In February, Newsweek reported that great numbers of young people worldwide ages 15 to 21 cited “terrorism” and “violent extremism” as their biggest concerns, followed by continued warfare.
These are valid and legitimate concerns: The United States has been involved in wars for more than half of its existence. Despite this long history, President Barack Obama was the first president in history to be at war every single day of both of his terms.
Obama inherited President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” that began in 2001, after the horrific 9/11 attacks and included the invasion of Afghanistan and the war on Iraq in 2003. By the time Obama took office, many agreed that the invasion of Iraq was unnecessary; in 2004, the secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, had declared the U.S.-led war on Iraq as breaking the UN charter and illegal. In fact, a report by the United Kingdom released in 2016 showed that both the American and U.K. governments were given intelligence reports that cautioned war with Iraq could cause massive instability, societal collapse, and could actually worsen terrorism, and that they were aware of this before making the decision to go to war. Yet both George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair proceeded.
Obama continued — and expanded upon — the Bush administration’s catastrophe. In 2013, an Iraqi refugee filed a motion in U.S. courts against President Bush and his administration’s architects of the war for the consequences that she and her family suffered as result of the Iraqi invasion. In response, the Obama administration filed a petition to grant Bush and his administration immunity against all civil and criminal charges related to the war in Iraq — less than a week before Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for exposing war crimes in Iraq. (She has since been released in May, after receiving a commutation from Obama before he left office.). And in February 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Bush and his executive branch “were entitled to official immunity.”
While Obama’s warfare methodology focused on eliminating the presence of American ground troops in foreign countries, it did nothing to eliminate American interventions or wars altogether. His attempts at reducing “boots on the ground” (and thus American casualties) led to an increased reliance on airstrikes, some say.
Under Obama — in 2016 alone — the United States bombed seven countries: Pakistan, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, with a total of 26,172 bombs dropped, according to a report from the Council on Foreign Relations.
Although Bush was the first to use drones, authorizing nearly 50 drone strikes, Obama expanded drone warfare, launching at least 10 times as many drone strikes as his predecessor.
Drones are unmanned – but not unpiloted – and used in lieu of traditionally manned/piloted aircraft. U.S. officials often praise drone strikes as having “surgical” precision, but data shows otherwise: Drone warfare is killing civilians — even outside of war zones.
In defense of killing people outside of war zones, the U.S. has cited the Bush-era Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) Act, a 2001 authorization that gives the president the automatic congressional go-ahead to use force against those responsible for the 9/11 attacks, such as Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The AUMF was also cited by the Obama administration as justification to unilaterally initiate warfare in other countries without formal congressional approval for each individual strike.
Obama developed a so-called secret “kill list” of terrorists to target with drone strikes, but not all of the people killed in strikes have been terrorists. Drone strikes have also inadvertently killed some U.S. citizens overseas, including a teenager, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was not suspected of any terror activity, and Warren Weinstein, who was being held hostage by terrorists.
It’s not uncommon for civilians to be killed during
“targeted” drone strikes like the ones ordered by Obama that killed Weinstein and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. But civilian casualties at the hands of the U.S. are difficult to track due to a lack of transparency and what seems to be the manipulation of numbers. In 2012, The New York Times reported that, according to administration officials, calculations of civilian casualties classified all males of “military-age” in strike zones as “combatants” by default.
In 2014, the Council on Foreign Relations found that 500 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia killed an estimated 3,674 people; 450 of the 500 strikes were authorized by Obama. Reprieve, a human-rights group, used data compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and found that attempts to kill 41 militants in Pakistan and Yemen resulted in the deaths of approximately 1,147 people — some of them children.
The analysis from Reprieve also reported that in Pakistan, 874 people were killed in attempts to target some 24 militants, including an estimated 142 children. Only six of those militants were killed. In Yemen, 17 militants were targeted in multiple strikes, with a total of 273 people killed, including some children — but not all of the targets were killed in those strikes, either.
In 2013, one drone strike in Yemen hit a wedding party whose vehicles were mistaken for those of militants, according to Yemeni officials.
U.S. officials still haven’t commented on the strike, but the government has acknowledged offering money to victims and families when civilians are killed. The victims of the wedding party strike and their families later received payouts from Yemen’s government, according to a Washington Post report.
The Intercept’s 2015 report, “The Drone Papers” — based on (unverified) classified documents that were leaked — suggested that 90 percent of those killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan during a five-month period were not the intended targets.
Naturally, extremists have used these killings as cannon fodder to justify their own horrific acts targeting civilians. Reports suggest that militants have used both the killing of civilians and the lack of transparency that comes with it as recruitment tools. Faisal Shahzad, the would-be bomber who pled guilty to attempting to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Time Square in 2010, told the judge at his arraignment, “Well, the drone hits in Afghanistan and Iraq, they don’t see children, they don’t see anybody. They kill women, children, they kill everybody.”
Despite all the criticism — including the valid criticism that killing civilians creates more extremism — Obama has defended drone warfare and its remote-controlled killings. During remarks at the University of Chicago Law School in 2016, the then-president stated, “What I can say with great certainty is that the rate of civilian casualties in any drone operation are far lower than the rate of civilian casualties that occur in conventional war.”