikes.”

Both Obama and his pre­de­ces­sor, Ge­orge W. Bush, have ap­proved drone strikes against “un­named” in­di­vid­u­als sus­pected of be­ing a mem­ber of ter­ror groups.

The prac­tice of so- called “sig­na­ture strikes,” di­rected against groups of ter­ror sus­pects in­stead of a par­tic­u­lar leader, should be called into ac­count, Zenko said.

The num­ber of drone strikes has de­clined dramatically in Pak­istan af­ter a peak of 117 in 2010, ac­cord­ing to the Long War Jour­nal and other groups that track the at­tacks. There have been five strikes in Pak­istan so far this year, the jour­nal says.

In­tel­li­gence ex­perts say hun­dreds of drone strikes have not de­feated or se­ri­ously re­duced the size of al-Qaida. But the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­moted the tac­tic as a su­pe­rior strat­egy to the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan pur­sued dur­ing Bush’s pres­i­dency.

“Nearly 14 years af­ter 9/ 11, it’s not ap­par­ent that ei­ther of th­ese two mod­els — the Bush ap­proach or the Obama ap­proach — has done a suf­fi­cient job in com­bat­ing ter­ror­ist net­works and shap­ing the land­scape in a way that de­grades and ul­ti­mately de­feats th­ese groups,” said Brian Kat­ulis of the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress.


Flow­ers and rib­bons adorn a tree out­side the We­in­stein fam­ily house in Rockville, Mary­land on Thurs­day, April 23.

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