‘We did not expect the world to be silent’: US continuing to kill civilians with impunity
The Trump administration, which made promises to rein in Washington’s unnecessary wars, has not only expanded the US’ covert and lethal drone program, but has taken the covering up of its civilian death toll to a whole new level.
Like most of the battlefields opened more widely under the Obama administration, Donald Trump ramped up airstrikes against the infamous Al-Shabaab terrorist group in Somalia approximately two years ago. And, like most drone wars expanded under Obama and dramatically widened under Trump, the details of this covert assault are continuously swept under the rug, particularly when it comes to civilian casualties.
The Pentagon has openly said that its airstrikes in Somalia have killed zero civilians.
Yet, recently, an Amnesty International investigation into just five of the strikes carried out since March 2017 by both manned and unmanned reaper aircraft found that the strikes resulted in at least 14 civilian deaths, with instances of eight civilian injuries as well. In total, the US has carried out more than 100 strikes in Somalia since 2017.
Amnesty has made it quite clear that the attacks have violated international humanitarian law, and may amount to war crimes (remember, they have only assessed five out of over 100 so far). Weirdly enough, the New York Times piece introducing this report failed to mention that last point, even when Amnesty mentioned it very early on in its release (though, that being said, the Times did slip a half-hearted attempt at adopting a moral and legal stance near the end of the article, noting that “critics have claimed” drone warfare “could also result in war crimes.”)
Not to worry though, when approached for comment by Amnesty International, the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) repeated the claim that no civilians have died in American operations in Somalia. So, that’s that then.
The US military truly is an amazing, benevolent force for good in the world, isn’t it? It managed to ramp up its airstrikes in Somalia after the US president signed an executive order in March 2017 declaring southern Somalia an “area of active hostilities.” It conducted more airstrikes in Somalia than in Libya and Yemen combined. Just in the first few months of 2019 alone, it has already carried out 24 strikes on Somali territory, compared to only 14 in the whole of 2016, prior to Trump taking office. In 2018, US airstrikes killed 326 people. And yet, not a single civilian has died or been injured. Remarkable.
One such strike on the hamlet of Farah Waeys in Somalia allegedly killed members “or affiliates of Al-Shabaab,” according to AFRICOM. Those affiliates, however, were actually two civilian men, as well as five women and children who were injured. Another strike killed three local farmers in the early hours of a morning in November 2017, who were resting after working all night digging canals. AFRICOM even admitted it carried an airstrike in the region on that same morning.
If we thought that it was hard to monitor US-led covert wars in the Middle East and Africa before, it seems to have gotten even worse under Trump. Just recently, Trump allowed the CIA to keep secret how many civilians are killed in its airstrikes outside of war zones. As it transpires, a law passed by Congress making it compulsory for the Pentagon to publicly report civilians killed in its operations applies to the Pentagon only, and not the CIA drone program.
The law is pointless anyway, when one considers how the Pentagon assesses whether civilians have been killed or not. Donald Trump’s relaxation of the rules surrounding airstrikes are in and of themselves a pathway to a war crime tribunal. According to a retired US brigadier general who was consulted by Amnesty, Trump’s executive order widened the list of potential targets to include adult males living in villages sympathetic to Al-Shabaab who are located within range of known fighters. This was already a known tactic under the peace-prize-winning president Barack Obama, who counted all “military-age males” in the vicinity of a target as militants.
In other words, we cannot trust the Pentagon to be forthcoming with these statistics even when they are compelled to by law. Consider this gate-keeping paragraph by the New York Times, which for all of its empire-serving rhetoric, cannot resist but tell the truth:
“Yet, even under the previous rules, no matter how precise the weapons, how careful the planners and how skilled the fighters, mistakes, faulty intelligence, even calculated decisions often led to civilians being killed. The official data ranges from none to maddeningly vague, and the safeguards to mitigate civilian deaths are insufficient.”
Furthermore, defence officials have said under anonymity that the CIA and the Pentagon’s efforts in places like Somalia are heavily intertwined anyway, often “piggybacking” off American military posts or US-backed militias. The potential for the US to lie to us through its teeth due to this arrangement is astounding, to say the least.
As far back as 2015, four former US Air Force servicemen wrote an open letter to Barack Obama warning about the effects of drone warfare, calling it a “recruitment tool” for groups like ISIS. They advanced the crazy notion that the killing of innocent civilians has acted as one of the most “devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.”
At a press briefing in New York, the servicemen also revealed that drone operators would refer to children as “fun-size terrorists,” and justify their killing with the phrase that they were “cutting the grass before it grows too long.” Some drone operators even flew their missions while impaired by drug and alcohol abuse.
“We kill four and create 10 [militants],” one serviceman said.
In the past, Somali officials also warned that the United States was being duped by rival clans who fed the US military bad intelligence while conducting its operations. When the US boasts, for example, that single bombardments have killed over 150 Al-Shabaab fighters, you can be pretty sure that we are not getting the full picture.
Despite all this, you can always count on the corporate media to somehow put a rotation on the whole issue that amazingly shifts the blame to other parties. Take, for example, this gem, again, from the New York Times:
“A lack of transparency and accountability for civilian deaths helps enemies spin false narratives, makes it harder for allies to defend American actions and sets a bad example for other countries that are rapidly adding drones to their arsenals.”
The American war machine killing civilians helps Washington’s enemies “spin false narratives?” If anything, I think America’s insistence on blowing up Muslim people, left right and center, with zero accountability or compensation of any kind, makes it very easy for its so-called enemies to spin narratives that are one hundred percent grounded in the truth. Why would they even need to lie?
And where will all this take us? As astutely noted by Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project:
“The Trump era has made clear just how vulnerable policy limits are and how dangerous it is when a president claims legal authority to kill in secret. In 2017, Trump lifted a key policy constraint limiting lethal strikes to ‘high-level militants’ who pose ‘a continuing and imminent threat to Americans.’ He also reportedly declared that parts of Yemen and Somalia were exempt from the meager remaining limits. The result? The United States is killing more low-level suspects, regardless of whether the government has reason to believe they pose a threat to the United States.”
The US is not even at war with Somalia, yet somehow there are at least 500 US troops stationed there, with a further 6,500 spread out over the African continent. The US has even hired private contractors to supply proxy forces in the country. Even the Guardian reported at the end of last year that the ramping up of US airstrikes were not really changing the situation on the ground in Somalia, as the terrorist group continued to strengthen its grip on the country.
As for the innocent civilians killed by American tax dollars, we would do well to bear these “statistics” (they’re people, after all) in mind the next time a horrific attack such as the one that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand, in mid-March this year occurs. We should bear in mind that those world leaders who expressed their outrage and support to New Zealand, at the end of the day, continue to be the leading perpetrators of anti-Muslim violence behind closed doors and under loosely swept rugs.
As one farmer from the Darusalaam village, Somalia told Amnesty: “We did not expect the world to be silent.”
By: Darius Shahtahmasebi
New Zealand-based legal and political analyst, currently specializing in immigration, refugee and humanitarian law.