Many people around the world are disturbed by U.S. drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. The illusion that American drones can strike without warning anywhere in the world without placing Americans in harm’s way makes drones dangerously attractive to U.S. officials—even as they fuel the cycle of violence that the “war on terror” falsely promised to end, but has, instead, escalated and sought to normalize. But drone strikes are only the tip of an iceberg, making up less than 10 percent of at least 20,130 air strikes the U.S. conducted in other countries since President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
The U.S. dropped 17,500 bombs during its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. It conducted 29,200 air strikes during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. U.S. air forces conducted at least another 3,900 air strikes in Iraq over the next 8 years, before the Iraqi government finally negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. occupation forces. But that pales next to at least 38,100 U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan since 2002, a country already occupied by U.S. and NATO forces, with a government pledged by its U.S. overlords to bring peace and justice to its people.
The Obama administration is responsible for at least 18,274 air strikes in Afghanistan since 2009, including at least 1,160 by pilotless drones. The U.S. conducted at least 116 air strikes in Iraq in 2009 and about 1,460 of NATO’s 7,700 strikes in Libya in 2011. While the U.S. military does not publish figures on “secret” air and drone strikes in other countries, press reports detail a five-fold increase over Bush’s second term, with at least 303 strikes in Pakistan, 125 in Yemen and 16 in Somalia.
Aside from the initial bombing of Afghanistan in 2001 and the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq in March and April 2003, the Obama administration has conducted more air strikes day-in day-out than the Bush administration. Bush’s roughly 24,000 air strikes in 7 years from 2002 to 2008 amounted to an air strike about every 3 hours, while Obama’s 20,130 in 4 years add up to one every hour and three-quarters.
The U.S. government does not advertise these figures and journalists have largely ignored them. But the bombs and missiles used in these air strikes are powerful weapons designed to inflict damage, death, and injury over a wide radius, up to hundreds of feet from their points of impact. The effect of such bombs and shells on actual battlefields where the victims are military personnel has always been deadly and gruesome. Many soldiers who lived through shelling and bombing in the First and Second World Wars never recovered from “shell-shock” or what we now call PTSD.
The use of such weapons in America’s current wars where “the battlefield” is often a euphemism for houses, villages, or even urban areas densely populated by civilians, frequently violates otherwise binding rules of international humanitarian law. These include the Fourth Geneva Convention, signed in 1949 to protect civilians from the worst effects of war and military occupation.
Beginning in 2005, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) issued quarterly reports on human rights in Iraq. They included details of U.S. air strikes that killed civilians and UNAMI called on U.S. authorities to fully investigate these incidents. A UNAMI human rights report published in October 2007 demanded, “that all credible allegations of unlawful killings by MNF (multi-national force) forces be thoroughly, promptly, and impartially investigated, and appropriate action taken against military personnel found to have used excessive or indiscriminate force.”
The UN human rights report included a reminder to U.S. military commanders that, “Customary international humanitarian law demands that, as much as possible, military objectives must not be located within areas densely populated by civilians. The presence of individual combatants among a great number of civilians does not alter the civilian nature of an area.”
But no Americans have been held criminally accountable for civilian casualties in air strikes, either in Iraq or in the more widespread bombing of occupied Afghanistan. U.S. officials dispute findings of fact and law in investigations by the UN and the Afghan government, but they accept no independent mechanism for resolving these disputes, effectively shielding themselves from accountability.
Besides not being informed of the extent of the U.S. bombing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. public has been subject to military propaganda about the accuracy and effectiveness of “precision” weapons.
When military forces detonate tens of thousands of powerful bombs and missiles in a country, even highly accurate weapons are bound to kill many innocent people. When we are talking about 33,000 bombs and missiles exploding in Iraq, 55,000 in Afghanistan and 7,700 in Libya, it is critical to understand just how accurate or inaccurate these weapons really are. If only 10 percent missed their targets, that would mean nearly 10,000 bombs and missiles blowing up something or somewhere else, killing and maiming thousands of unintended victims.
But even the latest generation of “precision” weapons is not 90 percent accurate. One of the world’s leading experts on this subject, Rob Hewson, the editor of the military journal Jane’s Air Launched Weapons, estimated that 20 to 25 percent of the 19,948 precision weapons used in the “shock and awe” attack on Iraq in 2003 completely missed their targets. The other 9,251 bombs and missiles were not classified as “precision” weapons in the first place, so that only about 56 percent of the 29,199 “shock and awe” weapons actually performed with “precision” by the military’s own standards, which define precision for most of these weapons as striking within a 29-foot radius of the target.
To an expert like Rob Hewson, who understood the real-world effects of these weapons, “shock and awe” presented an ethical and legal problem to which American military spokespeople and journalists seemed oblivious. As he told the Associated Press, “In a war that’s being fought for the benefit of the Iraqi people, you can’t afford to kill any of them. But you can’t drop bombs and not kill people. There’s a real dichotomy in all of this.”
The actual results of U.S. air strikes were better documented in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Epidemiological studies in Iraq bore out Hewson’s assessment, finding that tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians were killed by U.S. air strikes. The first major epidemiological study conducted in Iraq after 18 months of war and occupation concluded: “Violent deaths were widespread…and were mainly attributed to coalition forces. Most individuals reportedly killed by coalition forces were women and children…. Violence accounted for most of the excess deaths and air strikes from coalition forces accounted for most violent deaths.”
When the same team from Johns Hopkins and Baghdad’s Al Mustansariya University did a more extensive study in Iraq in 2006 after three years of war and occupation, it found that, amid the proliferation of all kinds of violence, U.S. air strikes by then accounted for a smaller share of total deaths, except in one crucial respect: they still accounted for half of all violent deaths of children in Iraq.
No such studies have been conducted in Afghanistan, but hundreds of thousands of Afghans now living in refugee camps tell of homes and villages destroyed by U.S. air strikes and of family members killed in the bombing. There is no evidence that the pattern of bombing casualties in Afghanistan has been any kinder to children and other innocents than in Iraq. Impossibly low figures on civilian casualties published by the UN mission in Afghanistan are the result of small numbers of completed investigations, not comprehensive surveys. They give a misleading impression, which is amplified by uncritical Western news reports.
When the UN identified only 80 civilians killed in U.S. Special Forces night raids in 2010, Nader Nadery of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission who worked on the UN report, explained that this was based on completed investigations of only 13 of the 73 incidents reported to the UN for the year. He estimated the number of civilians killed in all 73 incidents at 420. But most U.S. air strikes and special forces raids occurred in resistance-held areas where people had no contact with the UN or the Human Rights Commission.
Even thorough and complete UN investigations in the areas it has access to would only document a fraction of total Afghan civilian casualties. Western journalists who report UN civilian casualty figures from Afghanistan as if they were estimates of total casualties unwittingly contribute to a propaganda narrative that understates the scale of violence raining down on the people of Afghanistan.
President Obama and the politicians and media who keep the scale, destructiveness, and indiscriminate nature of U.S. air strikes shrouded in silence understand only too well that the American public has in no way approved this shameful and endless tsunami of violence against people in other countries. Day after day for 11 years, U.S. air strikes have conclusively answered the familiar question of 9/11: “Why do they hate us?” As Congressmember Barbara Lee warned in 2001, we have “become the evil we deplore.” It is time to change course. Ending the daily routine of deadly U.S. air strikes, including drone strikes, should be President Obama’s most urgent national security priority as he begins his second term in office.
Nicolas J. S. Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: The American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He wrote a chapter for Grading the 44th President: A Report Card on Barack Obama’s First Term as a Progressive Leader.