America’s Drone Dilemma

PRINCETON – Last month, Faisal bin Ali Jaber traveled from his home in Yemen to Washington, DC, to ask why a United States drone had fired missiles at, and killed, his brother-in-law, a cleric who had spoken out against Al Qaeda. Also killed in the attack was Jaber’s nephew, a policeman who had come to offer protection to his uncle.

Congressional representatives and government officials met Jaber and expressed their condolences, but provided no explanations. Nor has the US admitted that it made a mistake.

A week later, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, did apologize for a drone attack that killed a child and seriously wounded two women in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The incident’s timing was particularly unfortunate, as it coincided with efforts to reach an agreement to keep a residual deployment of US troops in Afghanistan beyond the planned 2014 departure of foreign combat forces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai had referred to civilian casualties caused by US forces as a reason for not signing the agreement. “For years,” Karzai said in a statement issued after the strike, “our people are being killed and their houses are being destroyed under the pretext of the war on terror.”

The war on terror is real enough, and not just a pretext, but so are the civilian casualties that have been occurring for years. In 2006, I wrote about a US missile attack on a house in Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border, in which 18 people were killed, including five children. Then-President George W. Bush did not apologize for the attack, nor did he reprimand those who ordered it. This was, I pointed out, difficult to reconcile with his assertion (concerning the ethics of destroying human embryos to create stem cells) that America’s president has “an important obligation to foster and encourage respect for life in America and throughout the world.”