On August 29th, as the U.S. military was completing an overdue yet abrupt withdrawal from the nation of Afghanistan, it executed one last decisive maneuver. From an unmanned aerial vehicle, pilots launched a Hellfire missile into a white Toyota sedan that, at the time, was suspected to contain explosive materials for use in a suicide bombing at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The blast killed 10 people and satisfactorily eliminated the alleged threat.
As it turns out, however, U.S. intelligence was wrong about virtually every detail related to the target.
The Toyota that was ostensibly loaded with deadly explosives? It was actually full of water bottles. The supposed ISIS-K militant who was assassinated in the strike? He was actually an employee for a U.S.-based nonprofit working in Afghanistan. The collateral damage? Ten civilians, seven of whom were children. In sum, the U.S. military operated with insufficient information and exercised unfathomable negligence, and these critical errors resulted in the cold-blooded murder of ten innocent people.
On September 17, a Pentagon spokesperson admitted that the U.S. military had made a grave mistake and issued an apology that accepted no explicit responsibility. While offering his “profound condolences” to the victims and their families, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. maintained that the strike was perpetrated with confidence and conviction that the target represented a legitimate danger to the remaining U.S. personnel and allies in Kabul, but he conceded that it is “unlikely” that the casualties were associated with the terrorist group ISIS-K. Not many two-year-olds are, after all. General McKenzie later remarked that the U.S. military does not always “have the luxury” of conducting pattern of life analyses, wherein the actions and interactions of potential targets are thoroughly surveilled over an extended period of time in order to assess the validity of the risks that they pose. Gen. Mark A. Milley succinctly summarized the position of the U.S. military on this issue: the brutal slaughter of ten innocent people due to faulty information and poor judgment is merely a “tragedy of war.”
In review, operants of U.S. airstrikes cannot afford to ensure that their victims are actually combatants, but they can afford to butcher random civilians. When U.S. agencies and officials are mistaken (a fairly frequent occurrence), it is innocent people who must accept and bear the burden. Don’t blame the U.S. military. It’s just war.
What, I ask, is the difference between this posture and one of organized terrorism?
Terrorists kill with political motives. They make no distinction between soldier and civilian, and employ violence against each group in order to pursue and achieve both practical and general ideological goals. They act without regard for human rights or international law. And there is compelling overlap between this behavior and that of the U.S. military.
A common objection to this argument is that terrorist attacks are meticulous and deliberate, whereas civilian casualties inflicted by U.S. airstrikes are largely accidental. Without addressing incidents of intentional civilian murder on the part of the U.S. military and leaving aside the terrifying implication that U.S. forces function with haphazard and reckless abandon, this line of reasoning raises a vital question: how many accidents can we excuse before we acknowledge the absolute culpability of the offenders and respond accordingly?
Since 2001, between 22,200 and 48,000 civilians have died in thousands of manned and unmanned U.S. airstrikes. American drones and gunships have bombed weddings, funerals, hospitals, and mosques. They have claimed the lives of doctors, farmers, and journalists. American citizens and noncitizens alike have perished in the onslaught. No man, woman, or child is safe from these immediate and extrajudicial death sentences.
At the hand of any other person or party, we would accurately and appropriately label these actions war crimes. When performed by the U.S. military, however, these violations of human rights are simply considered incidental. Nobody is accountable. No one is punished. No reparations are extended. The people who make the most significant decisions in modern times operate with a brazen impunity that might stagger even the most infamous of historical tyrants. Despots of ages past had to contend with the substantial barriers of time, space, and primitive technology; those of the present era have only to snap their fingers.
It is time to end the U.S. drone program and the practice of airstrikes more broadly. The deprivation of due process is antithetical to purported American ideals. The autonomous role of powerful individuals in independently determining who deserves to die, when, where, why, and how is incompatible with basic humanitarian principles. And the margin for error is too high.
Unilateral airstrikes and the consistent life ethic are mutually exclusive. Tens of thousands of casualties later, we must urgently insist on the retirement of foreign policy that does not account for the inherent dignity of each and every human being.