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A botched U.S. drone strike that led to the deaths of 10 innocent people has exposed a counterterrorism program run amok, according to some lawmakers, even as the chaos in Afghanistan has raised the stakes of any congressional intervention into the issue.
“What the strike in Kabul really sends home is the reality that for all of our technical capacity, we’re really good at reaching out and killing people and still really bad at knowing if the people we’re killing are the people we’re after,” Rep. Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican and U.S. Army veteran who recently went on a secret bipartisan trip to Afghanistan, told the Washington Examiner.
Defense Department officials acknowledged last week that a strike once touted as a “righteous” operation to prevent a suicide bombing killed an Afghan aid worker and “up to seven children.” The tragedy attaches several young faces to the misgivings around a drone strike program that, in Meijer’s assessment, has created a false perception that U.S. officials have a convenient solution to terrorist threats while the costs, including the lives of innocent civilians, pile up, out of sight and out of mind as far as Washington is concerned.
“The reason why this got attention where others didn’t is the simple fact that it was in Kabul, there were reporters in Kabul, there were people paying attention to what was going on,” said Meijer, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But this is not [unique] — if anything, hitting the wrong people, killing the wrong people to some degree has become a bit of a rule, not just the exception, sadly.”
That view has taken root on both sides of the aisle. Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suspects that as many as “eight out of 10 [drone strikes] are hitting the wrong target,” although that ratio is disputed. New America, a Washington-based think tank, estimates that in Pakistan, for instance, 414 drone strikes killed as many as 3,702 people — compared to civilian casualty figures ranging from 245 people to 303.
Yet a clear picture of drone strike operations is obscured by classification rules and, Meijer suggests, the Defense Department’s desire to avoid documenting uncomfortable truths about a program that presidents of both parties have used to devastate terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East and Africa without major deployments of U.S. ground forces.
“The U.S. might say ‘Well, we have no indication of any civilians killed,’ and that may be a true statement, but it's kind of like driving on a dark road and you hit something and you close your eyes and just keep driving,” Meijer said. “‘Oh, we have no indication that we accidentally hit that hitchhiker’ ... [it’s] this effort at internal plausible deniability, but just wishing away the worst consequences.”
Defense Department officials “are exploring the possibility of ex gratia payments” to the surviving relatives of the drone strike victims, according to Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie.
“I'll finish by saying while the team conducted the strike did so in the honest belief that they were preventing an imminent attack on our forces and civilian evacuees, we now understand that to be incorrect,” said McKenzie, the top general in the U.S. Central Command.
That statement points to the intangible costs of the program for the U.S. military, according to critics of how the drone strikes are conducted. “There's obviously cost paid by the people on the ground,” the Atlantic Council’s Chris Preble said. “And there's a psychological effect on the American servicemen and women who are involved in these operations when one of these incidents goes bad.”
On the diplomatic front, Chinese officials have proven eager to denounce U.S. military operations in an apparent effort to defang U.S. criticism of Chinese Communist human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims and other repressed ethnic or religious minorities.
"It is preposterous that the U.S. claims to be ‘protecting human rights’ at every turn,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said last week. “Is it protecting human rights when staging wars of invasion? Is it protecting human rights when shooting and dropping bombs on civilians? Is it protecting human rights when wielding the big stick of sanctions?”
That diatribe conflates the errant air strikes with unilateral American sanctions such as the punishments levied on Chinese officials implicated in the atrocities against Uyghur Muslims. Meijer dismissed such complaints but acknowledged that misguided strikes such as the bombing in Kabul take a toll on the United States's reputation.
“The terror that you might [feel if you] live in a place that's heavily droned is something that’s very hard for us to appreciate, but ... their view of the U.S. is heavily inflected by or influenced by that day-to-day life of not knowing when the sky is going to open up,” Meijer said. “It’s just a reminder of how far apart our intentions and the consequences truly are ... it’s critical that we unite the two and not live in the world where we have these rosy projections and this aura of precision and infallibility that is bumping up against these pretty horrific outcomes.”
That disjoint suggests a need to overhaul the 2001 legislation authorizing military action against al Qaeda that presidents have relied upon to justify drone strikes against terrorist groups across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet Congress long has hesitated to repeal that legislation due to deep disagreements between lawmakers, who raise the prospect that the legislative branch might fail to replace the law with anything better and thus deprive the president of legal authority to conduct necessary counterterrorism operations.
The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan stoked some interest in repealing and revising the 2001 legislation, but “that has really dried up” in the weeks since the Taliban’s military victory became inescapable, according to a Senate Republican aide. "I think we're less likely than ever to touch [the 2001 law] in this environment," the aide said.
Meijer, a first-term lawmaker, counters that “Congress being checked out are exactly how we got here” and emphasizes that the legislative scrutiny would force the executive branch to improve at the strategic and tactical level.
“We've demonstrated that the United States is pretty effective at killing people ... Now, are the people we’re killing the people we want to or need to kill? Should we be killing other people? But the challenge right now is there’s all of these tactics that are searching for a strategy,” he said. “Just the process of the executive having to justify their actions to Congress, I think, will play a tremendously beneficial role in driving for more accountability.”
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Original Author: Joel Gehrke