Kabul drone strike whitewash shows it’s business as usual for the US under Joe Biden

November 10, 2021 GMT

The investigation by the US Department of Defence into the August 29 drone strike on 10 civilians in Kabul, Afghanistan, recommended no disciplinary action. What a surprise.

Seven children died as a result of the strike. However, according to the Air Force’s inspector general Lieutenant General Sami D. Said, children can be difficult to spot to the drone operators stationed in Nevada, Virginia or wherever their headquarters happens to be.

Some assumptions were made, Said continued, including the tracking of a white Toyota Corolla through Kabul. The term for such irresponsibility is usually known as “confirmation bias”.

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Furthermore, as Said pointed out in that vague military-speak vocabulary that often says nothing, “That assessment was primarily driven by interpretation. Regrettably, the interpretational assessment was inaccurate.”

He did go on to say that a child was visible in the footage two minutes before the strike: “But it is 100 per cent not obvious; you have to be looking for it.”

In a New York Times article about the results of the investigation, the reporters go out of their way to make this statement: “The military makes an effort to avoid civilian casualties.”

That statement, which could be seen as more like a talking point from the defence department, is hardly accurate. The drone programme, which is clouded in secrecy, was greatly expanded under the administration of former president Barack Obama.

According to Eyal Press, a journalist and author of the recent book Dirty Work, Obama signed off on 500 drone strikes during his eight years in the White House. That is 10 times the number of lethal strikes ordered by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Press went on to note that former president Donald Trump decided to broaden the programme to include alleged militants’ families, and that “in Trump’s first two years in office, more drone strikes were launched in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan ” three undeclared war zones ” than during Obama’s entire presidency, and civilian casualties from air strikes in Afghanistan surged”.


Press’ book led me to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an organisation that has tracked US drone strikes for more than a decade. The group says that, by the end of 2020, US tax dollars had contributed to the deaths of an estimated 8,800 to nearly 17,000 people. Out of that total, between 900 and 2,200 civilians were killed by US drone strikes.

These figures are no doubt more than the military is willing to acknowledge. For example, in 2016 the White House released its figures of civilians killed by drones during the years 2009 and 2015 at between 64 and 116. By contrast, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated six times that amount, or 380 to 800 civilians who were killed during Obama’s expanded drone programme.

When the White House released its report, Jennifer Gibson, a human rights lawyer at the non-profit organisation Reprieve, said, “The most glaring absence from this announcement are the names and faces of those civilians that have been killed. Today’s announcement tells us nothing about 14-year-old Faheem Qureshi, who was severely injured in Obama’s first drone strike. Reports suggest Obama knew he had killed civilians that day.”

With the drone strike of August 29 on his executive resume, US President Joe Biden has joined his predecessors in ensuring the United States will continue the drone programme, continue to be despised for years to come and that US tax dollars will continue to fund these and other military escapades during his term in the Oval Office.

So it was hardly a shock that Biden signed off on a US$500 million arms deal to Saudi Arabia in September. The kingdom is led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man who is said to have ordered the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The US$500 million contract will aid Saudi Arabia in maintaining its attack helicopters, the same helicopters that have allegedly been used in the catastrophic war in Yemen, where “collateral damage” among civilians is beyond widespread.

Biden had campaigned that his approach to Salman and Saudi Arabia would be different from that of Trump. In late 2019, Biden said he would turn the kingdom into “the pariah that they are”, but that was then.

Seth Binder, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, told The Guardian: “To my mind, this is a direct contradiction to the administration’s policy. This equipment can absolutely be used in offensive operations, so I find this particularly troubling.”

“Particularly troubling” is not the phrase that I would use. It is business as usual in Washington among those who Bob Dylan labelled, with more precision than US drones, the “Masters of War”.

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of five books of essays and journalism. His newest book is “West of East”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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