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US Democrats urge Biden to overhaul drone strike and lethal force policies

Congressional letter comes after Pentagon releases footage of US drone strike killing 10 civilians in Afghanistan last year
Last August, the US it conducted a drone strike that killed longtime aide worker, Zemerai Ahmadi, and nine others.
Last August, a US drone strike killed longtime aide worker Zemerai Ahmadi, and nine others (AFP/File photo)

More than 40 House and Senate Democrats have urged US President Joe Biden to review and overhaul Washington's counterterrorism policy and its use of lethal force and drone strikes.

The letter, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren, comes a day after US Central Command (Centcom) released the first public footage of an 29 August drone strike in Afghanistan which killed 10 civilians.

"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.

When "there is little policy change or accountability for repeated mistakes this grave and this costly", they wrote, it sends a message that civilian deaths are "the inevitable consequence of modern conflict, rather than avoidable and damaging failures of policy".

The letter was also signed by ten other senators including Chris Murphy, Patrick Leahy and Richard Durbin, as well as 40 House members including Ro Khanna, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Barbara Lee, and Pramila Jayapal.

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"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.

Last August, as the US was withdrawing from Afghanistan, it conducted a drone strike which killed aid worker Zemerai Ahmadi and nine others.

The US had mistaken him for an operative of IS-K - the Islamic State (IS) group's Afghan affiliate - and believed he was carrying explosives.

The US later admitted the mistake, saying Ahmadi had posed no threat. However, 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, which first reported on the footage.

"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," Centcom spokesperson Bill Urban told the Times.

"We deeply regret the loss of life that resulted from this strike."

'Deeply flawed intelligence'

In their letter, the lawmakers said up to 48,000 civilians may have been killed by US air strikes over the past two decades, while the US has also conducted at least 14,000 drone strikes since 2002, "killing as many as 2,200 civilians - including 450 children".

A trove of Pentagon documents obtained by The New York Times show how "deeply flawed intelligence" used to conduct US-led air strikes in Iraq and Syria led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.

Those civilians include American citizens. In separate drone strikes two weeks apart, the US killed Yemeni-American Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdelrahman, in Yemen.

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Then, in 2017, Awlaki's eight-year-old daughter, Nawar, also an American citizen, was killed in a US commando raid.

Shortly after taking office in January, Biden initiated a review of the use of armed drones and commando raids outside of standard war zones, imposing temporary restrictions. Such drone strikes now require additional high-level reviews to be approved, but have not been banned outright. 

Over the past year, lawmakers and advocacy groups have been calling for the Biden administration to end the use of lethal force, including drone strikes, in order to follow through on the president's pledge to end America's "forever wars".

Advocates have also said, however, that the US was unwilling to reconcile its use of lethal force, as shown in the sentencing of Daniel Hale, a former military analyst who leaked government documents revealing the civilian toll of Washington's drone programme.

Hale was sentenced in July 2021 to 45 months in prison, after pleading guilty to the dissemination of the documents that exposed secrets about US drone warfare, including how often civilians were killed during strikes in YemenPakistanAfghanistan and Somalia.