United States

Trail of blood

Print edition : February 17, 2017

President Barack Obama leavomg the White House press briefing room after making a statement that the U.S. was committed to disrupting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a terrorist group based in Yemen, on October 29, 2010. In September 2011, the U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, his son, and other Al Qaida operatives were killed in a drone attack in Yemen. Photo: AP

The wreckage of a car destroyed by a U.S. drone air strike that targeted suspected Al Qaeda militants in August 2012 in the south-eastern Yemeni province of Hadhramout. Photo: REUTERS

A U.S. drone aircraft lands at Afghanistan's Jalalabad Airport on October 2, 2015. The same year, Obama cleared the sales of armed drones to foreign countries. Photo: AFP

Barack Obama’s legacy as a votary of global peace will remain tainted as targeting of civilians in war zones registered a significant increase during his presidency.

THE PARDON THE OUTGOING PRESIDENT of the United States, Barack Obama, has given to the whistle-blower Chelsea Manning has come as a welcome surprise to human rights activists and millions of ordinary Americans who had demanded Manning’s release. Obama has not extended the same gesture to the other whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, who exposed the widespread state surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies. The Obama administration has arrested more whistle-blowers on charges of espionage than any previous administration in the U.S. Chelsea Manning’s leak had brought to light serious war crimes committed by the U.S. occupation forces in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, including the targeting of civilians during the eight years of the George W. Bush presidency. During his two terms in office, Obama did not deliver on most of the promises he had made as an anti-war candidate. He did withdraw the bulk of the 200,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his legacy as a votary for global peace will remain a tainted one.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that the U.S. continued to be at war during Obama’s two terms. Libya and Syria became two more states where the U.S. got deeply involved. The U.S. military continues to be bogged down in Afghanistan. The former President’s military pivot to East Asia has raised military tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. In the last days of his presidency, Obama deliberately escalated tensions with Russia by deploying North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops in Poland and the Baltic states. Under Obama, the targeting of civilians in war zones registered a significant increase. He initially turned to drone warfare in a big way to combat groups—from Pakistan to Somalia—hostile to U.S. interests.

Defence spending

The Nobel Peace Prize winner also increased the U.S.’ defence spending to a record high and was an avid salesman of American weapons in the international arms bazaar. The Obama administration approved more than $278 billion in foreign arms sales, mainly to West Asian countries. Saudi Arabia headed the list with deals worth more than $128 billion. Many of the deals were signed in the last two years of his presidency when the Saudi army was butchering the people of Yemen. Among the weapons sold to the Saudi kingdom were F-16 planes, Apache attack helicopters, tanks and missiles. According to military analysts, Obama brokered more arms deal than any previous U.S. President had since the Second World War. The previous Bush administration had only approved arms deals worth $128 billion in its eight years in office.

Although under his watch the U.S. officially never invaded any country, Obama’s military budget exceeded that of the Bush administration by many billions of dollars. In real terms, according to figures released by the Pentagon, U.S. military spending during the Obama presidency was 42 per cent more than what was spent during the peak of the Cold War. During the Cold War, the U.S. at least had a serious rival in the shape of the Soviet Union. Russia and China, which are now being portrayed as a serious threat to America’s status as the world’s only superpower, spend considerably less on their defence budgets. The Russian military budget is currently only one-tenth of that of the U.S.

Special operations forces

Under Obama, the U.S. Special Operations Forces expanded their operations to 138 countries, many of them on the African continent. Under the Bush administration, the Special Forces were used only in 60 countries. Today, the Special Forces are active in the Horn of Africa helping Kenyan, Ugandan and Ethiopian forces to fight Al Shabab insurgents in Somalia and protect the central government in Mogadishu. In Libya, the U.S.’ Special Forces and Air Force played a role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The Obama administration intervened militarily in Libya invoking the bogus “responsibility to protect” doctrine. It was argued at the time that the civilian population was under dire threat from the Gaddafi government.

Since the overthrow of Gaddafi, the peace and stability enjoyed by the Libyan people for more than 50 years has been shattered. The Obama administration had backed a long-time Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset, Khalifa Haftar, to run the country. But the former Libyan officer, who had defected to the U.S. in the 1980s, failed to get the support of key tribal militias and the populace. The U.S.’ covert and overt military intervention in Libya was one of the factors that led to the killing of Christopher Stevens, the U.S. envoy to Libya, in the port city of Benghazi.

The Special Forces have also been active in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, battling forces such as the Boko Haram; the U.S. Air Force, too, was busy under the Obama administration. According to a report published by the American Council of Foreign Relations, a record number of bombs were dropped by U.S. planes in the last eight years. In 2016 alone, U.S. planes and drones dropped more than 26,000 bombs, that is, more than 72 bombs every single day. Most of the bombs targeted civilian areas in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The people in Libya, Somalia, Yemen and the tribal areas of Pakistan were also subjected to air attacks.

The Obama administration did not see fit to sign the Convention on Cluster Munitions or the Mine Ban Treaty. Only 35 countries, including India, have not signed the 1997 Ottawa accord banning the use of conventional mines. Until a couple of months ago, the U.S. was selling cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia for its bombing campaign in Yemen. The death toll among civilians in Yemen has already exceeded 10,000.

But what really stood out in the past eight years was the Obama administration’s extensive reliance on drone warfare. There was a 10-fold expansion of drone warfare during the eight years of the Obama presidency. Under the Bush administration, U.S. drone warfare was mainly confined to Afghanistan and Iraq. Obama embraced the concept and authorised its use on an almost worldwide scale. According to reports, Obama took personal responsibility for the individuals to be targeted in drone attacks. Among those killed in the drone attack in Yemen was Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who had joined Al Qaeda, and his son. Al-Awaki was once an imam in a mosque in the U.S.

The Obama administration claimed that it had the legal authorisation to sanction the use of drones without geographic restrictions under laws passed by the U.S. Congress following Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks. According to official figures, Obama had authorised 506 drone strikes by the beginning of 2016. Many more covert attacks may not have been officially recorded. The Bush presidency had ordered only 50 drone strikes.

Obama had consistently claimed that drone strikes were less expensive and more effective than raids by fighter aircraft. It was also claimed that drones were more clinical in the elimination of terrorists and helped reduce civilian casualties. Available evidence, however, shows that collateral civilian damage due to drone strikes has been grossly underestimated. A study showed that only 2 per cent of high-level fighters had been killed in drone attacks. According to estimates by human rights groups, U.S. drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries have caused at least 3,000 civilian deaths.

Drone attacks have alienated the local populace in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, with many of them joining terror groups to avenge the killings of close relatives. A study by the American Centre of Naval Analysis came to the conclusion that drone attacks were 10 times more deadly for civilians than attacks by conventional military aircraft. Another report said that 90 per cent of those killed in drone attacks were not the “intended targets”. Some of the drones used in combat, such as the “Golden Hawk”, cost around $200 million a piece, twice as much as an F-35 fighter jet. In 2015, Obama cleared the sales of armed drones to foreign countries.

Openness on drone operations

In July 2016, seven months before he left his presidency, Obama issued an executive order making protection of civilians a priority during air strikes by drones and other weapons. The order makes it mandatory for future U.S. governments to report deaths caused by such operations every year. Obama wanted to ensure more openness on drone operations, realising the potential for their misuse. But his successor, Donald Trump, would very well prefer to draw back the cloak of secrecy that marked drone warfare during most of the Obama presidency. The executive order also legitimises the use of military drones outside conventional war zones as part of the U.S.’ national security policy.

The executive order declared that “civilian casualties are a tragic and sometimes unavoidable consequence of the use of force in situations of armed conflict or in the exercise of the state’s inherent right to self defence”. The order at least officially recognised that there were unavoidable civilian casualties as a result of drone attacks. In a speech in 2013, Obama acknowledged the “hard fact that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties” and said that “these deaths will haunt us for a long time”. Before that, the Obama administration’s tendency was to presume that all civilian casualties, who were adults, were enemy combatants.

The President’s 2013 statement was a tacit admission that most of those killed in U.S. drone attacks were civilians whose names were unknown to his government. In a speech to U.S. soldiers in December, Obama denounced the “false promise” that “we can eliminate terrorism by dropping more bombs”. He then went on to proclaim that “democracies should not operate in a permanent state of war”. One of his last acts as President was to despatch U.S. troops to Norway, opening up another Cold War front with Russia.