Tuesday March 19, 2019
By Usaid Siddiqui
Obama-era law required civilian casualties of US airstrikes to be reported [Getty]
Lost in the news cycle of recent weeks, one disturbing piece of
news seemed to have slipped under the radar; that of US President Donald
Trump rolling back
an Obama-era Executive Order (EO) to account for civilian casualties in
American military and CIA led airstrikes, including the use of drones,
in nations abroad.
Needless to say, this is an
appalling step to gut hard won transparency, especially at a time when
the US government's covert operations across Africa and the Middle East seem to be expanding.
According to Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA's director of security with human rights, "The public deserves to know how many civilians are killed by US actions".
She added that "This is an unconscionable decision and in complete disregard of fundamental human rights."
While the Obama administration can
be credited for introducing a mandatory step to account for civilian
deaths, that decision was largely a response to heightened pressure from
human rights groups resulting from the administration's controversial
These clandestine military
exercises have caused havoc in Pakistan and Yemen, where weddings,
mistakenly thought to be a gathering of terrorists have been repeatedly
bombed. Those who have attended funerals of the victims of these US led
strikes, including close family members, have also been targeted.
Under Obama, the US conducted 540 drone strikes,
including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. While these
instruments of war were promoted by the Obama White House as being
extremely accurate, reporting from the ground by multiple independent
groups, and leaked US government documents, proves otherwise.
John Brennan, former CIA chief under Obama, claimed in 2011
that no civilians were killed in drone strikes from August 2010 until
mid-2011, lauding them as "exceptionally surgical and precise".
numbers were countered by the London-based Bureau of Investigative
Journalism (TBIJ), which showed that from August 2010 to July 2011, at
least 45 civilians had been killed in 10 drone strikes in Pakistan.
In 2016, their last year in power,
the administration released civilian casualty numbers in which they
claimed that somewhere between 64-116 civilians had been killed between
January 2009 and end of 2015, a figure that TBIJ once again rejected, estimating that between 384-807 civilians were killed over the over that same period.
In 2015, leaks from the CIA reported first by The Intercept
provided much needed insight to how these drone attacks were in fact
anything but accurate, and instead were leaving a trail of bodies the US
was unable to identify. The documents highlighted that "During one
five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly
90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended
This of course, is not surprising. It is absurd
to claim that any air strike conducted from a significant height can be
considered extremely surgical or precise, to the point that only the
intended target would be assassinated, given that many live in and
around civilian areas.
Distinguishing between enemy combatants
and non-combatants in the largely remote areas of Pakistan and Yemen is
While the Obama administration
every so often attempted to show concern for civilian casualties, the
current White House has been openly unsympathetic to protecting lives of
non-combatants; starting with Trump - who claimed during his 2016
presidential campaign that he would be willing to "take out" families
of terrorists; despite the fact that enacting such a policy would
likely constitute a war crime, and be in direct contradiction with the
According to Watchdog group Airwars, 2017 was the deadliest year for civilians in Iraq and Syria, with casualties of non-combatants increasing 200 percent from 2016.
to the group's assessment, between 3,923-6,100 civilians were killed in
US-led coalition strikes in 2017, which was 65 percent of all civilian
casualties since Airwars started reporting in 2014.
Now with Trump gutting the only
initiative that provided anything resembling any form of transparency,
and as his administration intensified its wars abroad, all the
accountability will rest squarely on the shoulders of groups like
Airwars and human rights organisations, who can only do so much with
their limited resources.
Hina Shamsi, a director of the
ACLU's National Security Project, speaking on the controversial
revocation of the Obama era ruling said, "Trump revoked a transparency
order that provided an imperfect but still important record of deaths
caused by the military and, critically, the CIA."
Predictably, this story has largely been absent from the mainstream media.
Nevertheless, these wars rely
heavily on American taxpayer money, that not only makes it morally
incumbent on the media to report them, but also to hold their
governments accountable as they do everything to make sure their powers
between the Mueller report, alleged Russian conspiracies and Trump's
twitter diatribes absorbing most of the media airtime, loss of innocent
brown and black lives across in Africa and the Middle East targeted by
unmanned vehicles is just not sensationalist enough.