Defense

Democrats ask Biden to overhaul counterterrorism, drone strike strategy

Democrats on Thursday called for President Biden to review and overhaul the United States’s counterterrorism policy and rethink its drone strike strategy.

The letter from 11 senators and 37 House members comes one day after U.S. Central Command (Centcom) released the first public footage of an Aug. 29 drone strike in Afghanistan that killed 10 civilians.

“We write today as your Administration reportedly conducts a review of United States counterterrorism (CT) policy. Over successive administrations spanning nearly two decades, presidents have claimed virtually unilateral power to use lethal force around the world and without congressional authorization, killing not only armed actors but also innocent civilians— even American citizens,” the lawmakers said in their letter.

The Democrats warned the U.S.’s image overseas would suffer, “human and strategic costs” would be incurred and counterterrorism objectives would be undermined if the current U.S. counterterrorism policy was not reformed to focus on international law and human rights.

“We strongly urge your Administration to review and overhaul U.S. counterterrorism policy to center human rights and the protection of civilians, align with U.S. and international law, prioritize non-lethal tools to address conflict and fragility, and only use force when it is lawful and as a last resort,” the lawmakers wrote.

They said up to 48,000 civilians may have been killed by U.S. drone strikes over the last 20 years, pointing to the drone strike it conducted in Kabul, Afghanistan, late last August as one example. 

“When there is little policy change or accountability for repeated mistakes this grave and this costly, it sends a message throughout the U.S. Armed Forces and the entire U.S. Government that civilian deaths—including deaths where there was no military target– are the inevitable consequence of modern conflict, rather than avoidable and damaging failures of policy,” the lawmakers warned. 

Last year, the U.S. mistook a longtime aide worker, Zemerai Ahmadi for an operative of ISIS-K and believed he had explosives. The U.S. conducted a drone strike that killed him and nine others, before later learning that Ahmadi had posed no threat. The Pentagon in December announced that no one would face punishment for the botched strike.

Centcom released the first public footage of that strike on Wednesday following a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that had been filed against Centcom by The New York Times. The newspaper was the first to report about the newly released footage.

In a statement, Capt. Bill Urban, the spokesman for Centcom, emphasized that the U.S. officials regretted the loss of life that occurred following the drone strike.

“While the strike was intended for what was believed to be an imminent threat to our troops at Hamad Karzai International Airport, none of the family members killed are now believed to have been connected to ISIS-K or threats to our troops. We deeply regret the loss of life that resulted from this strike,” Urban said Thursday.

The Hill has reached out to the White House for comment.

Defense