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Biden risks killing more civilians with drone strikes in Afghanistan as part of his 'over-the-horizon' strategy, experts warn

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An Afghan man who lost family due to US drone strikes weeps.
Ajmal Ahmadi, weeps alone in a room after members of his family were killed on Sunday, in an American drone strike that targeted and hit a vehicle in their home in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam/Getty Images
  • Biden's "over-the-horizon" strategy could lead to more civilian deaths in Afghanistan, experts warn.

  • Without a robust intelligence network on the ground, it's difficult for the US to know who it's targeting.

  • An August 29 drone strike in Kabul killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

A US drone strike in Kabul on August 29 killed 10 civilians, including an aid worker and seven children. It was not an isolated incident. Drone strikes conducted by the US, in Afghanistan and beyond, have often resulted in civilian casualties.

The Biden administration last week apologized for the strike, pledging to take steps to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.

President Joe Biden has vowed to continue going after ISIS-K in Afghanistan via an "over-the-horizon" approach, which essentially involves conducting operations or strikes without boots on the ground. The White House on Monday signaled that he remains undeterred in this regard despite the controversy over the August 29 strike. "The President's desire to continue to go after ISIS-K has not changed," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.

But Biden's strategy could result in even more civilian deaths moving forward and is likely illegal, experts warn.

"I'm definitely concerned that the Biden administration's 'over-the-horizon' approach will result in more civilian casualties, because the accuracy of drone strikes depends heavily on the quality of intelligence, and if the US does not have an actual presence in Afghanistan, it's hard to see how it can determine whether the information it's getting from any supposed partners on the ground is reliable," Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA's director of Security With Human Rights, told Insider.

'Strikes are only as accurate as the targeting intelligence'

Afghans view aftermath of a US drone strike
Relatives and neighbors of the Ahmadi family gathered around the incinerated husk of a vehicle targeted and hit earlier Sunday afternoon by an American drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam/Getty Images

The drone strike on August 29 came after an ISIS-K attack near the Kabul airport, which killed 13 US service members and 169 Afghans. The US military initially offered a full-throated defense of the drone attack, calling it a "righteous strike." The US thought it was targeting a car packed with explosives for another ISIS-K attack. But a report from the New York Times revealed that the military actually launched the strike at a vehicle that an aid worker, Zemari Ahmadi, was filling with water containers for his home.

"Drone strikes create the illusion that there's some sort of high tech, antiseptic, risk-free way to use force, but no matter how fancy the technology is, such strikes are only as accurate as the targeting intelligence," Rosa Brooks, a professor of law and policy at Georgetown University, told Insider. "The tragic results of the strike that followed the Kabul airport attack is a case in point: precision targeting technologies count for nothing if you have bad intel."

Brooks, who also served as counselor to undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy from 2009 to 2011, added that having assets on the ground is also not necessarily "sufficient to prevent mistakes." Local informants can be wrong and even lie at times, Brooks said, and we've seen "plenty of drone-strikes-gone-wrong in places and time periods in which we did have assets on the ground."

To this point, it's estimated US drone strikes have killed between 4,126 to 10,076 people in Afghanistan since January 2004, including between 300 to 909 civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a UK-based organization that has tracked US drone strikes for years.

Not having troops in the country does not necessarily mean the US has no intel or resources in Afghanistan, Brooks went on to say, but the withdrawal has made it "even more difficult to get good ground level intelligence."

Complicating the matter is the fact that ISIS-K is a decentralized group that's made up of semi-autonomous cells, making it harder to track.

The US pullout from Afghanistan has "decimated" its intelligence network in the country, Charles Lister, a senior fellow and the director of the Syria and counterterrorism programs at the Middle East Institute, told Insider last month.

"The dispersed and cellular challenge like ISIS-K requires constant air surveillance and an extensive and ground force effort - and that really is beyond the realm of reality now," Lister added.

'It will be virtually impossible to use drone strikes legally'

Mechanics trail an MQ-9 Reaper as it taxis for takeoff August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada.
Mechanics trail an MQ-9 Reaper as it taxis for takeoff August 8, 2007 at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada. The Reaper is the Air Force's first "hunter-killer" unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), designed to engage time-sensitive targets on the battlefield as well as provide intelligence and surveillance. The jet-fighter sized Reapers are 36 feet long with 66-foot wingspans and can fly for up to 14 hours fully loaded with laser-guided bombs and air-to-ground missiles. Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The use of drones by the US in counterterrorism operations dates back to the earliest days of the war on terror, and the practice has consistently raised myriad ethical and legal questions. Similarly, experts are expressing serious concerns about the legality over-the-horizon approach .

"Not only do remote pilots have only a vague idea in most cases who they are killing, now that the war is over in Afghanistan, it will be virtually impossible to use drone strikes legally," Mary Ellen O'Connell, Notre Dame Law School professor and expert on international law in relation to the use of force, told Insider.

"During on-going armed conflict hostilities, target selection could be made based on who was fighting against US and allied forces," O'Connell added. "Going forward, everyone has the presumption of civilian status and cannot be summarily killed with a drone strikes."

Along these lines, Eviatar questioned what authorization the US has to use lethal force unless the strike is in response to an actual imminent threat to human life, which "will be difficult to determine from 'over the horizon.'"

Such concerns underscore the need for greater transparency from the government when it comes to drone strikes, Brooks said.

"There will always be disagreement about what level of inadvertent civilians casualties - if any - is 'too much,' but without transparency we can't even begin to have that discussion, and without accountability our conclusions won't change anything," Brooks said.

If reporting from the Times and other outlets like the Washington Post hadn't undermined the US military's narrative on the strike in such glaring ways, it's an open question as to whether the Pentagon would've admitted that the drone attack killed civilians. Drone strikes, which the US has conducted everywhere from Somalia to Yemen, tend to occur in remote areas and far from reporters or watchdogs. This has opened the door for the Pentagon to be opaque about the bombings and their consequences.

"In the past, the US has often refused to admit that the victims were civilians, even when confronted with detailed evidence from groups like Amnesty International and others demonstrating the victims' civilian status," Eviatar said. "And the US has almost never provided reparations or any sort of compensation or assistance to the civilian victims it's harmed."

'A positive step'

yemen drone
Men look at wall graffiti depicting a U.S. drone along a street in Sanaa, Yemen, November 9, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed al-Sayaghi

Biden is hardly the first US president to look to drones as a means of combatting terrorism without putting American forces in harms way.

The use of drone strikes in counterterrorism operations began under the Bush administration. President Barack Obama accelerated the use of drone strikes when he was in office, facing rampant criticism over civilian casualties in the process.

The Obama administration eventually took steps that aimed to reduce civilian deaths from drone strikes, which were ultimately reversed by the Trump administration. There was a massive spike in civilian deaths in Afghanistan from airstrikes under President Donald Trump, who in 2017 relaxed the rules of engagement for strikes.

Biden initiated a review of US drone policy after coming into office that's ongoing.

Eviatar said it's "a positive step" that the Biden administration has acknowledged the harm caused by the August 29 strike and that the Pentagon expressed a willingness to pay reparations to the families of the victims. But "we'd like to see a much stronger break with past policies than what we've seen so far," Eviatar added.

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