When Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, less than nine months into his presidency, few of those who voted him into office could have predicted that he would turn into a champion of a new type of war viewed with apprehension in much of the world – assassination by drone. Fewer could have imagined that eventually he would select targets from a “kill list” prepared by his counter terrorism team.
Obama won office in 2008 after a campaign whose main planks included opposition to the war in Iraq, a conflict he had described as a “dumb war…a rash war” when he was still a junior senator. But he also made clear then that he was not opposed to all wars, a thought he repeated in his speech accepting the Peace Prize at a glittering ceremony in Oslo on December 10, 2009. He brought up the concept of a “just war,” waged as a last resort or in self-defence, sparing civilians from violence whenever possible.
The death of civilians, collateral damage in the jargon of the military, was already a thorny issue when Obama spoke at Oslo and the United States was fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is even more contentious now. Why? Although the U.S. military involvement in Iraq has ended and U.S. and allied forces are being drawn down from Afghanistan in advance of a 2014 deadline, the U.S. has vastly expanded its shadow war waged with missile-laden drones. They became Obama’s favourite weapon of war to kill suspected leaders the Taliban and of al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In his view, doing so meets the definition of a just war. In contrast, Amnesty International has said that some of the attacks it investigated could be considered war crimes.
Numbers tell part of the story. Obama’s first four years featured more than six times as many drone strikes in Pakistan alone as his predecessor, George W. Bush, ordered in eight years. This is according to an analysis by the New America Foundation, a liberal Washington think tank. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a non-profit group that tracks drone attacks, lists 326 “Obama strikes” out of a total of 378 in Pakistan and at least 54 in Yemen. Because of the difficulty of access to areas of drone strikes, casualty estimates vary widely. The Bureau lists 2,528 to 3,644 killed in Pakistan, including at least 416 civilians and 168 children. In Yemen, the low estimate is 268 killed, 21 of them civilians and five children. The U.S. does not release its own figures but officials say civilian casualties are much lower than reported and they point out that missiles fired from drones are more precise than bombs dropped from piloted aircraft.