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Demanding an End to Aerial Warfare

  • February 23, 2024

The demand to end drone strikes in the Middle East is the strongest it’s ever been. A topic that once lingered in the shadows of political discourse, has taken center stage as more than one hundred organizations demand President Biden put an end to unlawful drone strikes. The letter, which was organized by the Human Rights and Security Coalition, was signed by 113 groups including human rights and anti-war groups based both in the US and abroad. 

For the majority of the 21st century we’ve seen drone strikes be used as a means for extrajudicial killings that have inadvertently killed thousands of civilians. More often than not, these drone strikes don’t require a green light from the White House. The CIA and US military have been the leading decision makers when it comes to killing suspected terrorists. Since Donald Trump’s presidency the US has been more reluctant to disclose information about both the frequency and impact of the strikes. Prior to Trump’s time in office, drone operators had to have a “near certainty” that civilians would not be in harm’s way, a standard lowered when Trump assumed office. 

Don’t be fooled though, “near certainty” hasn’t always safeguarded civilians from being killed in the crossfire. A 2015 report by the Justice Initiative cited nine cases where US airstrikes have killed or injured Yemeni civilians. Among these civilians were three children and a pregnant woman. These are just conservative figures. The Associated Press noted that Barack Obama was responsible for expanding the scope and increasing the aggressiveness of the drone campaign against “militants” especially in Pakistan. Up until 2018, data shows that among Bush, Obama, and Trump Obama had conducted the highest number of US air and drone strikes in Pakistan. 

Many claim that these strikes will not make countries like Yemen or America safer, and in many cases are counterproductive. James E. Cartwright, former adviser to President Obama, expressed concern about the aggressive nature of the US drone strike campaign and the growing blowback stating, “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted.”

The reality is, that even Trump had lower drone strikes than the Obama administration. Biden has the opportunity to tighten the reins around the use of aerial vehicles. In early March, Biden quietly imposed temporary limits on counterterrorism drone strikes and commando raids outside traditional warzones in Afghanistan and Syria. This is quite a pivot, given that Biden was once part of an administration that conducted an exponential rise in targeted killings using drone strikes (President Obama carried out a total of 563 drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen during his two terms which led to 807 civilian casualties) . Biden has spoke on numerous occasions during his campaign that he wanted to put an end to the “forever wars”, making the decision to put a permanent end to the lethal strikes program could ultimately be a very big step in the right direction. Abandoning it, would push the future of American foriegn policy to embrace an approach that values collective human security. 

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