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Usaid Siddiqui

Death to transparency: Trump scraps reporting on civilian drone casualties

Obama-era law required civilian casualties of US airstrikes to be reported [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 March, 2019

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Comment: Trump has gutted the only initiative that provided anything resembling a form of transparency, writes Usaid Siddiqui.
Lost in the news cycle of recent weeks, one disturbing piece of news seemed to have slipped under the radar; that of US President Donald Trump rolling back an Obama-era Executive Order (EO) to account for civilian casualties in American military and CIA led airstrikes, including the use of drones, in nations abroad.  

Needless to say, this is an appalling step to gut hard won transparency, especially at a time when the US government's covert operations across Africa and the Middle East seem to be expanding.  

According to Daphne Eviatar, Amnesty International USA's director of security with human rights, "The public deserves to know how many civilians are killed by US actions".

She added that "This is an unconscionable decision and in complete disregard of fundamental human rights."

While the Obama administration can be credited for introducing a mandatory step to account for civilian deaths, that decision was largely a response to heightened pressure from human rights groups resulting from the administration's controversial airstrike policies.

These clandestine military exercises have caused havoc in Pakistan and Yemen, where weddings, mistakenly thought to be a gathering of terrorists have been repeatedly bombed. Those who have attended funerals of the victims of these US led strikes, including close family members, have also been targeted.

Under Obama, the US conducted 540 drone strikes, including in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. While these instruments of war were promoted by the Obama White House as being extremely accurate, reporting from the ground by multiple independent groups, and leaked US government documents, proves otherwise.

Accountability will rest squarely on the shoulders of groups like Airwars

John Brennan, former CIA chief under Obama, claimed in 2011 that no civilians were killed in drone strikes from August 2010 until mid-2011, lauding them as "exceptionally surgical and precise".

These numbers were countered by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), which showed that from August 2010 to July 2011, at least 45 civilians had been killed in 10 drone strikes in Pakistan.

In 2016, their last year in power, the administration released civilian casualty numbers in which they claimed that somewhere between 64-116 civilians had been killed between January 2009 and end of 2015, a figure that TBIJ once again rejected, estimating that between 384-807 civilians were killed over the over that same period.

Pakistanis stand among the debris of houses after a suspected US air-strike in the Northwestern Bannu district [AFP]

In 2015, leaks from the CIA reported first by The Intercept provided much needed insight to how these drone attacks were in fact anything but accurate, and instead were leaving a trail of bodies the US was unable to identify. The documents highlighted that "During one five-month period of the operation, according to the documents, nearly 90 percent of the people killed in airstrikes were not the intended targets".

This of course, is not surprising. It is absurd to claim that any air strike conducted from a significant height can be considered extremely surgical or precise, to the point that only the intended target would be assassinated, given that many live in and around civilian areas.

Distinguishing between enemy combatants and non-combatants in the largely remote areas of Pakistan and Yemen is frankly impossible.  

The loss of innocent brown and black lives across in Africa and the Middle East targeted by unmanned vehicles is just not sensationalist enough

While the Obama administration every so often attempted to show concern for civilian casualties, the current White House has been openly unsympathetic to protecting lives of non-combatants; starting with Trump - who claimed during his 2016 presidential campaign that he would be willing to "take out" families of terrorists; despite the fact that enacting such a policy would likely constitute a war crime, and be in direct contradiction with the Geneva Conventions.

According to Watchdog group Airwars, 2017 was the deadliest year for civilians in Iraq and Syria, with casualties of non-combatants increasing 200 percent from 2016.

According to the group's assessment, between 3,923-6,100 civilians were killed in US-led coalition strikes in 2017, which was 65 percent of all civilian casualties since Airwars started reporting in 2014.

Now with Trump gutting the only initiative that provided anything resembling any form of transparency, and as his administration intensified its wars abroad, all the accountability will rest squarely on the shoulders of groups like Airwars and human rights organisations, who can only do so much with their limited resources.

Hina Shamsi, a director of the ACLU's National Security Project, speaking on the controversial revocation of the Obama era ruling said, "Trump revoked a transparency order that provided an imperfect but still important record of deaths caused by the military and, critically, the CIA."

2017 was the deadliest year for civilians in Iraq and Syria, with casualties of non-combatants increasing 200 percent from 2016

Predictably, this story has largely been absent from the mainstream media.

In between the Mueller report, alleged Russian conspiracies and Trump's twitter diatribes absorbing most of the media airtime, loss of innocent brown and black lives across in Africa and the Middle East targeted by unmanned vehicles is just not sensationalist enough.

Nevertheless, these wars rely heavily on American taxpayer money, that not only makes it morally incumbent on the media to report them, but also to hold their governments accountable as they do everything to make sure their powers remain unchecked.

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance Canadian writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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