Collateral damage is a tragic inevitably of any war, but when military attacks go awry and kill only civilians without striking intended enemy militants, it opens up the door for a broad range of questions. Such an unfortunate situation happened recently when over 30 pine nut farmers were killed by a Central Intelligence Agency drone in Afghanistan. The Sept. 19 attack shocked the Middle Eastern nation. While it is no stranger to war, an American attack on civilians far removed from terrorist targets is unusual.
American drones struck as night began to fall in the eastern province of Nangarhar. In addition to the fatalities, US drones also injured 40 other workers.
“The workers had lit a bonfire and were sitting together when a drone targeted them,” tribal elder Malik Rahat Gul told Reuters.
The attack at Wazir Tangi was intended to destroy a Daesh hideout. Details on how it ended up striking pine nut farmers instead have not yet been revealed and perhaps never will. Residents voiced their anger at the attack by calling for an apology and financial reimbursement from Washington.
“Such mistakes cannot be justified. American forces must realize (they) will never win the war by killing innocent civilians,” said Javed Mansur, a resident of Jalalabad city where victims were buried the following morning.
Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are on course for a record high this year. The United Nations estimated that for the first half of the year, there were 1,366 deaths and 2,446 injured, putting the year on pace to exceed the previous three years, each of which tallied more than 5,000 victims. To be clear, the UN records civilian victims from all sources, including terrorist groups such as Daesh as well as established militaries such as America and its allies. However, the drone strike on the farmers cast America in a bad light as US President Donald Trump continues to expand the US drone program while simultaneously reducing its accountability to the American public.
Under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. drastically amplified its drone usage. During his first year in office, he directed the CIA and Pentagon to launch more drones than his predecessor did in 16 years— 53 strikes in Pakistan. After expanding the drone usage to Yemen and Syria, Obama too incurred the wrath of negative press over civilian deaths. Because of this, only three strikes were carried out in Pakistan during the final year of his presidency.
Under Trump, there were 100 in Yemen alone during 2017, up from Obama’s 44 for the state in the previous year. Furthermore, while his predecessors focused drone strikes on al-Qaeda fighters, Trump’s military is targeting any militants opposing the Afghan government.
While all branches of the American military use drones to some extent, it is the CIA which has received renewed focus under Trump, and not just in the Middle East, but Africa too. In Nigeria, officials said American drones have been using the Dirkou airport as a makeshift base for launching strikes in Libya. Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Defense Department spokeswoman, denied U.S drones operate out of Dirkou, despite a New York Times reporter witnessing them take off and land.
The CIA also opened a $110 million base in Agadez, Niger which began operations at the beginning of the year. Drones from the bases in Niger are also used in Somalia to strike al-Shabaab terrorists. Between the CIA and Pentagon, 30 raids were carried out in 2017.
When Trump came to office, he not only ramped up the drone strikes, but also removed some of their civilian casualty accountability as well, undoing a piece of Obama’s legacy. When Obama came under fire for collateral damage, he instituted several measures to bring order to how strikes were carried out, which included greater coordination between military intelligence and the CIA. A single database was shared between them to analyze target and evaluate their threat levels.
Also, he created what became known as the Presidential Policy Guidance. This manual specified that if a strike were to be carried out in area outside of a war zone, the president’s entire cabinet must agree to it and, importantly, there should be “near certainty” that civilians will not become caught in the crossfire.
Under Trump, those measures are most-certainly expelled as remnants of an era he seeks to undo. Had the rules been authored by George W. Bush, a Republican president, perhaps Trump would have been willing to abide by them.
Critically, Trump revoked an Obama executive order mandating the CIA to report on civilian casualties outside of war zones. According to a Nations Security council spokesman, the action removes “superfluous reporting requirements that do not improve government transparency, but rather distract our intelligence professionals from their primary mission.” While it’s true that the National Defense Authorization Act requires the White House to submit an annual report on civilian casualties, this information is limited to the common war zone areas, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the NDAA does not apply to the CIA as did the Obama-era executive order. Consequently, a CIA attack in Africa would not make the report given to Congress.
The removal of CIA reporting requirements comes at a time when the White House is increasing its reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that there have been 2,243 drone strikes in the first two years of Trump’s tenure. By comparison, there were only 1,878 in Obama’s entire eight-year administration. With the recent killing of innocent Afghan farmers and the aggressive CIA rollout in Africa, perhaps there should be more reporting instead of less.