Democrats urge Biden to overhaul drone-strike programme, citing civilian deaths

Relatives and neighbours viewing the damage left by a US drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug 30, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - Congressional Democrats on Thursday (Jan 20) urged President Joe Biden to overhaul his counter-terrorism strategy and targeting criteria for drone strikes, citing grave concerns about "repeated civilian casualties arising from secretive and unaccountable lethal operations".

The letter came a day after The New York Times published newly declassified surveillance footage providing additional details about the final minutes and aftermath of a botched drone strike in Kabul, Afghanistan, in August last year that killed 10 innocent civilians, including seven children.

Eleven senators and 39 members of the House, led by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Christopher Murphy, cited that strike as "emblematic of this systemic failure that has persisted across decades and administrations".

The senators wrote: "When there is little policy change or accountability for repeated mistakes this grave and this costly, it sends a message throughout the US armed forces and the entire US government that civilian deaths - including deaths where there was no military target - are the inevitable consequence of modern conflict, rather than avoidable and damaging failures of policy."

The letter, which was also led by Representative Ro Khanna, was a stinging rebuke of the administration's current policies amid growing evidence of recurring episodes over multiple administrations in which civilian bystanders have been killed during drone strikes. And it came as top officials in Mr Biden's administration were working on a new policy governing drone warfare away from traditional battlefields.

"We cannot ignore the terrible consequences of US drone strikes over several administrations," Senator Warren said in a statement. "I've long pushed for greater accountability for civilian casualties, and the president should seize this moment to systematically reform our counter-terrorism strategy."

Hours before lawmakers sent their letter to Mr Biden, new reporting showed that a top-secret US Special Operations unit struck Syria's biggest dam using some of the largest conventional bombs in the US arsenal, despite a military report warning not to bomb the dam because the damage could cause a flood that might kill tens of thousands of civilians.

The Defence Department has long said that it tries to minimise civilian casualties. But Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin conceded in November that the military needed to do more to prevent them, days after an investigation by the Times revealed that top officers had sought to conceal a US airstrike in Syria in 2019 that killed dozens of women and children.

Separate investigations, relying on the military's own confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties obtained by the Times, showed that the air campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria terror group was marked by flawed intelligence, confirmation bias and scant accountability.

Officials often dismissed allegations of civilian casualties with little evaluation, including failures to conduct simple Internet searches.

"When US strikes kill civilians abroad, it's both a moral failure and national security liability," Senator Murphy said. "There's no doubt Biden takes this issue more seriously than Trump, but we can and must do better. The US should use force only lawfully and as a last resort, and when civilians die, there has to be accountability. That accountability simply has not been happening."

Efforts by the Biden administration to recalibrate the nation's policies governing drone strikes, in line with a broader effort by Mr Biden to wind down the war on terrorism, were complicated late this summer as Kabul fell to the Taliban, rendering the plans for Afghanistan obsolete.

A Syrian man and his son who were injured in a US drone strike in the ICU at the Syrian American Medical Society in Idlib on Dec 7, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The process was meant to last only a few months, but after a year of drafts, deliberations and high-level meetings, it remains uncompleted.

Lawmakers, including Ms Warren and Representative Khanna, have previously pressed the Pentagon to account for significant undercounts of civilian casualties. And Congress approved a provision in this year's defence policy bill requiring Pentagon officials to submit a number of reports, including on the department's policies relating to civilian casualties resulting from US military operations.

"The continuation of status quo policies that have flouted executive and congressional oversight and resulted in devastatingly high numbers of civilian casualties would run contrary to the Biden administration's commitments to end our forever wars, and promote human rights and our core democratic values," they wrote in Thursday's letter.

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