Opinion | It’s time for a drone strike reckoning

By Eddie Ryan, Senior Columnist

Sometimes, the attitudes of the masses — their rebuttal to the “conventional wisdom” — get corroborated by official documentation. These instances may not be frequent, but they can be striking in the degree to which they validate popular suspicions. 

Such is the case with the recent New York Times report on American military airstrikes over the past decade, written by Azmat Khan and pointedly titled “The Civilian Casualty Files.” Right up to the botched strike in Kabul in September, which left a stained coda on an already disgraceful withdrawal operation, the U.S. lived up to its image. Many young, left-leaning Americans felt particularly vindicated.

In today’s America, criticizing the government’s greedy or imperialistic aims has become almost banal. Many are schooled in the unsavory and extensive history of cold war CIA criminality; others grew cynical during the War on Terror. In any case, the result is a populace much more likely to doubt America’s intentions in global affairs. 

This cynicism has its downsides. Some have imbibed the narrative and gladly dispensed with their faculties of reason — hence, the tendency among some young people to issue knee-jerk invective against the U.S. no matter the situation. With heightened political consciousness comes the inevitable bastardization of critical arguments into clichés. 

An early sign of this came in the late 1990s when the Clinton administration successfully blamed its inaction with respect to Indian nuclear test explosions on the CIA. Clinton had been informed of the coming tests well in advance by Pakistan’s prime minister and deliberately kept it secret, but the press was all too eager to blame the CIA for supposedly keeping the intelligence from Clinton.

Notwithstanding these growing pains, the widespread readiness of Americans to suspect their government of dubious motives is still a major victory. And with Khan’s report, it seems that even the coarsest accusations made by the average American against their government hold some water. The shrewdness of the masses is not to be underestimated.

According to “The Civilian Casualty Files,” the past decade of U.S. airstrikes amounts to an exercise in arrogance, criminal incompetence and rampant covering-up. In Khan’s words: the perpetuation of a bad system with impunity. 

Since 2014, U.S. airstrikes have caused 1,300 civilian deaths in major conflict areas such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The procedures behind these strikes are defined by “deeply flawed intelligence,” hasty decisions to act on this intel, deliberate undercounting of civilian deaths and failure to apologize for or even acknowledge mistakes. 

Khan found that this pattern often took a familiar form. Military officials would locate a target suspected of Islamic State group affiliation. Despite their uncertainty or, in some cases, lack of evidence altogether, “rampant confirmation bias” prevailed and the strikes were ordered. The OK often even ignored evidence to the contrary, not just uncertainty, with respect to the target’s loyalties. When things went catastrophically wrong, military officials were routinely absolved of guilt.

The Kabul strike epitomizes this dissolute system. An aid worker who had helped the United States was taken for an Islamic State group affiliate, tracked for several hours and bombed in his home, leading to the death of nine family members including seven children. The suspicious materials in his vehicle turned out to be water for his family and neighbors, not explosives. 

General Mark Milley initially called the strike a “righteous” operation, and the Pentagon suggested that evidence of a “secondary explosion” proved explosives had been present. The Times exposed this lie. Only after that report came out did the Pentagon admit its failure. These bogus cover-ups happened repeatedly during the main years of the fight against the Islamic State group. In Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, drone strikes took out tens of civilians at a time at family gatherings on several separate occasions. 

Though Khan’s report is quite penetrative, its main message isn’t a revelation. Anyone with the desire to know has long understood the lethal consequences of American military action in Mesopotamia and elsewhere for innocent civilians. Successive administrations have argued that drone strikes beat carpet bombing and tank operations at both efficacy and safety, even going so far as to claim they minimize civilian casualties. 

But this report confirms that we’ve been treated to systematic lies from political and military leaders. One example involves discrepancies in child casualty figures. Of those strikes which caused civilian casualties since 2014, the military says that 27% included children among the dead. The Times’ figure is 62%. 

Damning information like this ought to be the last incentive needed for a serious reevaluation of American reliance on airstrikes. At minimum, the U.S. owes its victims a public apology and serious compensation. What’s more, Khan’s report is a major sign that it’s time to pare down tired military operations in Iraq and Syria, clean house and try a new approach.

Eddie is a junior in LAS.

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