An Air Force MQ-9A Reaper taxis in preparation for a mission in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The MQ-9A’s primary mission is a hunter-killer against emerging targets to achieve joint force commander objectives. (U.S. Air Force photo)

On January 20,2022 United States Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) sent a letter to President Biden expressing concern about the United States’ targeting criteria for drone strikes that has led to the deaths of thousands of civilians, with little accountability. In the letter, the lawmakers call on the President to overhaul U.S. counterterrorism policy to center human rights and the protection of civilians, only using lethal force when it is lawful and as a last resort.  This letter comes as more details emerge about the botched August 29th strike in Kabul, Afghanistan which led to 10 civilian deaths including seven children and an aid worker employed by an American NGO, as well as the potentially unlawful 2019 strike in Baghuz, Syria, which the military never independently investigated.

“Over successive administrations spanning nearly two decades, presidents have claimed virtually unlimited, 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.  Without systematic reforms centered on human rights and international law, the status quo will continue to undermine counterterrorism objectives, produce significant human and strategic costs, and erode the rule of law and the United States’ image abroad,” wrote the lawmakers.

In many instances, U.S. drone strikes have led to unintended and deadly consequences. As many as 48,000 civilians  across seven countries have reportedly been killed by U.S. strikes over the past two decades. At least 14,000 U.S. airstrikes have been conducted by unmanned aircraft since 2002, killing as many as 2,200 civilians – including 450 children. Alarmingly,  the actual numbers are likely significantly higher given the difficulty of comprehensive reporting and the United States’ consistent underreporting of these numbers and reported refusal to investigate reports absent “potential for high media attention.”

“These inexcusable figures reflect an uncomfortable truth: in far too many cases, rather than achieving the policy goal of eliminating hostile combatants to preserve U.S. national security, lethal U.S. strikes have instead killed thousands of civilians, including children”, the lawmakers continued.

Eleven senators and 39 members of the House signed the letter, which can be accessed here.

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